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59 Chapter 3 |  “Following My Passion”: How Identity Projects Help Youth Beat the Street and Stay on Track Children cannot be fooled by empty praise and condescending encouragement . . . their identity gains real strength only from wholehearted and consistent recognition of real accomplishment, that is, achievement that has meaning in their culture. —Erik Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle (1959/1980) So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list [of possible selves] carefully and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation. —William James, Principles of Psychology (1890) Terry began life in the Cherry Hill projects, part of a dense constellation of public housing in an isolated section of South Baltimore. “The things that are worth having seem like they be so far away from you when you come from where I come from,” he said. His home life was no haven from the violence and crime outside of the apartment’s walls. From the age of eight, Terry ran away repeatedly to escape a physically abusive, drug-­ addicted mother who singled him out from among her nine children as the focus of her rage. After fleeing the house in the wake of one of her tantrums, he would wander the streets; sometimes he would be found by a police officer or a pastor when he inevitably fell asleep on a bench, exhausted from walking. In a cruel twist of fate, Terry was removed from his mother’s care and made a ward of the state the same year she received an MTO voucher, in 1996. She used the voucher to move with Terry’s siblings to the mostly white, affluent suburb of Columbia, only twenty miles south 60      Coming of Age in the Other America of the city but a world away. Meanwhile, Terry moved through a succession of group homes in West Baltimore. Back then he wondered, “Out of nine kids, what the hell was wrong with me?” Terry rejoined his family in Columbia at fifteen, when his mother regained custody. But his return was not the warm reunion he was hoping for. There was no celebration, “not even, like, a welcome-­ home gathering ,” he said. It was a difficult transition because he had to “relearn who my family was.” By this time, he was fully grown and too big for his mother to pose a physical threat. Yet she “still had this power over me, it was like mind control.” To deal with this tension, Terry started binge-­ drinking so heavily that he sometimes blacked out. After a year, he left home to live with an older brother in West Baltimore. When the brother married a year later and no longer had room for him, Terry opted to sleep in Leakin Park, a heavily wooded area in Northwest Baltimore notorious for the number of dead bodies that the police had discovered there. For Terry, this was better than returning to his mother’s home and facing her anger. “I threw my bags in the woods, and I registered myself [for school] to finish my senior year.”1 Although sleeping outdoors had been a coping mechanism Terry used during those early episodes of running away, he now fell deeply into depression . To survive emotionally, he reached out to God, weed, and booze, all at once. “I prayed, and I smoked a lot of weed. It made emotions easier to deal with at the time—at least it seemed that way. I prayed a lot because it was important for me to graduate.” At one point Terry contemplated suicide and prayed that God would “miraculously just stop me from breathing. I didn’t wanna be here.” Instead, he found an alternative family in the form of the other homeless or near-­ homeless youth in the area, who also congregated in the park. Now, several years later, Terry had the space to reflect on what had felt so compelling about that community of cast-­ asides, the sense of false camaraderie that shared desperation inspired: People—out of a desperation—they cling to each other, complete strangers . . . . But they were never really friends. Kids, they drink together, they smoke together, because they don’t have anybody. . . . It’s a culture in urban life, man. It’s like this depression thing in the air, man, pain in people’s eyes and everything. . . . Nobody knows what to do, so they just party and [do] drugs.2 In the midst of this turmoil, Terry found structure and purpose...


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