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The Young Apprentice
Marcus's Parents Agonize Over How to Protect -- and Prepare -- Him

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.

* * *

A Simple Strategy

The Yarboros make a good living. Kim is a systems engineer for the Marine Corps, Mark a contracting specialist for the Army. Together, their salaries approach $200,000 a year.

They move freely between neighborhoods and jobs. When the public schools didn't suit Marcus, his mother found a private one that did. They've read the research showing that black children -- especially boys, no matter their family income -- receive less attention, harsher punishment and lower marks in school than their white counterparts, from kindergarten through college. The Yale University Child Study Center, for instance, found in a national survey last year that black boys are expelled at three times the rate of white children -- in pre-kindergarten.

The Yarboros' strategy to overcome those odds is simple: Expose Marcus to everything. That means black history, apple picking, Spanish, professional hockey, horseback riding and, yes, laser tag.

Yet, they know that the cocoon of comfort they have wrapped Marcus in is not airtight.

In the fall, he will transfer schools to start fourth grade, a pivotal academic year when many boys, but especially black ones, start to spiral downward.

And there is his parents' separation, the possibility of divorce always playing like a musical bass line in their lives. Either circumstance could send a kid into a tailspin.

Marcus's life plays out on a quiet cul-de-sac in Stafford, a mostly white suburban enclave about 45 miles south of Washington.

He has a round, dark-brown face and a quick wit. He's obsessed with video games and turtles, which have, according to Marcus, "an excellent defense system." He has good friends, a mountain of toys and, thanks to his mother's meticulous planning, a calendar that won't quit.

There's the church choir, basketball, guitar practice, a quarterly book club that Kim co-founded. Between the book club and school, he's read hundreds of books, about Captain Underpants, Walter the Farting Dog, magic trees and crocodiles.

This year, there's also been a youth financial planning seminar, the Little Miss Crimson and Cream Ball that required a tuxedo, and an etiquette workshop for boys that his mom organized at their home and then got Mark and other fathers to lead.

The kitchen is always stocked with Marcus's favorite foods, and his friends rave about the "10 o'clock" snack they're assured before bed when they sleep over.

His best friends are Logan, 9, and Rodrick, 10. Separately or together, they are frequent visitors, getting lost for hours in Marcus's basement, playing air hockey, pinball and video games. The three are "like brothers," Marcus said. Rodrick is black. Logan is white, like most of his classmates -- a fact that means little to Marcus.

"There are kids who are white. There are kids who are black," he said. "There's no difference."

* * *

'They'll Want Marcus'

Kim Yarboro grew up in Columbus, Ohio, attending Catholic schools and making friends easily across racial lines. Unlike her husband, who is more guarded, Kim shares her concerns about Marcus with her mostly white colleagues at work, where she is a manager for a new Marine Corps amphibious vehicle. She doesn't want Marcus to dwell on racism. She certainly doesn't.

Fat people, skinny people, poor people -- everyone has a social hurdle to clear, Kim said. She is concerned that Marcus not view himself as a victim or project that image.

"I want people to see Marcus and see that he's a well-rounded citizen in the United States," Kim said. "Not some castaway, you know, 'Let's put him to the side.' People may try to do that, but he will have the equipment that won't allow them to. They'll want Marcus."

But her husband wonders whether the blurring of racial lines is a cruel ruse. He's had his share of unwarranted police stops, Mark said, like the time an officer told him that his new sports car "drew a lot of attention."

"Mine wasn't the only one on the road," he said.

"My fear," he said of his son, "is that no matter how qualified he is, how smart . . . that he can't move in society as well as his education level, his skill level should allow him. I have read too much, seen too much. It's not hard for me to believe that a young black person could get jacked up and not do anything wrong."

* * *

Surpassing the Old Man

When does a boy become a black boy?

Mark Yarboro couldn't have been more than 10, on a driving trip with his grandparents and sisters from his home town of Fayetteville, N.C., to St. Louis, when they stopped for gas, pulling up next to two white men. One of the men pointed to Mark's sisters in the back seat and said, "Look at those monkeys."

Mark heard the remark with a child's ears.

"Those aren't monkeys," he told the men. "Those are little girls."

This, he would realize years later, was the first stirring in his racial awakening.

The son of a teacher and a nurse's aide, Mark lived a segregated early life in his all-black neighborhood and schools. Whites were mostly an abstraction, people he saw on television. That changed in sixth grade, when he was bused to what had been an all-white school in Fayetteville.

As volatile as the 1960s were, when Mark was growing up, his parents spoke little of race. They simply encouraged him and his sisters to study hard and set high goals. It wasn't until 10th grade, while taking a black history course, that the legacy of slavery and discrimination became real to him.

