A father’s initiative

A father’s initiative

Paul Gayle had no job, no money, a new baby and 16 lessons from the Obama administration to teach him what to do next

Published on May 16, 2015

In Milwaukee

The last student to arrive for fatherhood class was the only one holding a baby, and a dozen men looked up from their desks to stare. Paul Gayle, 19, had a pink diaper bag hanging off a shoulder decorated with tattoos of marijuana leaves, and a crying 7-month-old in his arms. “Come on, girl, chill out,” Paul said, carrying the baby to a seat in the corner. He offered her a rattle, and she swatted it away. He gave her a bottle, and she only cried louder. Finally, he reached into the diaper bag and took out a pacifier for her and a shot of Goody’s Headache Relief for himself.

“Sorry for the noise, y’all,” he said. “We’re both a little mad at the world today.”

“No problem,” the teacher said. “I’m up here talking about being a dad, and you’re doing it.”

“I’m trying,” Paul said. “But damn.”

He had pushed a creaky stroller through one of Milwaukee’s worst neighborhoods and ridden a bus across the city not because he wanted to attend a class called Fragile Families and Responsible Fatherhood, but because, like everyone else in the room, he saw no other choice. Some of the men had been told to take the class as a condition of visiting their estranged children. Others had been lured by the promise of job referrals or reduced child-support payments. Paul had come mostly because of the promise of free baby supplies, and lately he had been purchasing his Pampers one at a time, repeating the same transaction so often at a corner store that a clerk had dubbed it the Daddy Paul Special, 75 cents for a single cigarette and a size-3 diaper.

Paul and his daughter head home after attending a fatherhood development class at Next Door Foundation. Lately Paul had had been purchasing his Pampers one at a time, repeating the same transaction so often at a corner store that a clerk had dubbed it the Daddy Paul Special, 75 cents for a single cigarette and a size-3 diaper.

Here in one of America’s most segregated cities, the biweekly fatherhood class has become President Obama’s preferred antidote to so many of the problems facing black men. His administration approved the 16-course curriculum and devoted more than $500 million to funding hundreds of fatherhood classes around the country. One of the biggest grants went to North Milwaukee, where, according to studies of census data, black children face disadvantages that accumulate from birth: three times as likely as white children to die in their first year; five times as likely to live with a single parent; nine times as likely to attend failing schools; 15 times as likely to live in poverty; 18 times as likely to go to prison. “Strong fathers can be the first and best step toward fixing these communities and helping our children reach their goals,” Obama said last year while promoting the classes.

Paul had written down his goals as part of an exercise on the first day of class: “Brush Sapphire’s teeth every night.” “Stay calm.” “Find a stable apartment.” “Get a job — any.”

Now it was his 15th class, nearing the end, and despite the hopeful language in a course guide — “End the cycle of intergenerational poverty!” “Help turn your child turn into a success story in 16 lessons.” — so much about his life remained unstable. He had moved nine times in seven months. He had been offered two jobs but failed the drug tests. It had been several days since he had seen the baby’s mother, a former longtime girlfriend who was no longer living with them. “Sapphire misses you. Are you coming over to see her??” he had texted once, and the silence that followed made him think Sapphire might become another black child whose long odds depended on a single parent, and that parent was him.

In the first fatherhood class he had recited 20 strategies for managing anger. In the fifth he had role-played effective methods of child discipline; “Say ‘no’ firmly and repeat as necessary,” the course book read. Now the teacher asked the students to stand for a group exercise, so Paul grabbed the baby and joined his classmates in the center of the room. The teacher said he would read a series of “value statements,” and students would go to the right side of the room if they agreed with the statement, the left side if they disagreed or stay in the center if they were unsure. “Men and women are equally capable of caring for children,” the teacher said, and all at once the men began to move, half to the right and half to the left, jarring at each other as they went. “Oh, hell, no,” one said. “Damn right I’m capable,” said another. Paul stood alone in the center of the room, unsure.

“A man who cries easily is weak,” the teacher said, and the men hurried around the room again.

“It’s okay to use violence if you’re disrespected,” the teacher said.

“A man should be willing to take any job to support his children.”

Paul still stood alone in the center of the room, watching everyone move, cradling the baby against his shoulder. “Paul, come on man, what are you sure about?” the teacher asked.

“Me being honest?” he said. “You’re asking us for simple yes/no answers, and I can see it both ways. It’s a whole lot more complicated than you’re making it seem.”

