Over the last two years, this 14-year-old Northeast Washington youth has spent nearly two of every three school days at home or on the streets of the city. Last year, according to James Howell, principal of Taft Junior High School, and school attendance records, the youth missed 103 of 168 school days, was tardy 21 of the 65 days he attended and failed seventh grade.
He returned to Taft in September and missed school 24 of 37 days, according to his homeroom teacher, Eddie Jacobs, and school records. Then he transferred to Hamilton Junior High. Yet, between Nov. 2, when his transfer became effective, and yesterday , he made it to Hamilton no more than half a dozen days, according to school officials there -- and rarely for a full day of classes.
The family and friends of the 14-year-old have tried many devices to get him to attend school, according to his grandmother. At one point last year, she said, a friend offered to give him a dollar a week if he went to school all five days. He wouldn't. When that failed, she said, she tried hurrying him out of the apartment door in the morning and quickly locking the door behind him. He still would not go to class.
Four times last year, police picked him up for being on the street during school hours. He was returned to school and the police notified her by mail, she said. That did not change his habits.
A school attendance officer counseled him on several occasions, to no avail. "I was always looking for the right button to push," said the attendance officer, Ferdinand Schwartz.
Everyone has been looking for the right button to push, and no one has found it -- not the family, not the schools, not the courts and certainly not the young man from Northeast Washington. The case of this 14-year-old truant remains somewhat of a dilemma in which no one is really to blame and everyone is part of the failure.
Until he left Taft, a boxy, imposing structure whose students come largely from several low- and middle-income housing projects on the nearby hillsides south of Rhode Island Avenue NE, one of his favorite pastimes was sitting on "the bench" -- a worn picnic table covered with juvenile graffiti on a grassy sports field acrosss the street from Taft.
There he would shoot the breeze with friends and fellow truants, or daydream as he watched the kids come and go at school. And when not at the bench, he often stayed home -- flipping through the newspaper, watching television, paging through men's fashion magazines and fending off his grandmother's incessant pleas that he ought to go to school.
"It's up to me to go to school and learn," he told a reporter as he sat at home one recent school day. "But I figure I can make it" without attending. He scoffs at the notion and consequences of being picked up by police for truancy. "I'm too slick," he said with a smile. "Just think, I only got caught four times" last year, and not once since. "That's good," he said with satisfaction.
Making it means staying out of trouble -- and pretty much out of school -- until he turns 17 and can enlist in the service.
"Say if I go in the Army and want to learn all about electronics and I stay there for two years," he explained. "See, in regular school, you got a wide range of stuff you be learning. But in the Army , just think -- two years on one subject. You be good at it."
"If you get good in electronics," he said, "you come back with the service on your record and you can probably get a loan and open your own business and make all kinds of money just from learning."
"That's quite a nice dream," said attendance officer Schwartz. "But I don't know if he can take the discipline" in the Army.
The Army does take high school dropouts, but only if they pass certain required entry exams, according to recruiters. Clifford L. Alexander, former secretary of the Army and now a Washington consultant, said a person like this 14-year-old probably would lack the rudimentary learning skills to fulfill such a dream in the armed forces. "That doesn't sound like he will make it," Alexander said.
Jack Smith, an attendance officer at Taft, recommended this 14-year-old and his family when a reporter from The Washington Post asked for the name of a habitual truant in the D.C. public schools.
Last year there were 16,706 truancy cases among the 99,366 students in D.C. public schools. Some of those cases involved repeat offenders. However, school officials said that the number of actual students involved is close to the 16,000 figure.
The 14-year-old in this story is absent far more often than what attendance officers describe as a typical truant. However, many of the factors that prompt his infrequent attendance are common to many truants in the D.C. public schools, according to school officials, child psychiatrists, researchers, court officials and police officers interviewed.
