The kid, balanced astride a low-slung bike outside a suburban 7-Eleven, was about 12, certainly no older than 13. Sipping a soft drink through a straw, he sat alone, silently observing the stream of people going in and out of the store. Just watching.

I was watching him because he was so beautiful. Unobserved in my car, I noted the openness of the boy's expression, his dark skin as smooth as just-poured espresso, the regal tilt of his head as he sat teetering on the cusp of his manhood.

Watching him, I wondered if he knew how wonderful he is, how wonderful he can be.

I hoped so. The mother of teenaged sons, I'm fascinated by -- and frightened for -- those who are making the boys-to-men transition. I'm struck by the fledgling men in my own home, by their gaggle of friends, by young strangers whom I see strolling from school and flitting in and out of stores at the mall.

Some days, they fill my house, and it fairly pulses with potential: boys black, white and every shade of brown, who one week greet me with children's high-pitched inflections and the next say "hello" with the voices of men. Young men whose budding facial hair, decorating baby faces I've known for a decade, is astonishing.

And depressing. Recently, a teacher friend, who happens to be white, acknowledged her concerns for these kids -- the black and brown ones, anyway. "I hear teachers calling some of them `liars' and `troublemakers,' " she said. "But in my class, the same kids are so sweet and engaged. . . . Already, they are being labeled."

The boy on the bike, I figured, was too young and innocent to frighten people the way he might in a few short years. By then, all the promise evident in his expression and bearing may not matter as much as what he represents.

What, I wondered, will become of him?

Sometimes I scan the "In Memoriam" section of my newspaper. Too often, an unusually high number of photos of the deceased are of young black men. Last Sunday, nearly one-third of the 21 men and women pictured were black men under 40. They were beautiful, too.

One appeared to be the same age as the boy on the bike.

Much mention has been made of the unripe, young ages at which too many black men die, of their burgeoning numbers in jail, their sinking college enrollments in some regions and their bleak employment prospects. It's easy to forget how many of them are doing well -- or at least better.

A new study of low-wage men in 322 metropolitan areas seems to make the point. Economists from Harvard University and the College of William and Mary found that increasing numbers of black men ages 16 to 24 with high school educations or less are working, earning bigger paychecks and committing fewer crimes.

Great news, right? But history has shown that in a booming economy like the one we're experiencing, even those on the lowest rung -- the rung usually reserved for black folks -- get a boost. In the late 1980s, when the economy last soared, the jobless rate for young black men was as low as today's. But when recession hit, the same men were first to hit bottom. And crime rates rose.

In good times and bad, unemployment among young black men is three times that of whites, which is nothing to celebrate. These are good times, and more black men are enjoying the fruits of them. But rather than relax, we should work harder -- to increase poor people's education and job skills so these gains won't be transitory.

Still, the study proves that more brothers are doing well than we recognize. More attention is always paid to black athletes and entertainers who get into trouble than the majority -- the Will Smiths, Chris Rocks and Tim Duncans -- who do not. Sometimes, stereotypes get a firm enough grip on the national imagination that folks overlook what's obvious: the hard-working, law-abiding, mortgage-paying black men at work, at play, living down the street or across town.

Watching him from my car, I felt that the boy on the bike -- like my boys and their friends -- was already making choices about what kind of man he'll be. Like my guys, he probably wavers between a child's selfishness and a man's urge to contribute. So I felt for him what I feel for my own almost-men: a mother's impulse to protect, to guide, to encourage. To tend wounds current and yet-to-come.

A lot to put on a boy I didn't know. Driving away, I realized I had to release him, just as I'll one day be forced to release my own.

To choose who and what they will be in a world that may not see how beautiful they are.