Kenneth Earl Williams stands flatfooted on a grassy hilltop near Cardozo High School overlooking the city and holds his arms forward like Superman. He leaps nearly head high, tucks his knees under his chest and flips backward above the horizon until he uncoils for a graceful, controlled descent on muscular, shock-absorbing legs.
His backward somersault is still a class act, much as it was in 1978 when Williams became an award-winning high school gymnast and set his sights on Olympic competition. But if this wondrous physical feat is a metaphor for his life, Williams at age 20, is no longer soaring. He is just flipping backward.
When his Cardozo classmates walked proudly across the stage recently on graduation day, Williams was not there. He had dropped out of school two months earlier, after being told that he would fail. The constant pounding of the hardships of ghetto life had worn through his weary psychological armor and shattered his motivation.
Instead of taking his diploma that day, he was drifting the streets of Washington, and with every step moving closer to becoming a faceless statistic in the clumps of street-corner hustlers and dope smokers.
For so long, he had avoided that. He had grown up on some of Washington's most troubled streets -- Clifton, 14th, Condon Terrace and O Street -- yet he had never been arrested. He was talented and popular, the jewel of his mother's 13 children, who brought pride and recognition to their obscure and impoverished lives. He seemed destined for college. But then, near the end of his senior year, it seemed as though all of the forces of life in the inner city grabbed hold of Kenneth Earl Williams just as he was about to step beyond their grasp.
"Here you have a kid with tremendous potential and nobody to guide him -- another one falling through the cracks," said Perk Perkins, a counselor at the Sojourner Neighborhood Center on Euclid Street NW, who got to know Williams when his family lived there for a while after being evicted from a nearby apartment. "It is a sad commentary on the school system -- and society, too -- that nothing has been done for him."
His principal at Cardozo, Waverly Jones, said that Williams' problems could not be blamed solely on the school.Jones said he could cite "hundreds and hundreds" of talented students who, like Williams, had a tough time but were fortunate enough to attach themselves to a teacher for special assistance.
"I say that to say this: Nobody can make a blanket charge that folks are not being helped," said Jones. "It's just that you can't help everybody. Sometimes your wanting to help goes beyond your capacity to do so."
There was no one pernicious thing that brought Williams down. His demise was the result of one thing after another going wrong, a string of events that eventually wore down his resistance.
"It's amazing," said his mother, Lillian Williams, "that he has made it this far."
There was the notice that he was failing his senior year. There was a split between his father and mother. There was a fire that destroyed his cherished gymnastic ribbons and trophies. There was his desire to earn some money for his mother an dput some new clothes on his back. And there was his family's nomadic life. For a decade, they bounced from one apartment to another -- one step ahead of the U.S. marshals carrying eviction papers -- until they finally ended up in a housing project in Southeast Washington, far from Cardozo and Williams' old neighborhood buddies.
Now, for all of these reasons and probably more that cannot be so easily identified, Williams leads a life far different from the one he and his family had hoped for as he come of age in this fast-paced and turbulent town.
"This is really murder -- it'll make you grow up fast," Williams said on a recent steaming day as he strained to read the Help Wanted section of the newspaper. He was at the apartment the family rents in the Highland Dwelling public housing project in far Southeast -- three months out of school and still unemployed.
"People say they may have something soon and tell you that they'll call when they do, but you never hear from nobody. I want to go back to school, but basically I need money. And ain't nobody giving away no jobs."
He had slept late that day, as he often does now, staying in bed until early afternoon, when he can face what is left of the day -- and himself.
"It makes me so mad when I don't have no clean clothes," he said, seated on the edge of a bed. He could not find a fresh shirt to wear for his job search so he just sat shirtless, head hung as he used his fists to massage the sleep and the frown from his face.
"Ain't nothing I can't stand worse than dirty clothes," he said placing his hands behind his head then slamming his body backward onto a pillow. "What I want to do is get my mama a washer. I need money, man. I need money today."
Suddenly a restless frenzy propelled him out of the house, leaving his brothers and sisters in a crossfire of lunchtime chatter and the clatter of spoons scooping out those last drops of instant milk at the bottom of their cereal bowls.
still shirtless, he visited a neighbor who had told him earlier to come by and see about a job laying concrete pipe. The job, called "bullwork," involves a lot of hauling, and pays $8.75 an hour. Williams already was glistening with sweat. Through the rusty buzz of an antiquated window fan, he barely heard the neighbor say there was no work today. "Check back tomorrow," said the neighbor, his voice fading away.
At his peak several years ago, Williams was a show stopper. A short, stocky fellow, he was amazing on a basketball court as a tumbling mat, able to slam dunk in the eye of much taller players. He had organized his brothers and sisters into a drill team that gave warmup performances before he took center stage at high school talent shows.
"The sad thing about Kenny is that as talented as he is we didn't have the type of program in our school that could utilize his skills," said Joan Young, a physical education teacher at Cardozo. "He would come to me and ask if I would sponsor him in competition and I would say, 'Sure you can use my name.' I knew he was very talented. But the last time I talked to him he said he was having a lot of problems at home."
For Williams, home was the neighborhoods of Northwest Washington, where for more than a decade his nomadic family had lived one step ahead of the eviction notices. Often, they could not pay their rent. Sometimes, their home simply was sold from under them to make way for condominium and townhouse conversion.
Practicing gymnastics was one of the only constants in Williams' life. Indeed, he had learned to tumble on mattresses that were discarded in alleys and vacant lots following evictions.