Paul attends a fatherhood development class led by social worker Alphonso Pettis at Next Door Foundation. He had pushed a creaky stroller through one of Milwaukee’s worst neighborhoods and ridden a bus across the city not because he wanted to attend a class called Fragile Families and Responsible Fatherhood, but because, like everyone else in the room, he saw no other choice.

She was his first child, and when he found out he was going to be a father, he felt both excited and scared. He was unemployed, broke, single and still pursuing his high school diploma — an accidental teenage father, the exact thing his mother had warned him not to become. He hid the pregnancy from his mother for several months, hid it from nearly everybody, until his daughter arrived in August at 6 pounds and 13 ounces, with tousled hair, soft skin and normal results on her first hospital check-up. “Health: Good.” “Ethnicity: Black.” “Risk factors: None.”

The first crisis of her life had come a few hours later. “I need a car seat ASAP,” Paul had written on his Facebook page, when the nurse explained they couldn’t take the baby home without one. He didn’t have a phone or a computer, so he logged onto Facebook using a cheap tablet he shared with a friend. “I need one now!” he wrote. “I am at Sinai hospital. Please someone help or let me borrow $50. They sell one here. Please help.”

He managed to borrow a car seat from a relative, borrow a car from a friend, buy a few baby supplies from Goodwill and take the baby and her mother home to a friend’s one-bedroom apartment. “I’m gonna be the best daddy for this girl,” he wrote on his Facebook page, and only in the next months did he begin to understand what that would require.

“Fittin to walk everywhere and do whatever to find me a job,” he wrote, in September.

“Job interview. Keep praying,” he wrote, in November.

“Kills me to be missing so much of my baby’s life,” he said, in December, when Sapphire and her mother left to stay with relatives in Minnesota.

“Headache outta this world,” he wrote, in January, when the baby and her mother returned from Minnesota, and the baby moved in with him.

“Tired, irritated, stressed and plus,” he wrote, in February, when the mother started to visit less, and when he began to wonder if he should fight for custody in court.

“Anyone trying to buy a Play Station?” he asked in March, when he had run out of money and used up his $198 in food stamps. “Asking $130 but would be willing to work something out. Need baby stuff.”

Now it was the end of April, and he left fatherhood class and took Sapphire back to his mother’s rental house in North Milwaukee, where they had been staying for the last several weeks. His mother, Bindu, was sitting in the living room and watching a report on the local news about a family that lived a mile away. The family had hosted a barbecue the previous afternoon, and an unsupervised 2-year-old had run into the street and been hit by a van. The driver stopped and shouted for somebody to call 9-1-1, but instead the toddler’s uncle came off the porch, shot the driver in the head and then shot the toddler’s 15-year-old brother for failing to watch him. “A total loss of control on our streets,” the mayor was saying on the news, in a news conference to address the seventh and eighth murders of the week.

“I just want to take Sapphire and myself and go dig a hole like Bugs Bunny,” Paul said, once the report finished.

“Get yourself out of this neighborhood,” Bindu said. “It’s a mess, and it’s only getting worse.”

“Believe me, I’m trying.”

“Get an education,” she said. “Get a phone. Get a car. Get a job. Get an apartment. Get a bank account. Get a plan for your life.”

“I said I’m trying.”

“A baby needs stability, Paul. It can’t be day-to-day for 18 years. Give her something to depend on.”

“Okay. I get it,” he said, turning back to the TV.

Paul was Bindu’s youngest child, and he reminded her of his father: soft-hearted and hard-headed, all the right intentions without the necessary follow through. Paul had tattooed the names and birth dates of his siblings on his arms as a tribute to family, but he had gotten one of the birth dates wrong. He had skirted the edges of trouble — suspended from school but never expelled, using marijuana but not dealing it. And at 19 he possessed what few other black men in his neighborhood did: He was among the 42 percent with no criminal record; the 35 percent with a high school diploma; and the 14 percent of fathers who lived with their child. “A master at barely avoiding disaster,” Bindu said of him, but she had said the same thing about Paul’s father until he was shot and killed during an argument at 39, when Paul was in eighth grade.

The police hadn’t solved that murder, had never even reported a lead, and Bindu’s experiences with Milwaukee gave her little faith that they would. She worked for an anti-homelessness organization, handing out water under bridges and listening to stories about how the city’s infrastructure had failed its minorities: public schools that graduated well below half of their students, long wait lists for public housing, jails that imprisoned black men at twice the national rate and a racial health disparity so vast that whites lived nearly a decade longer than blacks. “If you want to be healthy as a black person, you don’t want to live in Wisconsin,” the city’s health director had once advised.

