Melvin Hill on: life
By NUSHIN RASHIDIAN
I hadn’t met Melvin Hill yet, but I felt like I was getting to know him.
His text messaging behavior revealed he was the kind of guy who took his time, sometimes just to say “yea,” or “na.” He could conduct entire conversations using only one word, or one number, turning a question like, “When do you get to school?” into a dance.
His reluctance told me to choose my steps wisely, to stay at his pace.
I sent the question in a text one Saturday in an effort to meet with him on a Sunday for lunch, but he wanted to push it to Monday.
“3,” he wrote back.
“You start at three?” I asked, knowing he accidentally gave me the time school ends.
“When do you start?”
Sensing his apprehension, I backed off until the next day.
“Hey, so should I meet you Monday?”
“Idkk,” he texted back, which translated into “I don’t know,” but was probably closer to “I don’t care.”
One phone call and 66 text messages later, Hill, a 19-year-old who lives in the projects of Fort Greene and is a high school senior at Aspirations Diploma Plus High School on the border of gritty Brownsville and East New York Brooklyn, had finally committed to an interview.
“Na u know wat, meet me 2morrow, kus u need 2days 2 do this rite.” I was wrong about his apathy. If anyone was going to write his story, he wanted to make sure they took at least two days to do it justice. His life was too important to him to subject it to a half-baked job. He needed people to care.
And, as it turned out, his concern about meeting on Sunday was practical. He needed to make sure he had his paycheck from his job as a children’s afterschool tutor in order to pay for his own lunch.
Melvin has his own way of doing things, and he doesn’t like to explain why. At 19, he speaks as if he has made up his mind, figured it all out, like an old, wise man, hardened by years of experience, of being misunderstood. But he’s caught between two selves – the “gangsta” Melvin, and the “college” Melvin.” The dazed and confused Melvin and the responsible Melvin. His banter, his daily life, his mindset is all about negotiating the two.
There was a time in his life when getting a high school diploma seemed impossible. He was enrolled in Lafayette, a high school the Department of Education had given up on as a failure. He couldn’t bring himself to make it to class.
“It wasn’t school,” Melvin said of his absences, “it was that school.”
Melvin enrolled at Aspirations Diploma Plus High School in East New York with only 12 credits one year and a half ago. If things go according to plan, Melvin will graduate this June. But things in Melvin’s life seldom go according to plan.
Melvin On: Family
Melvin has two families: biological and not. And his bond with the nots is irreplaceable. His three “sistahs” are Haley, Alicia and Cookie, and his seven “brothas” are Bobby, Blas, Kenneth, Manny, Jesse, Leo and Ralph.
“I grew up with them, so I got a trust with them,” Melvin said. “It takes a lot for me to trust somebody; I knew these people since my elementary days.”
Trust is one thing, but love is another, and Melvin knows that he is lucky to be one of few in his circle who doesn’t come from a separated family.
His mother, Tonya Regina Hill, was born in Gowanus, and his father, Melvin Davis, in Bedford Stuyvesant. Melvin says that his mother used to sell drugs and carry guns, but she finished at Clara Barton High School and eventually went to nursing school. Melvin Sr. was kicked out of Boys and Girls High School in the 11th grade, and joined the street life; he would sell drugs, fight guys who made fun of his weight, and use M80 firecrackers to blow up phones in phone booths for the quarters, a detail that has stayed with his son to this day. Tonya had her first child, Shanna, at age 17, followed by Jasmine at 20, and Sherrell at 21. These were not Melvin Sr.’s children. Melvin Jr. was Melvin’s first child, and Tonya’s fourth.
There was a fifth child, Kasheem, but he died at nine months old in 1992, two years after Melvin was born. Melvin’s first tattoo was a cross with the text “R.I.P. Rye Rye”—Kasheem’s nickname—on his upper left arm.
Melvin Sr. and Tonya have been together for 20 years. Today, Melvin Sr. has a good job as a janitor at Madison Square Garden, and Tonya is a security guard for Westen Beef.
