Show up for a day in the life of truancy officer Robert Milner. Or else.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery
Robert Milner is the most popular guy at Charles Hart Middle School: the school’s “attendance counselor”—which is a nice way of saying that he’s a truancy officer. Apparently, the euphemism works: All the kids know him, and most love him. He wears the sharpest threads in school, tailored suits from Britches of Georgetowne and yellow ties knotted like blossoms with loving precision. The staff women call him “GQ”; his “young ladies” often scream and giggle when he rolls down the hall. And he’s not just a walking fashion spread—if one of his “young mens” steps up to him, Milner fixes him with
a stare from his sleepy, steady, dark eyes, and the boy falls silent.
Milner’s short—not much taller than some of the girls and smaller than many of the boys—but he’s also broad. Not just in his shoulders but in his face, in his eyes, in his grin, which sneaks up out of the right corner of his mouth when he hears an excuse he thinks is funny. He hears lots of lame lines: “allergies” in December, school buses that got lost. One kid claimed a “secret” holiday that Milner wasn’t allowed to know about.
But Milner knows there aren’t many holidays, secret or otherwise, for the kids over whom he keeps watch. The entire school, a well-kept but aging building on Mississippi Avenue in Southeast Washington, qualifies for a free-lunch program. And although Hart has won championships—in sports and in a citywide poetry slam—it’s a place where kids struggle to stay on grade. For most students, the fancy colleges that demand advanced courses as early as sixth grade aren’t going to be an issue. Staying clear of both drugs and the war on drugs is of greater concern in a neighborhood where middle school students could easily graduate to fast-money jobs dealing drugs—careers with short trajectories that often lead to the prison system, where Milner used to be employed.
The fact that Milner once worked for the D.C. Jail probably wouldn’t surprise some of Milner’s students, who like to add their own stories to the lore about his toughness. Milner works the reputation when he needs to, sometimes just pointing at a child and nudging him back into line with the lift of a single eyebrow.
“Milner’s the bad cop,” Ann Brogioli, the school’s social worker, says. “He gives them a little bit of fear. But the kids like what he does for them. They know somebody cares enough to notice when they’re not there.”
Milner is the father of two sons, aged 13 and 18, but he also calls the kids at Hart his own and treats them accordingly. They can count on his ample smile—when they’re on time—or glare of reproach—when they aren’t. He may even be the first sight some of his charges see in the morning: “Parents call me up, tell me this one or that one isn’t getting out of bed,” he says. “I swing by, and I’ll be their alarm clock. ‘C’mon and get dressed,’ I tell them. ‘We going to school!’”
Milner loves school and always has. He claims that when he grew up in Northeast Washington, the youngest of eight, he never missed a day. “You had fun; you had friends; you had girls. Oh yeah, and you had schooling. Where else would I want to be?”
But at age 41, after more than a decade of working in the school system, Milner knows better than most why some kids might not see it his way. Sitting in his office one day before his daily rounds began, he ticks off the reasons kids miss school: “Could be violence. Could be gangs. Could be they’re embarrassed [that] they’re not doing well. Could be they’re getting violence in the home. Could be their mothers are drugging. Could be health problems. Maybe they gotta take care of a younger sibling.” His face is grim as he recites the list, but then he shrugs and cracks wise: “Could be they just lazy.”
Milner believes there’s only one path out of poverty, and it goes from first grade to 12th. His job is to keep his kids on it. He’ll find tutors for kids who need them, give rides to kids who refuse to walk, find places on sports teams and in choirs for children who need something more than classes to make them attend. He’ll flirt with the shy ones, tease the proud ones, and get in the faces of the violent ones. “If they don’t have a father, I will be the father for them as long as they are in school,” he says.
“For the kid who just says, ‘I don’t want none of it,’ that’s where I come in as the force of the law. I’ll say, ‘OK, I understand. I like you as a kid, but I will have to put you through the courts. I will see that your parents are locked up. I will see that they pay fines. Now, are you ready to do that to your people?’ My bottom line is: ‘You’re a minor; you don’t call no shots. The only privilege you really have is going to school.’”
Milner’s school day begins with what he calls his “undercover work,” manning the tardy desk down in the cafeteria. He’s signing passes for late kids, but he’s also secretly monitoring their condition—making mental notes of who’s looking more worn-out than just tired, of the good kids who are starting to slip, of who’s rolling in with whom.
