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A Young Father's Rare Choice

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.

"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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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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