The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Nobody's Son

Marquis, 16 and is 6 foot 2 inches tall, he hesitates before walking into the tiny studio apartment he shares with his mother.  He knows what to expect. A sink full of dirty dishes, rotten leftovers on the counter next to empty vodka bottles, the twin beds unmade, sheets soiled and shades drawn.  Darkness prevails and the bitter scent of cheap weed hovers.

His mother’s not home she’s in a holding pen for beating up his father. His father’s in custody for beating up his mother.  Both parents were taken in separate patrol cars where they will spend the night in Central Booking waiting for a scheduled court appearance.  Meanwhile Marquis will be left to clean up the apartment alone, and return to the Boys Hope his school boarding program in the morning.  He will wait to get a call from his mother when she is released.

This snapshot of Marquis’s life is part of his ongoing challenge growing up:  a father who comes and goes making promises he can’t keep; a mother who disengages emotionally, ignoring her son’s needs in favor of her own.  Marquis’s bi-polar mother seeks out his father with little thought to the havoc she creates for her son.  Marquis is nobody’s son, a victim of neglect, addiction, abuse and violence.

I have known Marquis and his family for seven of the fourteen years I’ve worked in one of the nation’s poorest zip codes, 10474 in the South Bronx.  Listening to the life stories of young men like Marquis I have come to identify three archetypes of fatherhood:

  • “Revolving Door” father: He’s here today, gone tomorrow. He rolls in and out of his son’s life.  Marquis calls him “ a so, so father.”  He refers to his mother as “a very angry woman.”
  • “John Doe” father:  The father who is completely unknown due to death at an early age, deportation, life imprisonment or just gone.  Ricardo, now nineteen, always asks, ”Why doesn’t my mother talk about my father?”
  • “Random Boyfriend” fathers with multiple random kinship families. A child’s fluid family consists of half brothers and sisters, if truth were told, neighbors, cousins and strangers are half siblings too.  Dwayn jokes, “ I always have a new stepfather.  My mother wakes up in the morning when her latest boyfriend leaves.   She sleeps all day when they’re here.”

The Hunts Point Alliance for Children is actively involved with young boys whose fathers fall into one of these archetypes.  Each boy carries secrets, and has an individual response to life about the lack of a consistent presence of a father and in some cases an emotionally detached and mentally ill mother.  Like Marquis, Ricardo and Dwayn, these adolescent boys are searching to achieve their identity as a man on their own.  They are afraid and embarrassed to ask aloud questions that haunt them: “ Who is my father? Why did he leave?  Who’s to blame?   Where is he now?  What was he like?  Why does my mother take him back when he’s violent and totally useless?”

Our challenge as caring adults and competent educators is to work through the obstacles fatherless boys face to overcome their anger, defeatism and a fixed mindset that reinforces their attitude: “this is the way it is, it’s not going to change or get better, you do what you’ve got to do to look smart, act tough and pretend you don’t care.”  Left alone they engage in high-risk behaviors and act street smart, ghetto and tough; when the going gets rough they tend to give up; they hide their interest in school and show a lack of effort in sports, social or civic activities. They appear threatened by friends who achieve success.

At the Hunts Point Alliance for Children we believe these boys need someone who believes in them unconditionally, someone who will walk and talk with them on the path to becoming a man.  They need someone who encourages new challenges and someone with “eyes on their backs.” We are committed to educational experiences that will help these boys develop their “heart and hustle.” Joseph Conrad in LORD JIM tells us it is necessary for a young man to experience events which “reveal the inner worth of the boy; the edge of his temper; the fiber of his stuff; the quality of his resistance; the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to himself but to others.”

Professionals who want to solve the problem of nobody’s son start by asking a the wrong question, “Who’s to blame?”   They want quick, easy answers and finger point to: poverty, parents, police and politicians.  As educators, we must ask the tougher questions and acknowledge our failures and small wins.  As Tennyson wrote: ”we must seek to strive, to serve and not to yield.”
Maryann G. Hedaa, President and Founder Hunts Point Alliance for Children
About Maryann G. Hedaa