On his way to this duty, he does a sweep of the halls. One day, he rakes in a Thomas, a Terrance, and a boy who lurks along the wall, trying to escape his gaze. But when Milner spots him, the boy hollers, “When’s Ball?” Ball is the lunchtime basketball league Milner runs for kids with good attendance. “You don’t get into homeroom, it’s gonna be never for you,” Milner tells the boy, and the kid disappears through some double doors in a hurry.
Milner pivots and fixes his gaze on a girl at the other end of the hall. Milner calls lots of girls “Babydoll” or “Baby Girl.” This girl, with dark skin framing a white skirt and a white blouse, is “China Doll.”
China Doll giggles and bounces around on bony knees, buying time. “Mr. Milner! I was just…”
“I know you was,” he says.
“Mr. Milner,” she says, “you everywhere.”
A few minutes later, Milner plants himself in a pink plastic chair behind a lunch table and begins waiting for customers. Homeroom starts at 8:30, but kids can slide in until 9. After that, they need to talk to Milner. Milner usually plays it pretty close to the book in the morning, but on this particular day he has extra incentive. Ray Poles, his boss from the Penn Attendance Center—D.C.’s truancy nerve center—has come down to join him, and although the two of them enjoy an easy back-and-forth, Poles is a man you want to impress.
A former principal, Poles speaks with the steady grace of a diplomat. Before the first kids arrive, he raises his hands up as if cradling a model of the school; then he lets it spill onto the floor. “School is a fluid society,” he says, his voice half honey, half bass rumble. D.C. Law 8-247, making guardians legally responsible for their children’s absences, has been on the books since 1990, but Poles thinks parents and politicians have been taking truancy more seriously in the last few years, and attendance counselors like Milner are using tough tactics to enforce them. “We as educators calibrate, if you will, our different schools to the desires of society at large,” Poles says. Milner’s motto—”By any means necessary”—and his mien suit Poles, because Poles believes they suit Hart. He considers Milner one of the best attendance counselors in the system.
Milner turns to the table, and Poles scrapes back a chair to watch. A row of three girls walks up, each one taller than the next. “I expect my young ladies to be here before 9,” Milner says. One girl’s eyes go wide. Milner picks up on her fear and peers forward as if he had just noticed her. “First time I seen you,” he says.
“It is,” the girl answers. Milner pulls back, leaving his unstated question hanging in the air so clearly the girls can practically read it: Am I going to see you here again?
The trickle of kids continues. One girl, shoulders slumping and eyes too tired for a late sleeper, doesn’t have to say anything for Milner to write her a pass. “Hey, Baby Girl,” he says, “you been waitin’ on your little brother.” No question, no answer, and the girl with the responsibilities of a grown-up shuffles to class.
“You need to say,” says Poles, “‘If you can’t save you, I’m gonna save you.’”
“There’s lots of ways to save a child,” Milner agrees. “I take them for a visit down to D.C. Jail, let the inmates talk to them, say things they may need to hear. Take them to the hospital, introduce them to people all filled with drugs or shot to pieces. Then, maybe, I take them downtown to the government buildings, show them the GS-12, the GS-13, the folks making money the right way. Even if a kid’s only dream is money, you show them a way their dreams can be met. Every kid can be saved. No kid is unsavable. You say to the kid who’s dealing drugs, ‘You can manage drugs, then you can manage something real. Live large and live right.’”
Milner came to Hart via a series of citywide gang task forces. Negotiating gang truces taught him that chanting about today and the next day is not nearly so effective as giving kids a look at a real future. “I say, ‘I’m not here for the teachers. I’m not here for the administrators. I’m here for you. ‘Cause the teachers, the administrators, they already got theirs. I’m here to help you get yours.’ And the kids know who to trust. You come to them fakin’, and they know. They see the body language, they watch for the eye contact, and they know. They know whether you’re real or you’re not.”
Queenie Simpson* knows Milner is real, and she used to love him for it. She is a big, quiet girl who used to roll into school every day on time with a younger girl in tow. Milner called her one of his favorites, but the truth was that he didn’t know much about her. He didn’t need to. She liked school, and school seemed to like her. She wasn’t popular, but she had enough friends. She wasn’t an academic star, but she could do the work, and do it well. Milner knew that she’d been through trouble in the past, that the woman who was her guardian wasn’t her mother, and that it’d been a long time since Queenie had known a man she could call father. But she’d found a second chance, and she seemed to know how to use it, so Milner never worried.
