Es­cap­ing a trou­bled life, through de­ter­mi­na­tion and luck

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - MEM­OIR REVIEW BY LEONARD PITTS Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist for the Miami Herald and the au­thor of the nov­els “Free­man” and “Grant Park.”

Jim St. Ger­main does not want to be called a sym­bol. He knows that the temp­ta­tion to do so will be over­pow­er­ing for many of those who read this mem­oir of how he rose from dead-end streets to be­come a re­spected ad­vo­cate for at-risk kids. Still, he would rather they didn’t.

He writes: “I re­sist any at­tempts to treat me as a sym­bol, which strikes me as so far be­side the point. Sym­bols are rar­i­ties, by def­i­ni­tion, and I have no in­ter­est in be­ing one. I’m work­ing to­ward a world where my story is no longer a story.”

If he is un­happy be­ing called a sym­bol, one imagines St. Ger­main will also wince at be­ing called a mir­a­cle. That is, how­ever, un­de­ni­ably what he is. As re­counted in his book, too many “ifs” went his way over the course of grow­ing up wild and an­gry in Brook­lyn’s Crown Heights neigh­bor­hood for the reader to be­lieve any­thing else.

If the man who put that Glock to his fore­head that day on the el­e­va­tor had pulled the trigger . . . .

If that jan­i­tor hadn’t seen him col­lapse from al­co­hol poi­son­ing on that aban­doned sub­way plat­form . . . .

If that guy who pro­duced a hand­gun and started shoot­ing up the street that day had had bet­ter aim . . . .

If the guy who stabbed him in the chest with a bro­ken bot­tle had pushed an inch deeper . . . .

Ev­ery life, of course, is a built on bricks of ifs. But the ifs in St. Ger­main’s life are the kind that make you pon­der ques­tions about des­tiny and grand design, the kind that make you re­al­ize how thin is the veil sep­a­rat­ing what is from what eas­ily might have been.

St. Ger­main came to the United States from Haiti when he was 10. He ar­rived ex­pect­ing to live on an upscale Amer­i­can street like he’d seen in “Home Alone.” He ended up on a street like some­thing out of “The Wire,” hud­dling in a two-bed­room apart­ment with 10 other peo­ple. The fur­ni­ture was ratty, the paint was peel­ing, the ceil­ing leaked, and when you turned the light out, the dark­ness filled with the soft click of roaches scur­ry­ing about the kitchen.

The new kid was treated as new kids are al­ways treated. His un­fa­mil­iar­ity with English and his ig­no­rance of lo­cal cus­toms didn’t make mat­ters any bet­ter.

But the new kid adapted as new kids of­ten do. He ar­mored him­self, shoved his fears into a closet out of view, and med­i­cated his pain with pot and al­co­hol. He stole. He dealt drugs. And he fought. In­deed, some­thing in him, some seething rage, seemed to seek out fights. Fight­ing seemed to feed some pri­mal need.

In­evitably, it all brought the boy to the at­ten­tion of the au­thor­i­ties, and as it had done with so many oth­ers be­fore him, the “jus­tice” sys­tem opened its maw to swal­low his life. But some­one within that sys­tem saw some­thing worth sav­ing in the an­gry boy. He was sent to a di­ver­sion­ary pro­gram in­stead. There, peo­ple reached out to him and kept reach­ing even when he snapped and cursed at them, even when he dis­ap­pointed then. They reached un­til he fi­nally had sense enough to reach back.

If they had not done that, St. Ger­main would not have a col­lege de­gree, would not have been ap­pointed by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to the Co­or­di­nat­ing Coun­cil on Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice and Delin­quency Pre­ven­tion, would not be co-founder of Pre­par­ing Lead­ers of To­mor­row, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to men­tor­ing at-risk kids. If they had not done that, he might now be do­ing time. Or dead. If. You have read this story be­fore, of course. “A Stone of Hope” joins that shelf of lit­er­a­ture by and about African Amer­i­can men who started from the bot­tom and suc­ceeded against all odds. Nathan McCall’s “Makes Me Wanna Holler” is on that shelf. As is Claude Brown’s “Man­child in the Promised Land” and even Booker T. Wash­ing­ton’s “Up From Slav­ery.”

“A Stone of Hope” will not make you for­get any of those tow­er­ing achieve­ments. But nei­ther is it an em­bar­rass­ment to the shelf. Aided by writer Jon Stern­feld, St. Ger­main sketches out the pas­sages of his life in a brisk, clean style, re­count­ing even the most wrench­ing episodes in clear-eyed, un­sen­ti­men­tal prose.

For all the street sto­ries he weaves, though, ar­guably the most com­pelling part of St. Ger­main’s nar­ra­tive comes when he takes his first ten­ta­tive steps be­yond the streets. Ad­mirably, in telling this part of his life, he leaves in­tact all the false starts and set­backs.

So in­stead of a nicely lin­ear “Movie of the Week” story of the one spe­cial case­worker or coun­selor who in­spired him to fix his life, we get the story of a se­ries of peo­ple and a num­ber of years, and how they worked at him, how they tested his pa­tience and he tested theirs, of how he failed, and then suc­ceeded.

Which, on re­flec­tion, feels true. Life is not a train­ing mon­tage from a “Rocky” movie. It is trial and er­ror, set­back and achieve­ment. So if you graphed St. Ger­main’s progress from what he was to what he is, the re­sult­ing line might re­sem­ble the stock ex­change dur­ing a bull mar­ket — jagged but ris­ing.

There is a sub­tle point in that. Namely, that there are no magic bul­lets or in­stant fixes for trou­bled kids. There is only hard work and the ded­i­ca­tion it takes to do.

And that our chil­dren — skin color, culture or so­cioe­co­nomic stand­ing notwith­stand­ing — are worth it. In­deed, that they de­serve it. A child en­ters the world through no vo­li­tion or de­ci­sion of his own and adapts to what he finds.

What if he found, from the be­gin­ning, a so­ci­ety that pri­or­i­tized his well-be­ing and de­cided that there was a ba­sic level of com­pas­sion and sub­sis­tence to which he was en­ti­tled? “It’s not a noble fight in my mind,” St. Ger­main writes, “it’s a bla­tantly ob­vi­ous one. There is some­thing wrong if fight­ing for dis­en­fran­chised youth isn’t a col­lec­tive ef­fort that emits from the very moral cen­ter of our coun­try.”

St. Ger­main’s life makes the point more ef­fec­tively than his words. Think about it. He rose from a blighted place and man­aged to make some­thing good of him­self. To do so, he needed to be a mir­a­cle.

It should have been enough just to be a child.

MIKE GROLL/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jim St. Ger­main grew up poor and an­gry in Brook­lyn, but with help got a col­lege de­gree and a spot on a pres­i­den­tial coun­cil.

A STONE OF HOPE By Jim St. Ger­main with Jon Stern­feld Harper. 292 pp. $27.99

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