But Bindu did live in Wisconsin, in one of its worst neighborhoods, where Obama’s fatherhood initiative was advertised on fliers posted at barber shops, food banks and homeless shelters. “Strong Fathers Take Family Matters Into Their Own Hands,” one read. And even if some considered that a thin solution to so much systematic racism and decay, Bindu thought that a fatherhood class could at least be a safe and constructive place to go. She had encouraged Paul to enroll and said he could stop sleeping on friends’ couches and live with her, so long as he followed her rules: no wandering the neighborhood at night; no visits from the baby’s mother, whom she didn’t trust. “I can’t be your safety net forever,” she had told him, and she had decided against giving him his own key.

Now he carried Sapphire upstairs to their bedroom, where his mattress was on the floor under a string of Christmas lights. He brushed her teeth and rocked her down into her crib. Then he sat on the window ledge, lit a cigarette and blew smoke into the alleyway.

“Bedtime,” he said, as Sapphire played in the crib. “Come on now. Daddy needs a break, girl.”

“We’re getting up early tomorrow, making something happen. We’re starting out fresh, you and me.”

“Close your eyes,” he said, but as Sapphire kept looking up at him, he closed his.

Paul, at the Next Door Foundation with his daughter, talks to a social worker. He hid the pregnancy from his mother for several months, hid it from nearly everybody, until his daughter arrived in August.

He awoke the next morning to a hopeful message on his Facebook page: “Might have a job lead. Call if you can,” his former high school counselor had written, and since Paul didn’t have a cellphone and didn’t want to wait, he packed his diaper bag, wrapped Sapphire in a blanket and traveled across the city to find the counselor at Pulaski High.

Paul had graduated from Pulaski the year before, and he had been celebrated that day as one of the principal’s handpicked “turnaround stories.” He had started high school just months after his father’s murder, a stormy freshman who dented lockers in the school hallways, but he had become one of the school’s most popular eccentrics, with fluorescent socks and wild hair. He cooked his father’s native Jamaican food and sold it in the cafeteria. He made honor roll his last semester, and a teacher suggested he apply to culinary school or even to college. “You can make it,” that teacher had written in an evaluation.

Now Paul walked into the lobby and ran into that same teacher, who looked down at the baby in his arms. “Yours?” he said. “Yep,” Paul said. “Congratulations,” the teacher said, before continuing down the hall.

Paul changed Sapphire’s diaper, went upstairs and found the counselor in his office. “You mentioned something about a job?” Paul said, and the counselor explained that his friend was hiring for a caretaking position in an elderly home, no experience necessary, paying $10 an hour. “They need somebody who can start right away,” the counselor said.

At top, Paul and his daughter head home after attending a fatherhood development class at Next Door Foundation. Above, Paul takes a break from his fatherhood development class to change his daughter’s diaper. He agreed to continue coming after his 16 sessions were up, thinking about the free baby supplies, and thinking that help might be something he’d need.

“Do they drug-test?” Paul asked, thinking about the urine tests he had failed at Target and Milwaukee Sanitation.

“No,” the counselor said. He pointed to Paul’s tattoos. “You might need to cover up all those marijuana leaves on your arm, turn them into hearts or something. But the main thing is you need to call her tonight.”

“I’ll borrow a phone,” Paul said.

“Or you can just drive out there and see her,” the counselor said.

“I don’t have a car, but I’ll bus.”

“It’s way out in Waukesha.”

“What? The job is in Waukesha?” Paul said. Waukesha was three bus transfers to the west, a mostly white suburb where 83 percent of children lived with both parents, 90 percent of families were middle class or better, 93 percent of adults were high school graduates and 95 percent were employed. “What are they going to let me do in Waukesha?” Paul said, but he listened as the counselor outlined a plan: Cover the tattoos. Get the job. Save enough money to rent an apartment near work and move with Sapphire to Waukesha, where she could enjoy all the advantages of an America that Paul had never experienced, an America nine miles away.

“Waukesha,” the counselor said, stretching the word out, nodding his head. “That could be the answer right there. She’ll grow up right. She’ll have some rich friends.”

“She could go to one of those day cares with a garden and a big old playground,” Paul said, nodding now, too.

“She’ll go to college,” the counselor said.

“She’ll become a doctor or something,” Paul said.