But then Queenie slipped between his fingers. She didn’t start acting out, she didn’t start doing drugs, and she was too tall and thick to attract the skinny adolescent boys. She just vanished. No excuse, no calls from her guardian. Milner let it pass at first, but then Queenie missed another day—and then another. Soon she’d become one of his “regulars,” one of the kids on his “watch out for ’em” list.
The morning of Poles’ visit, Queenie’s former tagalong is one of the girls who stops by the tardy desk, and Queenie isn’t with her. So, after the last few latecomers straggle in, Milner heads up to visit Desiree Mintz, a guidance counselor at Hart, whom he calls his “spiritual partner.” Both are Christians, and they try to keep each other on the Lord’s path. Mintz scolds Milner when he lapses into profanity, and she takes inspiration from his unsentimental optimism. The two also complement each other in their knowledge of the goings-on in the school. “No Queenie,” Milner tells Mintz. She promises to look into it.
A little later in the morning, Mintz lets Milner know that Queenie has come in after all. But Queenie’s surprise visit doesn’t put his mind at ease. The girl has missed almost three weeks of school. She’s at risk of failing most of her classes, and if she disappears just a few more times, she and her guardian could both end up in court. If she misses 20 days she may get bumped into the “inactive” file—which is about the same as becoming a dead letter.
Since Queenie is making a rare appearance in school, Milner decides to check out the other side of her story. He climbs into his car and drives over to her neighborhood, a tree-lined street of modest but well-built brick bungalows, each with a patch of yard to call its own. Milner whistles in appreciation. “Man,” he says. “If I had the cash, I’d get me one of these.”
Queenie’s house looks like all the others, but as he gets closer, Milner notices signs of distress: The windows in the door are held together with duct tape, trash litters the porch, and the shades are all drawn. Queenie’s aunt, Denise, answers the door. Milner steps over a single crutch in the hallway to enter.
The house is dark and almost empty. And it’s cold. Wall-to-wall beige carpeting covers the floor, but it’s streaked with black and gray, as if a fireball had roared through the room and left it a cinder. The walls are likewise covered with what looks like soot. There is a fireplace on the left side of the room, but it doesn’t seem to have ever been used. In the dining room stands some of the house’s only furniture: a glass-top table with a centerpiece of black glass flowers, two chairs. Denise pulls one out for Milner, then leans against the wall. She is short and placid-faced, her hair straight and tight against her skull. Her eyes are dim, hidden beneath low-hung lids. Once she settles, she seems not to move.
And, for the first minute, neither does Milner. He sits with his overcoat on and his hands folded across the glass, following Denise’s eyes down into the carpet. When a moment passes, his lips bend themselves upward into something less than a grin but amiable all the same. Shifting his head only slightly in Denise’s direction, he gathers her attention with his eyes.
First he asks if she is Queenie’s guardian; she is. Then he asks if she has gas for heat and the stove; she doesn’t. Yeah, he says vaguely, Queenie mentioned there were some domestic problems.
“Not no more,” she says, her voice low and raspy and scraping across weeks of fatigue, but also urgent and insistent.
“No gas, huh,” Milner says, giving her a dead-on stare but making it easy with a smile. Denise stays quiet. “Guess she musta been angry ’bout that,” Milner says.
“She wanted to be with her friends,” Denise says.
“Yeah,” says Milner. “Yeah, she explained that.”
“That’s what she told Child Protective Services,” Denise says. Her voice takes on a trill of accusation.
“Yeah,” says Milner. “How you feel ’bout that?”
Denise sucks in a breath, then stands on the brink before tumbling into her complaint: “It’s messed up! Messed up! I took care of her, Queenie! I was there when no one else was. I would’ve listened; she could’ve told me about her friends.”
“I hear what you’re saying. She shoulda come to you first.”
“Yeah! Yeah!” Now Denise is ready to pour the whole story out: about her boyfriend who paid the bills and doesn’t no more, how he got mad and Queenie got scared. How that was the first time under her roof Queenie had ever known any badness. How the man left, but soon as the badness comes, like crows the Child Protective Services was on her, asking Queenie questions. And Queenie lied.
“I said to her, ‘Why you tellin’ them I’m only givin’ you one sandwich a day?’ and she says, ‘I didn’t tell them that.’ And the man from the Services, he says, ‘Yes, you did tell me that,’” Denise says, her voice gaining momentum in the recollection.
