Gunnery Sgt. Lester James had his reservations.
Karen Moultrie, one of his JROTC students at Gar-Field High School in Prince William County, asked him in the fall whether she could move in with him. He considered how the teenager would mesh with his wife and two children. Moultrie had been emancipated from living with her parents but had just been arrested for assaulting a roommate and wanted to avoid a juvenile detention center. She needed a stable place to live.
"I had helped her in the past, given her money to get on the bus or train, and she's come over to my house," James said. "But when I got the call, I was kind of thinking, 'What happens now?' This was an opportunity for me and my wife to help this young lady."
Moultrie, who turned 18 yesterday, moved in and stayed until graduating last month -- leaving as tension mounted between her and James's family. While she waits to ship off to Navy boot camp in the next few weeks, she is living with Myca Gray, an assistant principal at Gar-Field.
Although they have found the living arrangements somewhat unusual, the two school officials said they could not resist helping the frank-talking Moultrie, who always is willing to admit her shortcomings and ask for help. What's more, the teachers said, they identified with her turbulent upbringing.
This is what some educators choose to do: help youths in ways that are not in the job description -- particularly students trying to overcome serious problems.
"It's not so unusual that people go out of their way for students," said Paulette F. Jones, a Gar-Field educator who sponsors a popular motivation and self-esteem club on campus. "I know of counselors who have brought prom dresses and administrators who have paid for plane tickets for parents to come to a graduation."
James said he took in Moultrie because he identified with her: "I saw me in her. I got arrested several times when I was a kid. I got caught one time shoplifting, had disorderly conduct, ran away from home. Here's a kid that needs some discipline, needs a chance. I looked at the situation and said, 'You know what? It could have been me.' " For Gray, 49, allowing Moultrie to move into the spacious colonial home near Manassas that she shares with her husband, former NFL player Robert Brown, did not require much deliberation.
"You're aware of yourself. I was raised by an alcoholic, abusive father. My mom divorced him, and the principal at Fred Lynn Middle School [in Woodbridge] served as a mentor to me and my sisters," Gray said outside her house recently while Moultrie hauled her stuff inside. "I have been fortunate enough to have a little bit of money. You don't receive much without giving much."
Moultrie, who was born in North Carolina, moved up and down the coast -- from Jersey City to the Baltimore area, and eventually to Woodbridge. Her mother, who also is named Karen, said in an interview that she was addicted to crack cocaine before and after her daughter's birth and that she served time for prostitution in New York, armed robbery in the District and drug possession in Northern Virginia. She now runs a ministry in Alabama.
Moultrie's biological father, Douglas T. Roberts, who is in jail, has been arrested on assorted drug and robbery charges since the 1990s, according to Bladen County, N.C., court records.
Moultrie was getting poor grades when she ended up living with her aunt while her mother was in jail. She later moved in with a church pastor in Virginia when her mother attended a drug rehabilitation center in Texas.
Students "at school didn't understand me. I was angry. Of course, they were not going to understand that [past]. But my teachers helped out," she said. "They were keeping on top of me."
After Moultrie turned 16, she was emancipated by a Prince William Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court judge, legally becoming an adult. Emancipation, which can be granted when someone is at least 16 and lives apart from their parents with the parents' permission, is especially rare for students still in school, said Deborah Hatfield, a juvenile intake officer for the county. She recalls only about five people in the past 20 years having undergone the process in Prince William.
Being on her own had its pitfalls. Moultrie was kicked out of Gar-Field but later allowed to return. Since her return during her junior year, a small group of faculty members began tracking her daily moves, checking on her grades and advising her on whom she should and should not be hanging out with. Gray, for instance, caught her with a hangover the morning after the Super Bowl; she told Moultrie to go home.
"I had been warned not to let her back in the school and that it would be a big risk," Gray said. "When she came in for the interview, I spent a lot of time asking her questions, noting whether she kept eye contact and was paying attention. I told her I was going to be her worst nightmare or guardian angel. She didn't flinch."
Her grades improved steadily, and by her senior year she had several jobs -- serving food at Denny's, taking orders at Arby's and cleaning homes. But living with strangers in a home in Dale City proved too troublesome. After she was arrested in September for throwing a beer bottle -- the charge was later dropped -- she called "Gunny," her old friend from Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.
"I was a little reluctant, to be honest, but my mom and dad were always there, and I saw that Karen didn't have that," said James, who befriended Moultrie when she was a standout freshman in his JROTC course.
She moved in, but the situation was not always smooth. Moultrie sometimes did not like cleaning her bedroom or bathroom or washing the dishes. And James's wife, Shantina, thought she deserved the same respect from Moultrie that the teenager showed James.
"I felt that she only wanted a male authority figure over her. In my eyes, I saw she blamed her mom for so many things," Shantina James said. "I loved her and thought she was a sweet girl. But it was hard. I miss what we could have had."
Moultrie said she always will be grateful to the Jameses for taking her in. But she said her emotions were more complex when she spoke about leaving. In the larger context of her nomadic life, she cannot help but feel numb: "This is just another place I've got to get detached from," she said when she left their home.
As she moved into the Grays' home later that day, Moultrie sat at the dining table with the assistant principal, looking exhausted, rubbing her braids and contemplating her career of serving her country.