When I asked Melvin to tell me about his relationship with his mother, he looked up at some boys in his class goofing off at a table nearby as if just recognizing his vulnerability. He shrugged, but I handed him a piece of paper to write down his answer. It seemed to help. He liked the space it gave him to think, to stay in his head, because Melvin was always in his head. “As a kid, we had a good relationship,” Melvin wrote down on the piece of paper. “I was a mami’s boy growing up, I was always under my mom. As a teen, we drifted apart and did a lot of arguing and yelling over stupid things. Our relationship has grown to be better and tighter and it’s more mature.”
Melvin often fought with his father over his poor school attendance. Though Melvin Sr. didn’t graduate from high school, he got a job through his father, and he now emphasizes the importance of an education to Melvin.
Melvin is eager to show his father that he’s grown. He doesn’t ask his father for money anymore. Now, because he has a job, he asks to borrow money, and pays his debts to Melvin Sr. before spending a penny on himself.
His aunts and uncles also encourage education, he said, pausing. “Then came my heart, which is my grandmother. She always wanted the best for me. When she found out I was messing around, it aged her really, really bad. Her love never left, but…”
Melvin’s grandmother didn’t think he would graduate, but had hope when she found out that he got an after-school job tutoring kids. She isn’t alive to see Melvin graduate, but he thinks she’s watching.
“My next tattoo is my grandmother on my neck with a flower,” said Melvin. “I told her she would be the first lady I would tattoo on my body.”
Melvin On: High School, Part I
Melvin spent three years at Lafayette High School—a failing Brooklyn school in its second year of being phased out—but by his sophomore year began to feel like he wasn’t learning anything, so he began to skip class regularly.
“A lot of teachers weren’t teaching anything,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in school at that point. I was ready to drop out, and I wasn’t at a place where I felt comfortable. Nobody cared. It’s like, if they don’t care, why should I?”
As Melvin spent less time in the classroom, he began to find himself in trouble with police. He recounted his troubled past as we walked through the aisles of the Atlantic Avenue Target in Brooklyn, where he was once caught for shoplifting a CD player and some CDs. He remembers the summer between junior high and high school, nine days before his birthday on Aug. 21, when he fought nine cops in front of his building. Melvin was trying to defend his sister, who he says was hit in the head by a cop because she punched a woman in the face. When he was 16, he spent two days in jail because he watched his friend start a fight and was then accused of being the attacker by the victim after everybody fled the scene. At 17, he found himself in trouble again, this time because he got a ticket at a train station for using somebody else’s Metrocard, and when he was frisked, was found with a 4 1/2 inch blade. He never paid for the ticket, and the cost rose from $50 to $80, and then became a warrant. Weeks later, when Melvin was stopped for walking his dog without a nametag, the cop looked him up, found the warrant, took him under arrest, and a judge sentenced him to 15 days in jail. Melvin got this sentence reduced to 2 days behind bars plus 40 hours of community service and six months of probation. He had never used the blade, but he carried it because, hey, this is New York; he’d been here all his life and he knew what went down, especially in Brooklyn.
“I was ignorant,” Melvin says of that time in his life. “I didn’t care. I was just doing stuff that is no good.”
It seems as if Melvin is unable to separate how he feels about his experiences with how others feel about them. His disappointment is clearly internalized. “I’m just mad it took me three years to realize I messed up. But things happen for a reason, I guess.”
Just before he transferred out of Lafayette High School, Melvin got involved with the Bloods, a gang started in Los Angeles, Calif., and well known throughout the country. He “turned Blood” at age 18 under a good friend of his who was in the gang, and his initiation, a countdown, was the easiest kind: wear a red “flag”, or handkerchief, in your back pants pocket for 21 days while learning “knowledge,” the history of the gang. Others get “squared in,” or beat up for 31 seconds by three or four members. But Melvin wasn’t free from harm. If another Blood tested his knowledge, and he didn’t know something, he would be accused of “false claiming,” and would get beat up or killed, and the person who did the beating or killing would climb in the gang’s ranks.
The killings and rank climbing quickly stopped appealing to Melvin, and he got lucky again. While other Bloods can face a game of Russian roulette when they choose to leave, Melvin was able to leave quietly.
“I just spoke to the person that I went in under and I told him it wasn’t in my heart no more,” Melvin said. “He told me that he understood and that day I never wore that flag again.”
Melvin On: The Past
Melvin was kept indoors by his father when it was going down in his ’hood, the Atlantic Terminal projects in west Brooklyn. “It” was drug deals and shootings, but Melvin saw anyway. Growing up, he got nervous a lot, hearing gunshots and wondering to himself, did I know that person?