"My parents kept a lot of things from us," he said.

Looking back now, through a father's eyes, he understands better the struggle of every parent: how to preserve a son's innocence as long as possible while preparing him for the difficulties life will bring.

How close do you hold a son? How far do you push him? He is constantly reassessing just what of his own baggage to impart to Marcus, who turns 9 on Sunday and is growing up in such different times.

Mark knows that Marcus will be able to see his father's successes, but what of the heartaches and failures, the moments that can haunt a man?

After graduating from North Carolina Central University, Mark received an Air Force commission and headed to Panama City to train as an air weapons controller.

He aced the academic portion but failed the simulator tests and washed out. What hurt more, however, was the way he was treated by a senior officer, a black man.

Sitting outside his open office door, nervously thinking about how to save his months-old military career, Mark heard the man joke to his white secretary: "I don't know what these guys are coming to see me for. They ain't got a chance in hell to stay in the service."

"I'll never forget it," Mark said, shaking his head. "I was crushed. I don't care if you're black, white, red or yellow, we have an obligation to help others or try to show them the way."

He spent six months at home with his parents regaining his confidence before heading to graduate school and spending two decades in various Department of Defense jobs, rising to near the top of the civilian rankings.

He wants Marcus to go further.

The two share a middle name: Jerome. He wasn't interested in a Mark Jr. He wanted his son to have his own identity. Kim understood.

Still, Marcus, for him, is a chance for redemption.

For Mark's grandfather, who abandoned his father and seven siblings. And for his own father, a good provider who cooked breakfast for the family nearly every day but who -- as a teacher, principal and school board member -- gave so much of himself to others that there seemed not much left for those at home who loved him.

Mark hungers for his son to remember the ballgames, the haircuts, the large and small moments spent with the old man.

"I felt if I had a son, I wanted to have a closer connection," Mark said. "I'm trying to do the things I felt like I didn't get."

* * *

At School, Finding a Niche

The students in Laurie Karr's second- and third-grade class at the Merit School of Stafford had spent part of their day sprawled across the floor, answering their teacher's questions about the origin of Mother's Day and discussing current events.

Now they were on to a word puzzle -- to unscramble "Battle Hymn of the Republic." No matter how hard Marcus tried, no matter how many letter combinations he made, he was stumped. "I don't get it," he said, then tried some more, his face twisted in frustration.

"I give up," he said finally, bursting into tears. Karr tried to calm him, let him know that the puzzle wasn't worth crying over.

This is one of the luxuries the Yarboros have given their son: a private school education, with small classes and a teacher who, they say, gets Marcus.

Mark, who dismissed private schools as "nicey-nice," would rather his son attend public school. But he finally yielded to his wife's position after Marcus spent two years at Winding Creek Elementary in Stafford, where he got decent grades but stayed in trouble for talking and not paying attention.

His antics in kindergarten became legend at Jerrilynn Hoffman's dinner table. She's Logan's mom.

"Every day, Logan would come home and say, 'Marcus was on red today' or 'Marcus was on yellow,' " she remembered. Green was a sign of good behavior. Yellow and red represented rising levels of misconduct.

It's a problem for boys in general. They talk too much, won't sit still, and account for the majority of school discipline problems. Nationally, black boys make up 8.6 percent of public school enrollment but 22 percent of students expelled. These problems, whether real or perceived, disproportionately land black boys in special education, according to scholars who study the issue.

Kim said her son's public school teachers were overworked and unable to channel his energy.

She found the Merit School, which has 59 children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Marcus, the only black boy in his class, likes the school because his teacher "is nice to me."

On the playground, he runs and roughhouses like the rest of the boys. During story time, he's on the floor, legs folded underneath him, adding sound effects to Karr's stories.

Karr, who has three sons and 25 years of teaching experience in public and private schools, including in New York City, has seen boys start to slip away, and act out, often because they don't have supportive family structures.

Marcus arrived, she said, with his own problems.

"He was quiet," she said. "He had a very poor self-concept. He cried a lot. He never felt comfortable to get up and say anything in front of the class."

Those reports surprised Kim. Her son has always been outspoken and inquisitive.

Karr, she said, has been good for Marcus. In her class, Marcus is free to roam, to lie on the floor to read and, sometimes, to request alternative assignments. If he wants to go last for a presentation, that's okay, too, Karr said, as long as he learns.

She was alarmed at news of his parents' separation.

Eight of the 10 children in her class have parents who are separated or divorced. Grades have slipped considerably for some students -- but not for Marcus, a fixture on the honor roll. "I was worried that all the work we had done would be lost," she said.

