Cover Story

Leap Of Faith

By Chico Harlan
Sunday, October 21, 2007

NINE TEENAGERS STUFF THE LAST FIVE ROWS OF A BOEING 737, listening to the plane's mechanical orchestra -- the whistle of its warming engines, the hum of its slow taxi -- scanning for alerts of doom. Eight of them have never flown before. All of them spend their days behind the barbed-wire fences of Oak Hill, the decaying youth detention center in Laurel reserved for the District's worst male juvenile offenders.

Yet at 4:30 on this August morning, a white-painted Oak Hill bus with grated windows deposited the teens at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. For the next eight days, freedom will supplant regimen in their lives. No 7 a.m. wake-up calls. No sudden lockdown searches for contraband. No mandatory lights out. The teens will land in Phoenix and begin an adventure both ambitious and risky: In the wilderness of Arizona and Utah, they will pitch tents, hike canyons, leap from cliffs and paddle through rapids. The teens, some of whom can't swim or have never seen mountains, will enter a different world. And then they'll return to their own.

In the plane's second-to-last row, Jerome Dukes, a 16-year-old from Northeast Washington, bends his chin toward his stomach, wrestling with butterflies. Minutes earlier, arriving at the gate, he'd eyed the plane and said, "[Expletive], that thing is bigger than my neighborhood."

It looked too large for takeoff. Now, listening to those around him, Jerome's fears intensify. Raymond Davis, a lanky 16-year-old goofball with an unshakable appetite for mischief, asks one of the 10 adult chaperons -- Oak Hill staff members and volunteers -- where the luggage has been placed.

"Under the plane."

"That's a lot of weight," Raymond says, with apprehension.

Another Oak Hill resident, Isaac Aull, reaches into the seat pocket, unfolds the barf bag and holds it to his mouth, where his exaggerated breathing inflates and contracts it like a bagpipe. "If the plane is going too slow, we ain't gonna make it up, guys," the 16-year-old declares.

Jerome thinks he could be right. "I don't want to know when we're going up," he says to all within earshot.

"Who's nervous?" a flight attendant asks, overhearing this. "Are y'all nervous?"

"Are you nervous?" Jerome asks her.

He still isn't sure what to make of the trip or its lofty intentions. This journey, he's been told, is supposed to expand his horizons beyond the streets of D.C., to transform his sense of possibility. Jerome has always fancied himself an opportunist, and he says if somebody is going to offer him eight days of vacation -- eight days without curfews, eight days in a group without a rigid disciplinarian, eight days where he can stare at girls and smoke cigarettes -- then, yes, he'll take it, because only a fool would run from fun when it's chasing you down. But Jerome also thinks of himself as a realist, even a skeptic, and he dismisses the underlying goal of this trip -- to enact profound change. Eight days, he reasons, can't overwrite 16 years. "A teaser," he calls the trip. A bunch of adults take you from Oak Hill, treat you well -- maybe you land in trouble, maybe you don't -- but then you're back inside the walls, and the experience recedes into a memory, and then a blip, and then nothing.

Jerome looks around the plane, where he's surrounded by people he doesn't know well and trusts even less. Raymond and one of the other teens onboard live with him in Unit 9B. But Jerome figures matter-of-factly that those inside Oak Hill cover up whatever makes them real, same as he's done. Jerome calls this his "costume" -- the image he presents to the world that exposes little and stops others from probing deeper.

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