Some school officials familiar with him describe this 14-year-old as a slow learner whose learning difficulties may discourage regular attendance. His grandmother says she thinks he stays away from school because he is embarrassed that he cannot afford the designer clothes worn by many of his peers. His teachers and his principal at Taft say that socially, he may never have graduated from elementary school to the more independent and sometimes bullyish nature of adolesence.
"In elementary school, the teachers are like fathers and mothers," Howell said. "But in junior high, it's different. The student has to do more things on his own. They reach a frustration point and decide school is of no interest . . . With budget cuts, we just don't have the staff to deal with these kids on a one-to-one basis like some of these kids need."
Child psychiatrist Alberta M. Vallis, who emphasized that she is not familiar with this particular case, says a student like this one could be suffering from what child psychiatrists refer to as "attention deficit disorder."
"What happens," she said, "is that many children -- and we sometimes say one out of five kids -- might have a specific learning style that is so different that he becomes a misfit. . . It's a real thing."
So far, the family says, the youth has steered clear of drugs and crime. "Nine out of ten times, the first clue that you have of a kid going toward delinquency is truancy," said Sidney Swann, head of the city's juvenile court restitution program. "We know a lot of kids get involved in trouble during the time they should be in school."
"Books on delinquency talk about truancy being the kindergarten of crime," said Dan Feeney, director of probation intake for the juvenile branch of the D.C. Superior Court. "It sure is."
The grandmother, 66, says she raised the youth, his brother and two sisters from infancy. But she and the 14-year-old do not see eye to eye on his truancy.
She remembers with bitterness her own inability to go to school because, at a very young age, she had to sacrifice education to help with family problems. She also is haunted, she says, by fears that he may end up like the men who sit on stoops and drink outside their home or the glassy-eyed young drug addicts who slither in and out of other apartments.
With deep unhappiness, she asks a reporter how it is that her grandchildren cannot take advantage of the opportunity to make something of their lives?
"I do worry about him," she said.
The two younger children in the family are still in elementary school and are good students, she says. But the 14-year-old appears to be following in the footsteps of his older sister, who was a chronic truant in junior high.
The sister attended a Catholic school for a while and quickly became a good student there, according the school principal. But since returning to public school in the 10th grade, she has resumed her no-show habits.
"I keep telling them they should go to school," the grandmother said. "They're delaying their chances in life."
It bewilders her, she said:
"See, I listened to those goofy people downtown -- " 'Don't hit them. Talk to them.' I think hitting would have helped. But they're too big now. He is about 6 feet tall and weighs about 150 pounds. I hit him one day and he came after me and I told somebody to call the police, because if he hit me, I'm going to send him to jail."
"I raised him," she continued. "I done everything for him. And he's going to talk trash to me. He used to have a lot of respect for me. When he was in the sixth grade, he wrote a beautiful full-page poem to his grandmother and all I had done for him and how much he loved me and he knew I loved him."
All that changed, however, when he entered junior high, she said: "Now he acts like he doesn't know me when I speak to him."
He says his toughness was merely a coming of age. "In elementary school, you can be nice, but when you get to junior high school, you got to be mean because people try to take advantage of you," he said.
"Say like you walk down the street -- I can't put it in words -- but like you smile from ear to ear all the time," he went on. "You asking for a fight. But if you walk down the street, not smiling but not being bad, people won't think of you that way . . . Like when I went to Taft last year and if I had been smiling from ear to ear, I would have been fighting every day."
There are other reasons for his change. "When you go to junior high school, it's so big and you can just stand in one hallway for 45 minutes and never get caught," he said.
Besides, he explains, it's easier to skip in junior high. "In elementary school, if you cut, they catch you just like that," he said, snapping his fingers. " . . . .But you go out for junior high school and stay out first, second and third periods and come in the afternoon, no excuses and no questions asked."
His grandmother says peer pressure also is a problem. "I really think his biggest problem about school is brand-name clothes," she said. "I just simply can't afford to buy them for him."
The grandmother says she receives $285 a month in public assistance to take care of the children. That supplements her $299 in monthly Social Security benefits and $107 in food stamps.