When the gas went off and the cold came in, Queenie ran away and moved in with another girl, who had her own apartment. Nineteen years old, and Queenie only 15. The older girl claimed she worked, but she and Queenie did nothing but watch TV. “I’m like this: ‘Why didn’t she make you go to school?’ Queenie says, ‘She told me to go to school!’ And I say to her, ‘That’s not enough. How can she tell you when she sittin’ at home?’”
Denise’s story is one Milner has heard before, and it makes sense to him. Denise is hurt, but the bottom line is his line: Go to school. “We gonna get you some help,” he tells her.
“We gonna get you some food,” he says.
“I got food for my children,” she says, as much assertion as matter of fact.
“That’s good,” says Milner. “I’m gonna go to my church, see what they can do as far as kicking up some money for the gas. Let’s see, what else? Jobs. I find jobs not just for my youths but for my adult friends, too. What kind of work you like to do?”
Denise says she could work with kids. Milner lets that lie. “How ’bout Queenie?” he says.
“Me and her got to talk,” Denise says.
“Yeah, me and her, too,” says Milner. “I hear you. Hey. How you doing?”
“I’m pretty shaky. Queenie, she took my money.”
Denise shrugs. “Gas money. I didn’t tell the Services ’cause they might lock her up, and I understand she’s thinking about her mom and it’s real hard on her. She wanna run. Me too. But she gotta go to school.”
“She’s going to,” says Milner. “She’s gonna stay with you, too. She’s ready.”
“Gas,” says Denise. “That’s all they got against me.”
“And we gonna get you some gas,” says Milner. As we leave, driving in his car, Milner says, “Sincere.” I ask him what he means. “You see the tears in her eyes?” he says. “They were there,” he murmurs. “Queenie hurt her. That’s bad. But it’s good, too. ‘Cause it lets me know she’s truly about the kids.”
Milner’s about the kids, but he’s also about the good life. He appreciates quality fabric. He likes wearing gold, bracelets around both wrists, a ring on each hand, two earrings in his left ear. And he thinks his SUV, a shiny black Isuzu Trooper, is sending a good message to kids: There’s wealth on the right side of the fence.
Only problem is, in Milner’s case, that’s not true.
There’s just one part of Milner’s job he doesn’t like: the pay. He started at $28,000 a few years ago and has been crawling up a rigid system of steps in the years since. He’s now making in the low 30s. He has a son in college and a son at home. He and his wife bought themselves a house of their own in Oxon Hill a few years ago, and Milner’s 86-year-old mother lives with them. The Trooper is used, the jewelry hard-earned. He keeps his fine clothes in perfect condition, because they have to last. And still he comes up short. So for the last 12 years, he’s been moonlighting.
He used to run a night shift at a halfway house for girls. He’d tell his “night girls” stories from his day job, sketching out for them the rewards of the straight and narrow. And when his “day girls” strayed from that path, he’d take them to meet the night girls. “And they were tough girls,” he recalls. “Assault, car theft. One girl was in for murder. They put the fear in my girls, the fear they needed.”
But the halfway house shut down three years ago for lack of funds. Since then, Milner’s been working as a security guard at the Washington Court Hotel three nights a week. After school, he coaches girl’s track. Then he picks up his younger son, cooks dinner for the two of them, does the boy’s homework with him. Around 10:30, his wife comes home from her job counseling pregnant teens—just in time for a kiss before he heads out to the hotel, where he spends the rest of the night strolling empty halls or reading in front of a bank of quiet security monitors.
Milner went to three colleges on track scholarships as a quarter-miler, and although his belly has rounded out in the years since, he’s still made of the mixture of endurance and fast-twitch muscle that propels middle-distance runners. He stays awake by staying in motion as much as possible. Day by day, that tactic keeps him moving—but never fast enough; no matter how many hours he works, he’s always behind. There’s an endless supply of kids who don’t want to go to school.
There are 146 schools in the District, and every one of them has an attendance counselor. Only one per school (paid for out of each school’s budget), regardless of whether truancy is a fair-weather distraction, as it is at some institutions, or a constant problem, as it is at Hart. Diane Powell, director of Student Intervention Services, says that last year’s attendance rates for the District averaged 92 percent. That figure is on par with many suburban districts’, but the fluctuation across the District is far greater; in its poorest schools at the middle, junior, and senior high levels, the rates are likely much lower.
