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Making The Grade

Page 4 of 5

Still, the Johnsons are tired. As the years went by, their little neighborhood became an island of well-kept houses with mowed lawns and swing sets and vegetable gardens surrounded by acres of urban decay. Clifford remembers hunting quail and rabbit on the same empty lots where crack is dealt. "If I had the money, I'd move," says Clifford. The Johnsons know their grandson faces plenty of temptations when he ventures out on the streets surrounding their neighborhood. And they know he needs more discipline: The kind of gentle, trusting child raising they are accustomed to doesn't always work when a kid is seduced by the streets.

Emery and his grandparents both acknowledge he's spoiled, that he has more emotional love and material goods than most inner-city kids. "If I ask for something," Emery says, "I get it." His granddad bought him a bird he named Larry and an aquarium full of fish. He has a nice wardrobe, Iron Maiden posters on his wall and a Commodore computer in his bedroom.

Emery sees his father often, but speaks of him as though he's more of a friend than a parent. He'd lived with his grandparents since he was two, but decided to try living a year with his real dad last year. He was only thirteen when he entered high school and moved in with his father. Stresses were involved with that move, including the transfer from one high school, Camelback, to another, Alhambra.

Soon Emery started acting out, cutting classes, getting an Attitude. What bothered him most was his dad's girlfriend. One day, the two got in a physical quarrel. "She slapped me. So I hit her back. She's not my blood. She had no right to hit me. And that's my reason for coming back to my grandparents' house." He returned to his grandparents' house last summer with too few credits to be a sophomore, so he signed up for a second freshman year at South Mountain.

Emery won't talk about his mother, who abandoned him and his father when he was only two. He says he never wants to see her and can't remember anything about her except that she was white. If the abandonment has caused anger and hurt to eat away at him inside, he won't admit to it.

One of Emery's best friends is Chrys Scott, who has been kicked out of South Mountain for fighting. Some days, the two play basketball in a nearby park. On Friday nights, they get drunk on Olde English Ale. Emery says he would drink beer every night if he could, although he avoids drugs because they "mess with your brain."

Last summer, Emery spend almost every night out roaming the streets. He won't say what he did, exactly, during those nights, except that he walked a lot, from one city park to another. "It was too hot in the day," he says matter-of-factly, "so I slept all day and went out all night." Sometimes his grandfather would get mad at him, he says, but other times he'd just let it go.

THE REASON he started ditching school, says Emery, is that it was just "too boring." Clifford and Rudell accepted that explanation without questioning it. But the excuse didn't wash with Dr. Alim Muhammad, who learned in early September that Emery was cutting classes.

Muhammad, who is now fifty, left home himself when he was twelve because he hated his stepfather. "People just took me in," he says, "I'd go live with them for a day and sometimes I stayed for four years. Teachers, especially, were kind to me and I just kept going to school and going to school."

After counseling for years in various Phoenix Union schools, he came to South Mountain because he "wanted to leave a mark." "I worked at Maryvale before that," he says, "but all you had to do is give those kids a schedule and they'd make it through. Here it's different. I see myself every day in these kids, they are young old kids just like I was."

Muhammad has an instinct that tells him when kids have the spark that means they'll eventually make it, and when kids are sure to drop out because they don't have any fight in them. He never had any doubt that Emery, who in another school would surely have slipped through the cracks, was an intelligent kid who could easily succeed if he "just learned the game." After meeting with Clifford and Emery, Muhammad assigned the boy to one of South Mountain's "at-risk" classrooms. Emery and Clifford signed a contract with South Mountain: Emery agreed to attend special classes, to be prepared, to follow the rules; his grandfather agreed to keep better tabs on Emery. South Mountain agreed to do its best to keep Emery in school. It sounds easy, but it isn't. At-risk rooms are for kids on the verge of dropping out, and only half who enter will make it to the end of the semester. Last year, of the eighty kids who were in the at-risk program, forty made it through. That's forty kids saved from the streets.

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Terry Greene