“I don’t regret seeing what I saw. Part of that makes me who I am today. So, even though it was a lot of bad things, it helped me grow and helped me understand life. Sometimes it’s good to know things fast than to find out too late.”
When Melvin was 10, he saw his neighbor beat up his girlfriend in front of their daughter, who “was just lookin’ at her, cryin’.” That same year, he was at his godfather’s house, just back from getting his ears pierced. He looked out the window and saw a little girl running. “She got shot in her back, hit the floor. She was dead and the guy ran.” Melvin’s godfather called his name repeatedly, but Melvin couldn’t move.
Melvin feels that there was some distance between him and the streets because he had two working parents who cared. People who have to sell drugs do so because “the family they have doesn’t do anything for them, and the streets is all they got.”
Melvin On: High School, Part II
Now, Melvin just wants to graduate. He doesn’t have time for trouble. Something about the environment at Aspirations pulled him in and made him feel ready for change.
“I was trying to stay positive. I told myself that I wasn’t going to drop out, I wanted to go back to school, and I transferred to go there. I felt comfortable. It was more helpful and they took school much more serious.”
Melvin feels that if he messes up now, it’s like lying to the people that believed in him.
“I’m just trying to do what I can do to my best ability,” he said. “That’s all I can really ask for—family support, and pushing me more, because I want to graduate. I want to go to college.”
Melvin also has the support of several teachers at Aspirations who say that when he makes up his mind to do something, he does it. His English teacher, Ms. Clark, (or, as Melvin calls her, “Original Gangsta”) remembered Melvin approached her in September about the exam required to graduate and said, “I’m going to come to your class and I’m going to get my Regents done and I’m going to pass.” And he passed.
His science teacher told me Melvin is respectful, mechanical, slow, and methodical. She said he is very logical. I remember my first conversation with Melvin through text messages and his way of coming around—it was most of those things. He needed those 66 text messages before he decided he could trust me.
His math teacher, Ms. Palmer, sees Melvin as dual-natured.
“When you ask him to do something, he’ll say ‘I can’t do that, I’m a gangster,’ and then five minutes later he’s sitting down trying to work it out with the girls in the front,” she said. “It’s very entertaining to watch.”
But the biggest push toward college from Aspirations comes from the woman who admitted him into the program, Ms. Smith. Melvin named the time she took him and a few other students on a tour of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga.—the only historically black all-male college in the U.S.—as the best thing that anybody had ever done for him. Melvin was sitting with her and Ms. Clark as they ate lunch in the school’s mock courtroom and laughed about Melvin’s reluctance to refer to them by name. Ms. Smith is just G, for “gangsta,” and when it came her time to talk about Melvin, she took me to the corner of the room, out of Melvin’s earshot, so that she could speak freely and show her affection without embarrassing Melvin.
“When he sat at my desk and told me he wanted to come to this school,” she said, “I could feel it that he really wanted to change his life.”
After the tour, Melvin realized that there was more outside of his ’hood and beyond the streets of Brooklyn. He was finally able to see for himself what that goal would look and feel like.
“He’s quiet,” Smith said. “People think that if you’re quiet, you’re into something, but if you respect him, he will respect you. He is a beautiful person.”
Ms. Smith said that he leads with quietness, and she hopes that his friends will follow him.
But his friends don’t see too much of that side of Melvin. His friend Nikia, or Kia, told me in their school cafeteria one day that Melvin liked to “turn it up.”
“I don’t know what it means,” she said, rolling her eyes, “probably to arouse people.”
“It means I’m ready to fight,” said Melvin, smiling slyly. “I’m turning it up.”
Kia said that Melvin is supportive, and a good listener. But “he just misundastood. That’s it.”
Blas, a friend of Melvin’s from age 4, called him “son” and “brother.” He sees Melvin as a calm guy with a well-hidden temper.
“You gotta know how to talk to Melvin,” he said, “and if shit come out wrong you don’t know how it’s gonna end up.”
Azzaria, or Azzi, didn’t like Melvin when she first met him. She thought he seemed mean, but realized over time that “he’s just truthful, and nowadays people don’t really like to hear it.”
