Leonard Pitts, Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald and the author of the novels “Freeman” and “Grant Park.”
Jim St. Germain does not want to be called a symbol. He knows that the temptation to do so will be overpowering for many of those who read this memoir of how he rose from dead-end streets to become a respected advocate for at-risk kids. Still, he would rather they didn’t.
He writes: “I resist any attempts to treat me as a symbol, which strikes me as so far beside the point. Symbols are rarities, by definition, and I have no interest in being one. I’m working toward a world where my story is no longer a story.”
If he is unhappy being called a symbol, one imagines St. Germain will also wince at being called a miracle. That is, however, undeniably what he is. As recounted in his book, too many “ifs” went his way over the course of growing up wild and angry in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood for the reader to believe anything else.
If the man who put that Glock to his forehead that day on the elevator had pulled the trigger . . . .
If that janitor hadn’t seen him collapse from alcohol poisoning on that abandoned subway platform . . . .
If that guy who produced a handgun and started shooting up the street that day had had better aim . . . .
If the guy who stabbed him in the chest with a broken bottle had pushed an inch deeper . . . .
Every life, of course, is a built on bricks of ifs. But the ifs in St. Germain’s life are the kind that make you ponder questions about destiny and grand design, the kind that make you realize how thin is the veil separating what is from what easily might have been.
St. Germain came to the United States from Haiti when he was 10. He arrived expecting to live on an upscale American street like he’d seen in “Home Alone.” He ended up on a street like something out of “The Wire,” huddling in a two-bedroom apartment with 10 other people. The furniture was ratty, the paint was peeling, the ceiling leaked, and when you turned the light out, the darkness filled with the soft click of roaches scurrying about the kitchen.
The new kid was treated as new kids are always treated. His unfamiliarity with English and his ignorance of local customs didn’t make matters any better.
But the new kid adapted as new kids often do. He armored himself, shoved his fears into a closet out of view, and medicated his pain with pot and alcohol. He stole. He dealt drugs. And he fought. Indeed, something in him, some seething rage, seemed to seek out fights. Fighting seemed to feed some primal need.
Inevitably, it all brought the boy to the attention of the authorities, and as it had done with so many others before him, the “justice” system opened its maw to swallow his life. But someone within that system saw something worth saving in the angry boy. He was sent to a diversionary program instead. There, people reached out to him and kept reaching even when he snapped and cursed at them, even when he disappointed then. They reached until he finally had sense enough to reach back.
If they had not done that, St. Germain would not have a college degree, would not have been appointed by President Barack Obama to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, would not be co-founder of Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization dedicated to mentoring at-risk kids. If they had not done that, he might now be doing time. Or dead.
You have read this story before, of course. “A Stone of Hope” joins that shelf of literature by and about African American men who started from the bottom and succeeded against all odds. Nathan McCall’s “Makes Me Wanna Holler” is on that shelf. As is Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” and even Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery.”
“A Stone of Hope” will not make you forget any of those towering achievements. But neither is it an embarrassment to the shelf. Aided by writer Jon Sternfeld, St. Germain sketches out the passages of his life in a brisk, clean style, recounting even the most wrenching episodes in clear-eyed, unsentimental prose.
For all the street stories he weaves, though, arguably the most compelling part of St. Germain’s narrative comes when he takes his first tentative steps beyond the streets. Admirably, in telling this part of his life, he leaves intact all the false starts and setbacks.
So instead of a nicely linear “Movie of the Week” story of the one special caseworker or counselor who inspired him to fix his life, we get the story of a series of people and a number of years, and how they worked at him, how they tested his patience and he tested theirs, of how he failed, and then succeeded.
Which, on reflection, feels true. Life is not a training montage from a “Rocky” movie. It is trial and error, setback and achievement. So if you graphed St. Germain’s progress from what he was to what he is, the resulting line might resemble the stock exchange during a bull market — jagged but rising.
There is a subtle point in that. Namely, that there are no magic bullets or instant fixes for troubled kids. There is only hard work and the dedication it takes to do.
And that our children — skin color, culture or socioeconomic standing notwithstanding — are worth it. Indeed, that they deserve it. A child enters the world through no volition or decision of his own and adapts to what he finds.
What if he found, from the beginning, a society that prioritized his well-being and decided that there was a basic level of compassion and subsistence to which he was entitled? “It’s not a noble fight in my mind,” St. Germain writes, “it’s a blatantly obvious one. There is something wrong if fighting for disenfranchised youth isn’t a collective effort that emits from the very moral center of our country.”
St. Germain’s life makes the point more effectively than his words. Think about it. He rose from a blighted place and managed to make something good of himself. To do so, he needed to be a miracle.
It should have been enough just to be a child.
By Jim St. Germain with Jon Sternfeld
Harper. 292 pp. $27.99