A Young Father's Rare Choice: As Single Parent, D.C. Teen Juggles School, Adult Responsibility
Susan Notes: He is growing up and growing old at the same time. We wish James Hall and Ja'Mya well. They are a remarkable pair.
Nothing disturbs the quiet of the Southeast Washington apartment in the darkness before dawn except the running water in the bathroom sink.
He lifts his baby gently from bed. Through the night, he slept without moving so they could lay side-by-side on a mattress on the bedroom floor, the first of the day's small sacrifices.
He guides her through the logistics of a toddler's morning, washing her face with a damp cloth, changing her diaper, telling her to say cheese so he can brush her teeth. He dresses her in a pink jumper with matching socks.
James Hall carries his bundled daughter through the morning chill on South Capitol Street, narrating their journey past rumbling buses and siren-wailing ambulances as if they were on an adventure in an exotic land. Finally, they step from the cold into the warmth of an Oxon Hill apartment. It is after 8 a.m. when Hall puts on his backpack and stands by the door.
The child cries, for the first time this morning. She grabs her tiny purple coat and heads for the door, too. He wipes her tears with his jacket sleeve. "You can't go," he tells her. "I got to go to school."
Hall is a teenage single father. He is the rare male among the 700,000 U.S. teenagers who become parents each year: He has chosen to tackle parenthood alone.
"There are grown men, adult men, who have the responsibility and don't do it. For him to make the attempt . . . is phenomenal," said Richard Gross, an assistant principal at Ballou Senior High School in the District. All five Ballou students who bring their children to the school's day-care center are female, and in most cases when teenagers become parents, the burden of child care falls principally -- often solely -- on the mother.
Hall spends his days leading a double life -- one as an 18-year-old senior at Ballou and the other as a young father raising a daughter one month shy of her second birthday. He is growing up and growing old, all at once.
He carries her yellow jumper in the same blue backpack in which he keeps his English homework. He skips lunch at Ballou to play basketball in the gym with friends, but wakes up hours before school starts to brush and braid her hair. He could drop out of school and work full time, but he wants to graduate. He could put her up for adoption, but he fought to gain custody and can't imagine life without her.
"It's hard," he said. "It ain't easy. . . . But I'm doing it. I know I have no choice."
Hall embraces fatherhood, making it up as he goes. His mother gives him advice, but early in the morning and late at night, it is up to him alone to clip the barrettes onto her hair, wash her clothes, give her a bath. They learn from one another. She learned how to walk by holding on to his legs; he learned how to tuck the diaper in so the tape doesn't stick to her skin after he noticed a scab on her side.
On this recent morning, Hall leaves her with his mother in Oxon Hill and heads to school with one of his three brothers, Darryl, a Ballou sophomore. He sits at a window seat on the A6 bus. Sometimes, his mind wanders and he thinks about his rambunctious daughter. He wonders whether the people next to him think he's crazy, because he sits there, smiling.
Hall arrives at Ballou on time. He has already been up for three hours with his daughter, but his school day has just begun.
Wearing blue jeans, an oversize black T-shirt and a black skullcap pulled tight over his cornrows, he blends in with the hundreds of other young men heading to class, a thin but muscular teenager with the beginnings of a beard on his lower chin. In some ways, he behaves just like them, calling his girlfriend at all hours of the day, almost storming out of class when a substitute teacher gets on his nerves.
But he is more of an adult now than a school-age teenager. Hall missed about four months of school this year because he couldn't find a babysitter. His mother, Brenda, was working two jobs then -- at a grocery store during the day and as a security guard late at night -- and couldn't watch the baby. She quit working at the store to look after her granddaughter.
That has freed Hall to attend school day and night, taking six classes -- some of them make-up courses -- between 8:45 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. A quiet, serious student, he spent a recent Saturday finishing a book report.
Throughout most of his morning classes, he ignores the clatter of students in the halls outside and concentrates on his work. In the afternoon, during his law class, three students put their heads down and sleep, but Hall sits up, reading a court case for an upcoming mock trial.
He studies to graduate, and he studies for the toddler. "I don't want to be one of those parents where she goes, 'Daddy, why is this and why is that?' And I go, 'That's why you got a teacher.' If I don't know it and she don't know it, we're going to the library," he said.
Hall was in the delivery room at the Baltimore hospital that day in April 2003 when his then-girlfriend gave birth. He cut the umbilical cord and committed to memory the baby's essentials: 6 pounds, 9 ounces, 19 inches. He named her Ja'Mya, turning his first name into a girl's name, and gave her the middle name Princess. "I didn't do no basic name," Hall said. "I did a name I never heard before."
He and the mother later split up. He got a call soon after from social workers in Baltimore. "They said: 'We have your daughter. We want to know if you want to come and get her,' " he recalled. "They said they couldn't find the mother."
The baby had been unplanned, but Hall was different from many other guys his age -- he knew he wanted a family. He was ready to take on the responsibility.
"How can you leave a baby? I can't see it," he said recently, shaking his head. "I can't see it."
He has been raising Ja'Mya since he was 17, when she was little more than 6 months old, getting help along the way from his mother. Other people, including staff members at Ballou and a Washington-based nonprofit group, United Planning Organization, have offered him assistance from time to time. He said neither he nor Ja'Mya has had contact with her mother in more than a year.
Hall wants to raise Ja'Mya on his own, as much as he's able, so they share an apartment with his cousin in a tan-brick building on South Capitol Street SE. He receives roughly $200 in public assistance each month and food stamps, and struggles financially. He has been looking for a part-time job, for a car, for a dresser for the apartment. "Every dime he gets . . . he puts on that child," Brenda Hall said.
It's a few minutes after 7:30 p.m. and dark outside when Hall emerges from his final night class.
On the A8, he sits near the window, resting the back of his head on his book bag as if it were a pillow. This is a typical evening for him, from bus to bus and class to class, with little time for socializing. But he doesn't dwell on it. "I don't think about that stuff," Hall says as the bus lurches forward. "I probably miss playing sports. I don't really pay attention to it."
He steps off the bus. He has several more blocks to go before he sees Ja'Mya. He yawns but keeps on walking.
Hall sits in the Oxon Hill apartment, typing on a laptop his book report on "Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues." Ja'Mya sleeps in a bedroom while he works at a coffee table in the living room.
A few minutes past 9:30 p.m., after finishing the book report and moving on to a poetry assignment for English class, he takes a break and eats a hot dog, his first real meal of the day. He sits on the carpet and leans against the doorway at the edge of the kitchen.
Ja'Mya wakes up and walks over to him. She is usually a firecracker with four limbs, constantly running, jumping and bouncing. But now she rests in her father's arms, staring up at him with her big, dark eyes and big, curly eyelashes. He puts his chin on her head.
Hall asks her to touch her nose, and she does. He asks her to touch her head, and she does. He talks to her as he would an adult. Sometimes, he tells her to turn on the TV, and he waits for her to find the power button. He tells her to put away a penny in the water jug with the rest of the spare change. He doesn't help her so that she learns to figure it out herself.
It's 11:30 p.m. when he starts the long walk to his apartment. He has decided to let Ja'Mya sleep with his mother, as he often does when he stays late because he worries about the cold, "stupid people trying to rob people, crazy people driving drunk."
By the time he steps into the apartment, it's midnight, and he heads straight for bed. He sleeps alone on the mattress. He can stretch out. But it's not the same. He said it doesn't feel right without her breathing softly beside him.
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