He promised the counselor he would call about the job, and he started traveling back across the city. Sapphire fussed and he cradled her to his chest. She spit up on his shoulder and he didn’t bother to wipe it off. “Waukesha,” he said, still getting used to the idea, because maybe it could work. He would get a bank account. He would save money to put himself through school and win full custody of Sapphire. “Gonna overcome everything for this little girl right here,” he wrote, posting a photo of Sapphire to his Facebook page, and by the time they arrived back at his mother’s house it looked to him like a place he was already preparing to leave. “A week tops and I’ll be out,” he said, carrying Sapphire up to the front door. He reached for the knob, but it didn’t turn. He knocked, and nobody answered. He pushed his shoulder against the door just to be sure. “Damn,” he said. “Locked out.”

They sat on the curb, waiting for his sister to come home with a key. After a few minutes, Sapphire started to cry, so he wrapped her in the blanket and gave her the rest of her milk. After 10 minutes, two teenagers walked by, and Paul stopped them. “Hey, give me a dollar,” he said, but the kids kept walking. He smoked one cigarette and lighted another. He wrapped the blanket tighter around Sapphire. “I’m sorry,” he told her.

A neighbor came out to talk to Paul while they continued to wait. “What’s happening?” he asked, and Paul told him about the trip back to his high school, the counselor and the $10-an-hour caretaking position. “Waukesha? Yeah, you’d fit in real good in Waukesha,” the neighbor said, laughing at the idea, and something about his reaction made Paul realize how ridiculous it seemed. He didn’t have a job. He didn’t have hearts on his arms, or a car to get him to work, or money to rent an apartment in the suburbs. He didn’t even own a key to his own home.

“Waukesha,” he said. “I know. Pretty stupid, right?”

Paul and Sapphire wait for a city bus as they head home after attending a fatherhood development class. Paul doesn’t have a car and relies on the bus system as his main method of transportation.

What he had was a baby and one more fatherhood class the next afternoon, the last of Obama’s 16 sessions. The teacher talked about the five developmental stages of childhood. He talked about treating mothers with respect. “Congratulations, Graduate!” read a certificate with Paul’s name printed on it, but before he left the teacher pulled him aside. “This isn’t really the kind of thing you finish,” the teacher said. “This is about achieving self-discipline. That’s the essence of manhood. We want to keep giving you help,” and so Paul agreed to continue coming, thinking about the free baby supplies, and thinking that help might be something he would need.

“Are you coming over today?” he texted Sapphire’s mother, on his way home, and she told him that she was.

He brought Sapphire back into the house, turned on cartoons and waited. This was where they spent much of their time together, rotating from a chair to a couch to another chair as empty soda cans and baby formula piled up around them. He bounced Sapphire on his knee as a cartoon about a talking car gave way to another about a talking horse. “Still coming??” he texted the mother, and then waited for her to write back. He cooked potatoes and fed them to Sapphire by hand. She spit up on his shoulder, and he changed his shirt.

Photo gallery

Paul Gayle is trying to make a better life for his daughter, but the odds are stacked against him. Click the photo above for more images.

“Soooo bored,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “Who wants to hang with me and Sapphire?” and finally he heard the front door open. It was Bindu, home from work, and she squeezed his shoulder and kissed the baby. “Did you call about the job in Waukesha?” she asked. “Not yet,” he said.

He switched from cartoons to MTV, and then to “American Idol” as the sun went down. He started to fall asleep on the couch, but Sapphire grabbed at his beard. “Let me sleep,” he said, but now she was chewing on the remote control, pulling his arm, asking for attention. “What do you want?” he said, and what she wanted was to be held, then to crawl, then to eat, then to play peek-a-boo, then to crawl again. “Ugh, are you serious?” Paul said, strapping her into a bouncy chair, closing his eyes. Bindu came back into the room and put a hand on his shoulder. “Did you call yet?” she asked.

Paul stood up and walked out of the living room, out the back door and into the alley. “How long are we going to be stuck like this?” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Weeks? Years?” He looked down the alley to the street, and on that street was a bus stop, and for a few seconds he wondered what it would feel like to leave: just quiet, no questions, no stroller, no baby.

But even now he could hear Sapphire crying. He stomped out his cigarette and walked back into the house. She saw him and held up her arms. He lifted her from the bouncer, pulled her into his lap and offered what he could.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’m right here.”

Paul and his daughter head home after taking a fatherhood development class. Sapphire’s mother started to visit less, and he began to wonder if he should fight for custody in court.

Photo gallery

Paul Gayle is trying to make a better life for his daughter, but the odds are stacked against him. Click the photo above for more images.