At the Tolson household, where 27-year-old Larry Tolson is raising his nine children alone, morning brings a frenzy of activity.
So do noon and night.
"I told you all not to show off," said Tolson, quieting a cacophony that greeted a visitor to his home in Southeast Washington yesterday.
"You, you, you and you -- over here," he said, pointing to Latise, 4; Lakita, 4; Lisa, 2; and LaShawn, 1.
"And you, you, you, you and you -- in there," he said, directing Lawrence, 7; Perry, 6; Larry Jr., 6; Lance, 5; and Lenard, 5, into another room.
The house fell silent -- until the interview began.
"It started when I was 21, call myself trying to settle down," Tolson recalled.
"Daddy," Latise interrupted. "Lakita reading two books."
"Lakita, give Latise a book," he pleaded.
"First, one came, then another -- three all together by the first mother," Tolson said. "Then the mother left. Then another woman moved in."
And then . . . .
"Daddy," Lawrence interrupted. "Can we watch 'All Dogs Go To Heaven?' "
Seven years and four mothers later, Tolson had nine children.
Throughout this episode, various government agencies, courts and mothers have questioned whether a single man his age, who works part-time as an auto mechanic while attending a technical institute, is fit to raise nine children.
Tolson proved that he is. His children are always well fed, well dressed and clean. Those who attend school always test in the top percentile of their class.
All are very happy.
"He is an exceptional father," said D.C. Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), who helped Tolson find housing for his family. "He's determined to make something of himself and he is totally dedicated to his children."
Tolson said he wakes up each day about 5 a.m. The sounds of Hot Wheels toy cars racing across bedroom floors serve as his alarm clock.
Each child is washed, dressed and marched off to the kitchen, where Tolson's routine is similar to that of a summer camp cook.
"My saving grace is that I took home economics from seventh grade through high school," Tolson said. "Even changing diapers is not so bad once you get the hang of it."
In December, which was the Tolson family's first Christmas in their five-bedroom Barry Farms public-housing apartment, Tolson busted his budget on the purchase of toys.
Now he leaves his children at his parents' home after school to intensify his quest for a better paying job.
"He was too young to have all of those kids as fast as he did, but it looks like he loves them, and that counts for a lot," said Elsie Tolson, his mother. "His father and I pitch in whenever we can, and we just pray that he can manage."
Elsie Tolson said her son continues to surprise her with his willingness to learn how to be a good parent. "Suddenly, he became interested in everything, from how to stuff a turkey to potty training," she said.
"Potty training is a must," Larry Tolson said. "I don't like finding stuff on the living room floor. My policy is that the child and I clean up the mess together and keep trying. So far, eight down; one to go."
Though disputes with and between the children's various mothers continue, Tolson said if he had to do it all again, he could not say what he would change.
"A lot of my friends are either in prison, strung out on drugs or dead, and I was headed along that same path until these babies started coming," he said. "I no longer get high, unless it's on my kids. Through them, I've experienced the joy of true devotion, and now I know what love really means. I can't give that up."
Although frequently exhausted from school, work and child-rearing, Tolson manages to do volunteer work for senior citizens in his neighborhood, and serves as the sergeant-at-arms on the Barry Farms residential council.
"There are many elderly women out here, and they help me a lot," Tolson said. "They baby-sit, braid hair and sew. Volunteering is one way to say thanks."
Worried that their father had forgotten them during the interview, the children slowly gravitated out of their rooms and onto his lap, under his arms and between his legs.
"If I had planned to have these children, there is no way I could have pulled it off," he said. "It just happened, so . . . . "
"Daddy," Lisa interrupted. "I love you."
Tolson accepted his responsibilities -- and made the best of a most unusual situation.