Her grandson pulled out from under the clutter on the battered living room coffee table a recent copy of the monthly men's fashion magazine Gentlemen's Quarterly.
"You got to have clothes that look all right and are quality," he said as he flipped the pages of the magazine. "Say this shirt," he continued, pointing to a $30 Calvin Klein dress shirt. "You might not be able to afford this shirt, but you can get a shirt that looks like it. It doesn't have to be brand name. As long as it looks good."
At the time, he sat in the family's well-heated apartment wearing a gold polo shirt and blue walking shorts with matching alligator trademarks. The alligator on the shorts, his grandmother said, had been taken from another piece of clothing and sewn on the shorts. When asked why he did that, he responded, "It looked good."
The 14-year-old is quick to rationalize his behavior and he disarmingly discusses his responsibility.
"It's up to you to go to school," he said. "Uncle Sam didn't make nobody on welfare. It's up to them. Say, if grandma had an equal opportunity to go to school, she would have went to school. But since she didn't have it, she was always taking odd jobs. Cleaning up houses. But I figure if she had went to school she could have had a good job and now would have been retired. She would have been all right. But now --"
" -- If I had gone to school," she interrupted.
"I know, but it was due to circumstances," he replied.
"I couldn't go to school," she said.
"Right," he said.
"But you can go to school."
"I know," he replied, squirming slightly.
"But you refuse to go to school," she said.
"Right," he said defiantly. "It's up to me to go to school, you know."
All the problems this junior high school student encounters may not stem from his family or the trendy clothes worn by his classmates.
Psychiatrist Vallis says that in a situation such as this, truancy may be caused in part by a desire to avoid embarrassment in the classroom.
"Take, for instance, division," she said. "Division has four steps. The teacher is at the blackboard and the child may look out the window. He misses three steps. He's not going to ask how to do it because the other children will think he's dumb and the teacher might holler at him. So he says nothing."
Vallis says many of these children should be placed in special education classes but are not. In the end, they become so frustrated that they drop out of school.
At one point, because of his chronic absenteeism, the 14-year-old was placed in a class with other students who had problems attending classes on a regular basis, Taft principal Howell said. All subjects were taught in the same room so there was little opportunity for him to slip out between classes.
Still, said Eddie Jacobs, his homeroom teacher at Taft, the youth failed last year because he did not attend class often enough to master the required skills.
According to teachers and counselors at Hamilton, his academic career there is starting out equally rocky: he has attended classes about a half dozen days since transferring on Nov. 2. Until two weeks ago, he had never appeared in his homeroom class where attendance is officially recorded, said Hamilton counselor Richard Arey.
The daily absentee rate in Washington's public schools is 14 percent on any given day, more than twice the national average of 6 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. It also is well above the suburban absentee rate of under 10 percent.
To combat the problem, city attendance regulations require that, after a child has two unexcused absences, the teacher must attempt to contact the parent to determine why the child was absent.
Normally, when there are seven to nine unexcused absences, the child's case is brought to the attention of the school attendance officers. And, after 30 unexcused absences, the child's case is referred to the juvenile court or juvenile services.
But some attendance officers say that, because there are only 18 attendance officers budget problems forced a reduction from the 31 who were on the job last year to cover the more than 200 city schools, some chronic truants cannot be dealt with.
Even then, court officials say, a chronic truant who appears in court is generally placed on probation and ordered by the judge to attend school. Last year, 78 such cases were handled in D.C. Superior Court. Rarely, if ever, however, has a child been committed to a public institution because of truancy, officials said.
The grandmother says she refuses to give up. Recently, when her grandson said he wanted to transfer to Hamilton Junior High School, he gave the excuse that the school is closer to home. She said she knew his real reason was that a friend attended there.
So, even though she didn't want him to transfer -- the friend, she maintains, is a bad influence -- she signed the transfer papers.
"I just want him in school," she said.