The Young Apprentice

By Robert E. Pierre
The Washington Post
Friday, June 9, 2006

Marcus Yarboro had told his parents that he didn't want to play, that the game scared him, but there he was, weeks shy of his ninth birthday, standing in the lobby of Laser Quest Potomac Mills.

"Why do I have to do it?" protested the third-grader, who is small for his age and knows it. "I'm afraid of the dark, and it looks like a jungle in there."

His father leaned down and wrapped his arm around Marcus's shoulder.

"I'll be right there with you, buddy," Mark Yarboro said, his words easy, his voice even. His wife, Kim, was right. He and Marcus needed to get this done. Marcus had sidelined himself at too many birthday parties where other kids ran around shrieking and shooting light beams at each other.

These Saturday outings, to basketball games, the ski slopes and the mall, had become more precious in the year since Mark separated from his wife of nine years and moved out. As the light between husband and wife has dimmed, they've learned to swallow their own hurts and focus on their only child.

These are seasons of change for Marcus, and his parents are determined to hold him steady.

The Yarboros are both 45 and college educated with professional jobs, and they are filled with hope and with worry. They see a world of possibilities for Marcus -- maybe he will grow up to be a doctor or a scientist. And they see a world that, despite its progress, can be hostile and unforgiving to black boys.

They are among the upwardly mobile black families rearing a generation of privileged children in the suburbs and beyond. Increasingly, boys such as Marcus are growing up in places like Stafford County, where many of their experiences mirror those of other children with similar economic status -- from private music lessons to annual ski trips.

And yet, for the Yarboros it means a dual consciousness, in which they encourage Marcus to dream big while steeling him for the times when his skin color may be all that others see.

In that reality, laser tag isn't just a game. It's another chance to show Marcus that he must not be afraid to try new things, face new challenges. He will have to be better to outrun those who will expect less of him, his parents believe.

After the game, Marcus thrust his fist in the air and cheered when he heard the name he had selected -- "Dragonmaster" -- over the loudspeaker. He'd won third place, beating out bigger and older boys, a boost to his self-confidence and another small victory for his mom and his dad.

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