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A Young Father's Rare Choice

As Single Parent, D.C. Teen Juggles School, Adult Responsibility

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 7, 2005; Page B01

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.

"It ain't easy. . . . But I'm doing it. I know I have no choice," says single parent James Hall, 18, of raising daughter Ja'Mya, whom he prepares for the day before going to school. (Jahi Chikwendiu - The Washington Post)

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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."

High 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.

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