Poles can tell you how many kids dropped in on his attendance center last year (781 boys, 394 girls) and what schools they came from (Coolidge Senior High had 98 boys and 61 girls rounded up, while Hart had the rare distinction of sending more girls—14—than boys—seven). But he’s quick to caution that those numbers don’t tell you anything more than how many kids cops happened to catch. Milner’s successes and failures don’t make the tally, and untold numbers of children at schools good and bad manage to miss more classes than are ever counted.
In response, states and cities—including D.C.—are putting nasty teeth into truancy laws, making it a misdemeanor for guardians to let their children skip school. That punishment, says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, means that “the law is effectively viewing these children as property”—despite several Supreme Court cases in recent years that have affirmed the individual rights of minors.
“Even if there were no civil liberties problem,” Strossen says, “this approach is still a Band-Aid. Putting parents in jail as a punishment is a quick fix for very vexing social problems. That’s basically dumping into the arms of prosecutors the question of how to make better schools.”
But defenders of the law say they’ll leave societal transformation to the future; in the present, they’ll settle for any tactic that gets kids into school. Threatening jail time does just that, says Charles H. Monroe Jr., the attendance counselor at Ballou Senior High School. Ballou is just up the hill from Hart, and it’s often cited as a case study in educational dysfunction. Monroe, a 1979 graduate of Ballou and a former corporate accountant, says that in too many cases, “kids run the families.” Holding parents accountable, he says, encourages them to take charge of their own homes.
And, he adds, the tool that’s most useful for his and Milner’s work is the threat itself. That’s where Milner excels, says Monroe: “He’s a very savvy person. He knows how to balance what he’s saying so that the kids respond to him, to what he’s holding out for them, and what he’s holding over them.”
Although Milner hasn’t put any parents behind bars yet, for a while he was using the threat of jail so often that Poles had to warn him to “gentle up” his message. “Milner doesn’t hold any punches,” Poles says. “It’s: ‘Here is the gospel from Milner.’ Everything he was saying was valid, but he had to clean it up a little.”
Sometimes Milner’s gospel is literal. Although he claims he keeps it nondenominational, he often counsels kids on how Christ can help them in school. When I ask him about separation of church and state, he swears that he does his best, but he insists that with his school in the condition it’s in, he needs all the help he can get: “I can’t afford not to call on Christ.”
Monroe, who credits Milner with teaching him how to stay on a kid’s case today, tomorrow, and yesterday, says that the one issue on which he differs from Milner is the question of focus: “I like to talk to a whole group of kids together,” he explains, “whereas Mr. Milner tends to keep it one-on-one.” Which means, Monroe adds, that Milner runs the risk of missing the big picture.
“He’s so often out there in the field that he’s hard to find,” Brogioli, his colleague at Hart, says, noting that sometimes all she’s able to do is to slip Milner a note with a problem child’s name on it as he passes in the hall. “The problem is there aren’t enough of him; there aren’t enough of me. It’s not just the kids who need support; it’s their parents who need support. A lot of these people are very poor. I’m not sure putting them in jail or giving them fines is the answer, but sometimes talking about it is the only way we can get them the message.”
One day over the Christmas break, Milner decides to work on one of his “repeaters,” Wanda. Most truants manage to spend their days in front of their TVs because their parents or guardians aren’t home during the day. But Wanda’s mother stays home with her all day. At 7 a.m., she wakes up and hollers at Wanda to get her butt out of bed; then she takes medications for an array of unnamed ailments—”My heart” is all she’ll say—and slips into a sound sleep that carries her into midmorning, when she awakens to discover Wanda still in the apartment.
Wanda is a big girl. She’s taller than Milner and twice as wide. Her features are small and seem to fold into her broad face, and her hair shoots straight up from her forehead in an uncontrollable, reach-for-the-sky natural tiara. Used to her advantage, Wanda’s size and her wild hair could make her a force for other kids to reckon with. But although she sings well and belongs to the school’s choir, her speaking voice is as tiny as her body is large, and most of the time she’s too afraid to say anything in her own defense when the other kids set upon her.
