THE LADY JAGUARS
‘I Know What It Feels Like’
By JOHN BRANCH
Published: April 18, 2012
The Lady Jaguars, Part 4HUNTINGDON, Tenn. — Patrick Steele stood alone near the door to the locker room. It was a Friday night doubleheader, the girls before the boys, and the gym at Big Sandy was as full as any Carroll Academy had seen.
The New York Times
For weeks, there had been whispers of worry about the game at Big Sandy. While blacks comprise about 10 percent of the population in Carroll Academy’s five-county area, none of Big Sandy’s 574 residents were black, according to the latest census.
“Redneck City,” one of the girls had said as the van turned on the winding road toward Big Sandy.
“This place is racist,” one of the boys on the basketball team said as the Carroll Academy contingent slipped into the brightly lighted gym through a side door.
Adults had echoed the perception, but none of the whispers came from Steele, Carroll Academy’s omnipresent security director, a man of straight faces and penetrating eyes, the son of a black mother and a mixed-race father.
Always alert to the movements of the players, particularly at road games, he was in his element. He scanned the faces in the crowd. He searched for hints of trouble.
But to him, it was not an issue of race. It was an issue of keeping the students safe. And right now, the girls were behind a closed door, gathered in a circle with their arms locked at the elbows, receiving last-minute instructions from their coach and bowing their heads in prayer.
They were safe.
So Steele, 53, stood near the baseline, outside the locker room minutes before the game, and looked pleased to be there. He let slip a sliver of a smile.
Those girls in the locker room? They were not just basketball players. To Steele, they were something of himself.
A Little Girl Grows Up Into Trouble
The first time Steele saw Alleyah, she was a toddler, all energy and optimism, waving from a front yard. He could never forget that face.
Steele’s daily van route to pick up Carroll Academy students has long taken him to the town of McKenzie. For a time, about a decade ago, he dropped off a boy and a girl at a small brick home there.
Last year, Steele had a new girl to pick up. He pulled up in front of that little house, and when the door opened, everything rushed back. The way that little girl melted his heart. The way her smile stretched like taffy. The way it grew whenever he brought her a gift — a toy, a doll, anything for someone who had nothing.
And here she was again, a tiny wisp at 14, her wide smile covered in braces, her sweet side cloaked in sassiness and street smarts.
Every year, around 150 students go through Carroll Academy, a school for troubled teenagers operated by Carroll County Juvenile Court. The school does what it can — picks them up, feeds them, educates them, disciplines them, drops them back home. The idea is to give their worlds some semblance of order and direction, and move them back to their home school, wiser and stronger.
You cannot save them all. A few will bounce in and out of Carroll Academy. A few will find their way to college. Some will move from juvenile courts to adult ones, then to prison.
Most, it seems, will go back to living on society’s fringes, maybe get a G.E.D. or a diploma, then live a life much like the one their parents lead. History repeats.
Of the nine girls on this season’s basketball team, Alleyah is the one who worries school officials most. So young. So eager to show the older girls her street-hardened edges. Fighting. Smoking. So deceptively disruptive, like a tornado on a still night.
Yet she remembers Steele — Mr. Patrick to the students and everyone else — from years ago, too.
“He brought me a Barbie,” she said with an impossibly wide grin.
Alleyah, an eighth grader, came to Carroll Academy because of fighting — hard to believe from someone well under 5 feet tall and a three-digit weight. When she arrived, she was so angry that a boy she liked chose another girl, Hannah, over her that she set up a fake Facebook page for Hannah and peppered it with cruel comments. Hannah, now a basketball teammate, had no idea why so many people suddenly turned on her. She does not have a computer or a cellphone.
Almost daily, Alleyah is booted from class for talking or passing notes. Almost weekly, she is in detention, where students stand alone in a classroom, holding a clipboard and writing, hundreds of times, that they will not disrupt class or exhibit inappropriate behavior.