She looked up at Melvin from her seat in the cafeteria, saying how she thought he was a cool kid, and then raised her voice to point out the exception of “that purple thing he’s been wearing around his neck.”
Melvin’s purple and white bead necklace is his mark of affiliation with a Brooklyn street gang, the Decepticons. Its history is marked with violence, and most of the original members are dead or in jail, but Melvin said things have changed.
“During my Regents week I told them we should hang out,” he said, “and if I was a Blood, they wouldn’t have told me what they told me. They told me, ‘Na, go study.’”
He said that the Decepticons are about unity, and they are pushing him to go to college. When they hang out, they rap, and many of the members are trying to make something of their lives, like one who is working on a comic book.
“They respect that I still want to strive.”
Melvin On: The Future
Ten years from now, Melvin plans on being an electrician, married with a wife and sons.
“And just expand,” he said. “Just go from one thing to another. Just plant my seed and watch it grow.”
Melvin already has his own family planned out like a project to be completed before he turns 29. His son will be named Malik, Melvin’s middle name, which means “great king.” But Melvin has no plans for a daughter.
“I would go to jail,” he said decisively. “I wasn’t the best person with women. I take what I want and I get what I want. I can’t have that happen to my daughter because I would beat that kid. And I don’t want to put myself in that situation.”
Melvin’s sisters agree that he takes and gets from women, and when I visited him at home, they all thought I was his “new girl.”
“He’s a little player on the low,” said his oldest sister, Shanna, as she turned to nudge him, “You’re a girl magnet, girls love you.”
Melvin looked down smiling and shaking his head as he punched letters into his cell phone, a Sidekick. He was sitting in his dark living room lit only from Slumdog Millionare gone unwatched in the background. A box of pizza was opened on the table, and Melvin helped himself to a slice on a paper plate.
The middle sister, Jasmine, chimed in, “He’s real quiet; we call him Slow Man because he walks really slow.”
According to herself, Jasmine is his favorite sister.
“He knows he can come to me for anything, and he asks me for money on the low, too.”
She laughed and walked away slowly towards the dark living room with one hand on her pregnant stomach.
“He’s retarded when he wants to be,” said Shanna. “He gets funny. That’s my monkey, right monkey?”
She pinched Melvin.
“Hope he goes to college!” she said loudly in his ear.
“Go to college, give us some money, and get us out of the projects,” said Jasmine from the distance, laughing.
His mother Tonya returned from work, tired with a hoarse voice from having been sick.
“I like what he’s doing right now,” she told me. “Everything he wants to achieve he’s going for. He’s not running the street. Most kids his age are in the streets or in jail. Some are even dead. And I’m proud of him because he could have been one of those smoking crack.”
But Melvin’s youngest sister Sherrell was tougher on him.
“He’s hard headed; he doesn’t listen,” she said. “Sometimes he can be intellectual. Sometimes.”
“I’m not an intellectual,” Melvin said, now sitting with his back towards her on a step stool next to a large, cluttered table in the bare and dimly lit kitchen, “I don’t like to talk smart. I don’t like to sound like—“
“That’s how you get a job! You got to start playing smart. I’m serious.”
“Yeah, I know you’re serious,” he said, still texting.
After a long pause, she continued, “I just wonder about you sometimes.”
“Wonder about me ‘bout what?” Melvin said, bothered by her display of concern.
“You need to transform, like really you need to. Okay?”
“Yeah, I hear you, I hear you.”
“You’re slow, you don’t comprehend. You comprehend sometimes, just not all the time.”
“I just think different.”
“What’s so different that you’re thinking about?”
“A lot of people think inside the box, I don’t. I think outside the box.”
“What, so you’re an outsider?”
“I don’t do what everybody else do,” Melvin said decisively, ending the conversation.
Melvin said that he tries to live his life day to day, doing what he can do in one day, and waiting to see what happens. If he wakes up, he wakes up. He feels that he can work toward his future, but that the only person who can give him that future is “the man upstairs.”
“I just can’t wait to get that diploma in my hand, and to finally say I did it. I’m mad it took five years, but I’d rather it take five years than just waste my time and not get anything out of it. It’s been a long ride. I’m closer than I ever was right now.”
Editor’s Note: This is part one in a series on Melvin and his friends and the story of taking one last shot at a diploma in East New York, Brooklyn. For part two of the series, click here.