She’s a doubly delectable target: Not only is she fat, she’s also a year behind, 14 years old and stuck in the seventh grade. And the second time around isn’t proving any easier than the first. She failed last year not because she was slow but because she skipped school to avoid her sharp-tongued peers. Now, when she walks the halls, she must run a gantlet of her former classmates and a whole new crop of seventh-graders, as well. Wanda prefers not to, so more than a dozen times this year she’s taken advantage of her mother’s heart and the medications it demands to simply stay home.
Both Milner and Mintz have warned Wanda many times over that she’s close to consigning herself to another round of seventh-grade hell, but Wanda’s terror of her classmates is greater than her fear of Milner and her fondness for Mintz. So Milner decides to strike the fear of God and Hart Middle School into Wanda’s mother, Mrs. Tyson.
The minute Wanda’s mother opens her door, Milner steps up to the threshold and in a voice loud and deep enough to knock the peeling paint off the walls of the hallway says, “I’m here to talk to you, but my problem is with Wanda, ’cause she’s not coming to school, and…”
“You’re kidding!” Mrs. Tyson interrupts.
“I’m not kidding,” Milner continues, “and that’s why I’m here to tell you straight up: If Wanda don’t make it to school, I’m gonna hold you responsible. I will file papers. You will go to court.”
The mother, a heavyset woman in a blue house dress, steps back and falls like a tree into her easy chair. “I’m not going to jail for her!” she cries.
“Yes you are, if the court decides you’re not making Wanda go to school.”
“It ain’t fair,” says Mrs. Tyson.
“It is fair,” Milner says. “Your daughter is still a child, and you have a responsibility to her. Is she here now?”
The mother shouts for Wanda, then slaps a hand to her head and moans, mumbling what sounds like a prayer. Her apartment is small and stuffed with the colorful clutter of Christmas, but on the walls hang numerous portraits of a Jesus who looks less than forgiving. Mrs. Tyson falls silent, then fixes her eyes—small, dark, and close together—on Milner. “Excuse this mess,” she says.
“That’s all right,” he answers. “Looks like you had a good Christmas.”
“Let me tell you,” Wanda’s mother says, seizing the opening: “All I did was give blessings for Jesus Christ’s birthday.”
“Well then, you had a good Christmas,” says Milner.
“Christmas comes,” continues Mrs. Tyson, “I reveal things to God I normally can’t. Things about my troubles. Maybe that’s why you here. God working on my behalf. Mmm-hmm.” Milner says nothing; she takes his silence as consent. “Yeah, that’s how I’m gonna put it,” she says, then looks to the ceiling: “Thank you, Jesus!”
“Bless him,” Milner concurs.
“Thank you, Jesus!” hollers Mrs. Tyson. “You from him!”
“I’m from Hart Middle School,” Milner says.
“Thank you, Jesus! I knew you was coming!”
Just then, Wanda emerges, dressed in a dirty white ankle-length skirt and a dirtier white long-sleeved T-shirt. She glances at Milner, then fixes her eyes on her mother and clutches a crumpled Kleenex to her nose.
Milner takes a breath before launching into the facts: If Wanda isn’t in school Monday, he is going to file papers on her moms. She could be fined a hundred dollars a day for every day Wanda has missed, and he knows she knows that means more than a thousand dollars. Which would only be the beginning, because he is talking jail time, too, five days for every two days Wanda has skipped, a lotta time for a woman he understands is not well at all. And for Wanda he has a nasty surprise: Oak Hill, a home for troubled teens. Troubled? That’s putting it nice, he tells her, because trouble’s too kind a word for the thieves and drug dealers and murderers and prostitutes Wanda will soon be eating, sleeping, and going to school with at Oak Hill if she can’t make it to Hart.
“Thank you, Jesus,” calls Wanda’s mother.
“If you don’t want to save yourself, I’m gonna save yourself,” Milner warns.
“Thank you, Lord,” says the mother.
“I’m gonna do my job,” Milner continues. “You’ll have to come out here into the living room and tell Mom, ‘We ain’t kickin’ it no more, so I’m gonna let Mr. Milner file those papers on you.’”
“I don’t want to go to jail!” wails Mrs. Tyson.
“I don’t want you to,” says Milner. “Wanda, you don’t want her to either, I know you don’t. Mrs. Mintz, she loves you to death. She tells me you got a good heart.”
Wanda begins to cry.
“Your mom says God’s working in her life to make it more positive. I’m gonna be straight up and tell you: You come to school, we gonna work in your life to make yours positive.”
Wanda looks at Milner.
