As Joseph Fallen walked past a pool table at the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club yesterday, a cue stick poked him on the arm. "Wanna shoot a game?" a 12-year-old lad asked.
Fallen, who is 14, smiled and contemplated the challenge. But before he could answer, another youth who was standing in the corner with a basketball pressed him. "What's it gonna be, Joe: Pool or hoops?"
Ever since Fallen was named the 1986 "Youth of the Year" by the Greater Washington Boys and Girls Clubs of America, his buddies have been "on his case," as they say, testing his mettle -- doing anything, really, to associate with a young man who has been certified as one of the outstanding persons in this area.
It's not just because Fallen can shoot pool, although he can run a rail shot nearly the length of a table, or because he can shoot hoops like a junior varsity player. It's because he's a leader -- at home, at school, at church and in his community.
"We have a lot of good kids out here," said Desi Day, director of the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club. "But it is rare to find a total package like Joe. We're talking about a guy who teaches by example, who volunteers to feed the hungry, works in the church, maintains a B-plus average in school, never gets too excited and never gets depressed. He's a coach's dream because he'll do anything you ask."
If he sounds like an old-fashioned goody two shoes, it's because he was raised that way. His mother, Ella Fallen, a legal clerk for the Social Security Administration, and his father, Joe Sr., a custodian with the Fairfax County Public Schools, keep a close eye on him.
Ella Fallen says her neighbors along Oronoco Street, located in the heart of Alexandria's black community, also have a lot to do with it.
"If Joe is away from home and I want him, all I have to do is step outside the back porch door and yell," she said. "I can hear the message being relayed, 'Joe, your mama looking for you,' and the next thing I know here he comes."
Joseph Fallen Sr. says he is particularly proud of his son because of the difficulties in raising boys these days. Many parents agree that it is easier controlling girls, at least until their midteens. With boys the lure of the streets begins earlier, and it takes extraordinary vigilance to keep them on a straight and narrow path.
"I would say the key is the discipline of church life," the senior Fallen said. "Sunday school has shown him the steps to take to become a better person. He knows how to get respect by treating others with respect."
Life for Joe is not really different from life for any other teen-ager. He said he likes school, especially math courses, and looks forward to his ninth grade year at George Washington Junior High in Alexandria. But, he added, the pressures from teachers and peers alike leave him anxious to find an after-school outlet. Instead of hanging out on the street corners, as some of his peers do, Joe joined the Boys and Girls Club and immediately began to impress others with his energy, skill and sportsmanship.
"Joe is a most admirable person," said Clementine E. Jackson, Joe's Sunday school teacher at the Third Baptist Church. "His manners and composure take him out of the boy category and place him as a young man. He is a team player and does his best to do his part, and is kind in his relationships with others."
If all of this makes him sound somewhat nerdy, then one must watch what happens when he accepts not one but both challenges from his friends at the Boys and Girls Club. With the cool of a Minnesota Fats, he easily dispatches the 12-year-old, firing the cue ball until the table is bare.
With a consoling "Better luck next time," he then moves to the basketball court and makes mincemeat of the competition with hook shots, jump shots and Dr. J-style moves to the basket.
From the sideline, Reggie Fallen, his 10-year-old brother, speaks for everyone when he shakes his head and says, "He sure makes me proud."