"It was hard concentrating on myself, when everytime you looked up it was time to move," he recalled. "I would try for odd jobs to get money to give my mother then just go work out in the gym. I was trying to perfect my pike leap finish off the parallel bars. When I finally got that down right, moving wasn't so bad for me."
His participation insports -- and his success -- was important to the family. For his mother, it was as if he had become the living embodiment of one of the evangelical sermons of the Rev. Ida Blain. Mrs. Willimas was a regular among the troubled mothers in the congretation at the WUST Radio Music Hall at 9th Street and Florida Avenue NW, where Blain often preached.
"Sometimes the tide is high," Blain once preached as Earl's mother raised her hands palms up and trembled in her seat. "The waves are high. The wind is high. The dark clouds hang low. The sunshine seems hidden from our view. But when the storm of life is raging, when the world is tossing you like a ship on a stormy sea, remember God will send you a sign because God is a just God. Oh, let my word be true."
To his mother, it seemed obvious that Kenneth Earl was the sign, and last fall was supposed to be a good time for him. After so much adversity, it appeared that the dream was about to come true.
Then fire ravaged the house they were staying in at 1234 Harvard St. NW. On a shelf in the front room of that house the youth had left a space for the Olympic gold medal between a picture of John F. Kennedy and his mother. When he returned to the house on that chilly February afternoon, his ribbons were ashes, his trophies chunks of scarred metal and disfigured plastic.
The family scattered; some stayed with relatives nearby, others moved temporarily into the homes of relatives around the city. It was a routine learned from the numerous evictions earlier, about 10 in a decade. Eventually, they reassembled in an apartment in Highland Dwellings on Atlantic Street SE, just west of the Prince George's County line.
It was then that Williams received the note from his teachers that he was failing. The news was devastating. It burst a bubble that engulfed him when he lived only to be a gymnast. He is still at a loss to explain it.
"Things were getting real tight and I don't like to keep asking my mother for money," he said, trying to explain why he quit school. "I should be giving her money and letting her have some of the things she wants." His father was no longer around to do that.
One day Williams went to visit his father, the man who said it hurt so much to see his family repeatedly evicted that eventually he moved away .
"You know, I get kinda broke up by us being broke up, especially when it came to the kids," Charles Williams told his son one day as they stood eye to eye in the Metropolitan appartment building on Rhodes Island Avenue NE where he was a janitor. "It's just a feeling that I had, but you know, my feelings could be wrong ".
His father had been shot five times during an argument over a woman in Florida. He still had an inoperable bullet in his lung. He told his son that he thought his mother had put too much faith in God and not enough in him. He sounded jealous .
"I love your mama, boy, but I just can't live with her," he said. "Everytime something goes wrong she's talking that religion talk like she's got another dude. 'Don't worry, God will do this and God will do that.' If I didn't do it, it didn't get done ."
"Pretty soon me and the finance company will have everything straightened out back home [in Kinston, N.C., the town the Williams family migrated to Washington from in 1961] and I'll be ready to make my move back. You be ready too, okay Kenneth?" Charles Williams urged his son .
"Sure," Kenneth replied .
"North Carolina has really changed since when I left," continued his father. "Now North Carolina is the place to be. See, instead of farms down there we got jobs in textiles ."
Another janitor politely ordered him to tend to the trash on the floor. Williams nodded and reached for a broom. With the other hand he picked five dollars from his pocket and gave them to Kenneth earl .
"The duPonts are in textiles and all that jazz," the father told his son.
"My brother is making $9 an hour ."
"Sure," the young man replied as he took the money and smiled .
Williams insists that he is just taking a temporary leave from school to try to earn the money his family needs so badly. At the same time, he can feel himself losing his touch -- and so can others.
"Earl, you better start practicing again. You used to be really good, man," Vincent (Satchmo) Smalls, a trumpet player in the Cardozo High band, yelled when he spotted Williams near the school grounds recently doing his flip for a photographer.
"You used to could jump higher than that. You losing your height, baby," Smalls continued. "I don't know if I can speak for you anymore. You gonna have to show me something."
Before Williams could turn away, someone else who knew him from days gone by made his way across the street to say hello. It was Perk Perkins, the counselor at the nearby Sojourner Neighborhood Center.
"Remember all those mornings we used to make 100 pancakes," Perk said, shaking his head nostalgically. After a brief reunion, Williams walked away and began his flips. Perk shook his head again. Almost all the people who know Kenneth Earl Williams shake their heads when they think of what could have been and what is and why it came to be.
Kenneth Earl Williams was back in Northwest Washington, in the Cardozo neighborhood where he grew up and where, some say, he left his heart .
Having spotted his boys hanging out in the shade of a large Elm tree, Williams waded into the crowd. They were trying to get together enough money for some "smokers." But he was broke, so he suggested a game of basketball. All they needed was $5 more, he was told, then they could both play and get high. They group of teenagers lapsed into a silent, hypnotic stare, as if their collective thought patterns would materialize a bag of marijuana. No dice .
Williams got restless again.Abruptly, he broke the trance. "Look, ya'll," he commanded. "Either we gonna do something or we ain't, but I just can't sit here ."
He feels better at home, where his brothers and sisters often assemble on the backyard asphalt and eagerly await his attention when they practice their flips. He beams with pride as he looks on.
And sometimes he practices, drawing the stares, the "Oohs" and "Aahs" of his die-hard fans, flipping through the air as if the Olympics is still just around the corner, blinded by a stubborn self-confidence that suggests that life itself will be just another tumble.
"The main thing is to always land on your feet," he is fond of telling his students -- and himself. "It's all in the concentration and balance."