“Wanda?” he says. “Wanda, everybody at Hart got a reason for not coming to school. You got yours. But Wanda, those reasons ain’t nothing but a meatball.”
Wanda’s sister comes into the room and stands watching her with her arms folded across her chest. Though almost a decade older, she looks like a twin: just as big as Wanda, her face built on the same bones. But she’s finished high school and college, and she’s long since stopped caring about the kids who called her chubby. She wants Wanda to do the same, and she’s mad as hell that instead her little sister just cries.
“You tell him the truth,” Wanda’s sister rumbles. “You tell him I’ll let you ride in with me if you just roll out of bed, but you won’t do it.”
“I’m hearing you don’t got no excuse,” Milner says.
“Thank you, Jesus,” says Wanda’s mother.
“Uh huh,” says the older daughter, but her tone has more scold for Wanda than agreement with her mother.
“You can do the work,” says Milner.
“She can,” says Wanda’s sister.
“You should be in eighth grade,” says Milner.
“She should,” agrees Wanda’s sister.
“You come in, I’m gonna get you into some eighth-grade classes,” says Milner.
“Thank you, Jesus,” chimes the mother.
“We’ll set it up so next year you’ll roll out to Ballou, get away from those little kids in seventh grade. You get her to go,” Milner addresses the mother, “we’ll give her all the help she needs.”
“You mean that’s all I gotta do to save me from jail?” asks the mother. But Milner is focused on Wanda again.
“I don’t want to see you up at Oak Hill,” he says. “You know what they got up there, don’t you?”
Wanda nods and squeaks out a yes, the first word she’s spoken.
“Drug offenders,” Milner says. “Prostitutes. Murderers.”
Wanda shakes her head. “I understand,” she says, just audibly.
“You don’t need to be around that,” says Milner. “You got people who love you. Apparently, you had a good Christmas. You got a roof, and you got food, and you got heat, and you got love. Now all you need is some schooling.”
“Thank you, Jesus!”
“You ready, Wanda?” Milner asks.
“You ready?” he says again, quieter.
Wanda begins crying again.
“Oh, girl!” says her sister. “You not even grown yet!”
“That’s OK,” Milner says. “There is a place for those who want to be grown. I’m gonna see you Monday?”
“Yes,” whispers Wanda.
“You from the Lord!” cries the mother, and Milner turns to leave. When he is out the door and halfway down the hall, she shouts, “Don’t forget, come New Year’s you be on your knees.”
“I’m on my knees every day,” Milner calls back.
“Thank you, Jesus!”
Riding a lurching elevator down from Wanda’s apartment, Milner decides that he won’t file papers on Wanda’s mother. He makes his home visits to diagnose as much as to prescribe, and although he has just issued stern warnings, he’s left Wanda’s home with the impression that her problems and her solutions lie with her, not her mother. The mother can thank Jesus until the last days and that is all well and good, but he hopes Wanda will make it to school the following Monday on her own power.
Motivating the girls he looks after is tough, but at least he can usually find them. With some of the boys, Milner has to spend time hunting them down before he can get down to business. The afternoon after he visits Queenie’s aunt, he decides to pick up his ongoing search for a boy named Wyatt. His boys in particular, he thinks, many of whom have little contact with their fathers, sometimes need a man to step in to say, “This is how a man does.”
Too many male teachers, he insists, back down when a boy steps up to them or look the other way when a boy drifts toward crime. Wyatt, he says, is “on the verge.”
Of what, Milner isn’t sure. He considers Wyatt too soft for a gang, too stylish for anything as foolish as drugs. Wyatt is 14 and in the sixth grade. He isn’t slow; he is just a boy who has never cared for school. The less he cared, the less it cared for him, until he fell so far behind that every day at Hart has become an exercise in humiliation. Halfway through the school year, he’s in serious trouble, about to lose another year, but Milner hasn’t yet spoken to his mother—or, for that matter, Wyatt. He wants to move Wyatt up to a seventh-grade homeroom, but first he has to find Wyatt to tell him so.
After talking with Queenie’s aunt, Milner stops in on a run-down apartment building, nicknamed “the Towers” and known for drug dealing, to check out the address with which Wyatt’s mother has registered him for school. But the address is and long has been the home of a single man. Back in school, it turns out Wyatt has shown up, but nobody knows where he is. There seems to be a black hole around Wyatt’s class schedule. No teacher Milner talks to has heard of him. Some of them act as if they haven’t heard of Milner. One woman, wearing a tight, low-cut, hot-pink dress, blends in with her students so well that Milner has to ask who the teacher is. Another teacher, an older, leaky sandbag of a man, sighs and says there are “lots of Wyatts, lots of Wyatts.”