Now she worries that Marcus may get lost in a larger classroom.

Next year, because the Merit School is closing its upper grades, Marcus is headed to St. Francis of Assisi in Triangle, a Catholic school with a good reputation. It's in fourth grade that the push for a more formalized education begins in earnest.

Private schools, Karr said, won't solve all his problems for the rest of his life, but they seem to have worked so far. He is, she said, very lucky.

* * *

Separated but United

Kim Yarboro has found a licensed clinical social worker to help Marcus if there is a divorce. "When parents fall apart," said the counselor, Marvin Sessions, "that child falls apart, too."

It's partly for that reason that Kim took in her 16-year-old nephew from Columbus last month. He had come for summer visits before but now is staying, she said. She does not want to lose him. Two of her husband's nephews have been shot in recent years. One died in a shooting that was ruled an accident; the other, who served time for a drug offense, was shot five times and survived.

The tragedies are reminders to Kim of why Marcus must not grow up, like so many black boys, without his father. She takes comfort in the pledge she and Mark have made to keep their focus on Marcus.

They attend every event at school and at their church, First Mount Zion Baptist in Dumfries. Mark is at the house every weekend, and the family continues to take trips together. It's not easy. Conversations on the phone, and in person, are sometimes stilted. There are more unilateral decisions. Kim's parents divorced when she was a teenager; Mark's 15 years ago.

"We try to operate in the best interest of the only person that matters at this point," Kim said of herself and Mark. "If someone is affecting him inappropriately, then Mark and I need to change whatever it is. . . .

"[The separation] is only hard if I think about me."

* * *

Slipping Influence

Turtles are everywhere. Marcus has dozens of them -- plastic ones, plush ones, ceramic models. He even had a turtle-shaped Easter basket. He thinks when he grows up he might like to become an "animal doctor."

Marcus loves fast-paced video games, but he is still a boy who sleeps with the covers over his head and climbs in bed next to his mother during storms.

It's the shell that fascinates him, the way the turtle lives with armor on its back.

"If you have a good defense system, that means they can't get in your house and kill or hurt you."

Life in his own house is different now.

He is up at 5:30 a.m. on school days and dresses as his mother makes breakfast. He used to make his bed every morning, too -- one of his father's rules -- but now he doesn't bother with the bed until weekends. His dad doesn't call those shots anymore. And he's not around to drive him to school in the mornings, when it would be just the two of them talking or listening to music.

Mark is living in a condominium he owns near his job at Fort Belvoir.

Once the Yarboros decided to separate, they sat Marcus down to tell him that mommy and daddy were taking a break. They told him that it wasn't a secret, that he shouldn't feel bad about it and that they both loved him. Still, it's not a subject he talks about much.

"I do want my dad to still live here," Marcus responded one day when asked, then paused.

One good thing, though, is that his father's ban on sci-fi movies is no longer in effect. "I don't have to put up with that anymore," he said.

He said this plainly, as simple fact. His father was there, and now he is not.

Mark can already feel the slippage and knows that teaching his son to be a man is more difficult when he is no longer at home every day. He replays moments again and again.

Recently he was back at the house with Marcus and told his son to hurry along.

"All right, I said I was going to do it," Marcus snapped.

Once, that kind of comment might have gotten him a spanking. But Mark is especially careful now with disciplining his son, even when Kim asks him to.

"I don't want it to be a situation where every time dad is here, he's yelling."

* * *

Joy Leavened With Worry

"Go, Marcus!" Kim yelled from the front row as Marcus did his best to break-dance during a performance with other boys. They had spent months preparing to be escorts for the Little Miss Crimson and Cream pageant. They had walked the little girls in their white dresses across the stage and bowed. And now it was their turn to show off, nearly 20 little boys moving to the crowd's shouts and cheers.

Marcus was on the floor twirling around in that black tux.

Mark was at the back of the auditorium with the video recorder.

Waiting at home was the Italian cream cheese "celebration cake" that Kim makes for special occasions, a tradition started when Marcus was a year old. Her mother, in from Columbus, had also helped to prepare ribs, green beans and sweet-potato pie.

"Did you see my pose?" Marcus asked his mom after the performance. Then he dashed off to play with the action figures he and the other boys had received as gifts.

Every so often, his parents scanned the room to make sure he hadn't strayed.

Even on days like this, the easy ones, Mark can't help but wonder about the moment when Marcus will realize that there's something different about the way a black man has to walk in the world.

"I call it his day of reckoning," he said. "I don't know when it's coming, but it's coming. I want him to be ready."

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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