In her soft lilt, she tries to explain away the commotion she so casually leaves in her wake. And, far more than most, she finds herself participating in Steele’s physical training, or P.T., a dreaded form of punishment for most.
It is old-fashioned calisthenics, done in the hallway — push-ups, situps, jumping jacks, deep-knee bends and the like. Under Steele’s direction, the students count the repetitions, like soldiers at boot camp. Shirttails come untucked. Faces bead with sweat. Heavier students look ready to pass out, and some throw up.
Not Alleyah. She looks as if she could do a thousand situps, a million jumping jacks.
And when the students are sent back to class, sheepish and sweaty, Steele shakes his head, turns and smiles.
Students do not often see Steele’s soft spot. Some know that he is a Carroll County probation officer and that he runs a karate studio in town. They whisper that he is a black belt, and even the biggest and oldest boys are intimidated by his reputation.
Day to day, it can seem like Steele’s school. He directs the security staff — two other full-timers, unarmed — through a walkie-talkie. He directs teachers through the intercom, parents over the phone, students in the security office. When situations get tense — a parent becomes belligerent during a meeting, a student is caught with contraband — Steele gets calmer, as if his heartbeat slows.
Students trust him. In regular school, they say, discipline is doled out without evidence. At Carroll Academy, both sides — student versus student, student versus teacher —receive a full hearing. Steele is the judge and jury. He delivers verdicts face to face, in a near whisper. The quieter the delivery, the greater the gravity.
What most students do not know is how much he has in common with them. Steele grew up in Jackson, Tenn., a city of about 65,000 about 45 minutes away. He never knew his father. His mother was an alcoholic. His stepfather beat him, mostly because the boy was too light-skinned for his taste. Steele shoplifted food. He lived in abandoned houses.
When he speaks to Carroll Academy students, he sees a bit of a mirror.
“I know what it feels like because I lived it,” Steele said. And he started to cry.
He apologized and regained his stoic composure.
“I know what it feels like to be at school and not have money for lunch,” he said. “My mother, she was an alcoholic. All she had to do was go to school and sign the papers for me to get free lunches, but she was too drunk to do that. So I know what it’s like when they’re here and they have nothing to go home to and look forward to. I know what it feels like to go home with no electricity and no water and no food in the house because that’s how I grew up. So I totally understand them. I understand them in a way that the other staff don’t.
“It’s just that there’s still a lot of pain in me from growing up that way. And when I look at these kids, I can see the pain and the hurt in some of them. It just reminds me of me.”
It explains why, like most of the adults at Carroll Academy, Steele finds some students grab his heart and do not let go.
“I understand Alleyah,” he said.
Soon enough, she was back in the security office, being asked about a raunchy note she traded with another girl. Steele spoke to her sternly and calmly. He sent her back to class and shook his head.
A Lead, a Loss, a Success
Constance, a quiet eighth grader with a penchant for launching projectiles in anger, drained a 3-pointer to give Carroll Academy a quick lead over Big Sandy. It was fleeting. Carroll Academy lost, 45-10.
But it felt like a success. A few parents made the trip. Miranda, a self-deprecating senior from Big Sandy recovering from alcohol problems, corralled a first-half rebound and went to the free-throw line to try for her first points of the season. She missed both shots but beamed when she saw her stepfather, brother and sister cheering.
Leslee, a freshman with the charisma of a future homecoming queen, caught at school with prescription painkillers taken from her father’s girlfriend, jammed a finger that left her in tears. But following the game, after a trip to the snack stand with her teammates, she sat with her father and his girlfriend, her fingers taped together like a splint, smiling.
And Alleyah received substantial playing time, too. A bit like a moth, she flitted about on defense, crouched and with her arms up, as she had been taught, long after the nearest opponent had zipped past. On offense, the ball sometimes seemed too heavy for her. She never came close to scoring a point.
Maybe next season. If there is one girl who will return to the team in the fall, it is probably Alleyah. And Steele will be there to pick her up and take her home.