Milner ends up in Mintz’s office. While she searches her files for proof of Wyatt’s existence, Milner catches the eye of a sullen little boy named Franklin. “You ready for indoor?” he asks.
“I ain’t running,” squeaks Franklin.
“Yes you are.”
“‘Cause I say so.”
“So you want me to run?” Franklin smiles.
Milner lets himself be played.
“Uh-huh,” he says.
“I’ll think about it.”
Mintz comes out with a lead on Wyatt. Milner pivots and heads for the door. Just then Queenie walks past. “Queenie!” Milner calls out. “Didn’t see you Monday.”
“That’s ’cause I wasn’t in school Monday,” Queenie says. Milner stares. She glares.
“We gonna talk, Queenie,” he says, and then sets out for Wyatt. But all he finds is another dead end and a boy named Tony meandering down the hall as he shreds a paperback sci-fi novel from the library into confetti. “Tony!” Milner barks. Tony and the boy he is walking with drift to a stop and turn around with the wide smiles of holy fools. Milner responds by throwing out his arms palms open, his chin reared back and his eyebrows up. The boys tilt their heads to the side; their smiles tumble off their faces. After a wordless minute, Milner speaks: “How’m I s’posed to help you, you don’t help me?”
Tony shrugs. Milner waits. Finally, Tony says he’s sorry, but he is grinning again, his eyes on the ruined book now in Milner’s hand. Milner watches him hurry away, then stands still for an unusually long time.
“Heat,” he says at last, and spins around to go back to his office. There he calls his mother to get his sister’s work number, then calls his sister to ask her to intervene on Denise’s behalf at their church, Beulah Baptist, where his sister is a deaconess. Milner hangs up the phone. He glances at his watch. “Ballou,” he says, and he heads up the hill.
Milner doesn’t find Wyatt at the high school, but the trip isn’t without its rewards. Kids holler hellos out of their classrooms, and when the bell rings, Milner cruises the halls like king of the campus, slapping hands and grinning as his young mens pretend to punch him in the arm or rub his head for luck.
“You know, I’ll take you down,” he tells one, and the boy replies, “That’s what you always saying, Mr. Milner, but you always leave me standing.”
One night, I meet Milner at his hotel, and we talk until 4 a.m. By then, I can barely keep my eyes open, so I tell him I am going to catch a cab. “Hold on,” he says, throwing a doorman’s jacket over his shoulders, and heads out the door and into the cold to hail me one.
But the streets are empty, so we stand on the sidewalk for a long time, stamping our feet to keep them warm and talking through the mists of our frozen breath. Milner is tired, looks it, and says so, too—the first time I’ve heard him admit fatigue.
“Two jobs,” he mutters, shaking his head, but soon he is talking tough for no apparent reason, maybe just to stay in shape: “When a kid is in your face—you just let him know: ‘What you say you gonna do is nothing but words.’” His normally smooth voice is running over gravel, and his shoulders twitch as he speaks. He isn’t quite angry—Milner’s job is to stay calm—but his weariness is showing. “Kids will try to chump you. But I’m not from the chump school. I will say, ‘I love you, I respect you, but know your place. You are a child, not an adult, and your place is in school.’”
Then his shoulders relax.
“I guess mine is, too.”
Then he thinks about Hart and Ballou and the hundreds of children he has, of his ball games and his track team and the days when he ran track himself, a champion quarter-miler. Back then, he’d roll down the hall and all the girls would scream or giggle and all the boys would want to high-five. They still do. Milner sometimes thinks of cutting out of the school system for a better-paying position as a security consultant, but he can’t imagine a job where he couldn’t be with kids. He works nights so he can work days, he says, “because I’m trying to get back with what I was. I still love going to school.”
With four hours of red-eyed dawn left before he will do so again, Milner says, “I’m a youths man,” and leaves it at that. But he’s also half-child himself; he understands his kids’ fears and concerns because he, too, wants to trust what he sees and to see things worth trusting. Like his kids, he believes in the importance not only of living large and living right, but also of letting the best of yourself show. “Kids know it,” he says. “The importance of being real.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.