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Against All Odds

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They are the children of hardship, seedlings fallen on stony ground. They can be found almost anywhere in America, beset by poverty, hard times and a callous world that seems not to care. Yet, remarkably, some among them thrive—and, by their courage and resilience, bear a message of hope. Three such messengers of the human spirit are Calandra Red Bird, 11, of South Dakota, Donnaree Johnson, 10, of Watts, and Edwin Morales Jr., 12, of Brooklyn. These are their stories.

Calandra Red Bird

On a warm, blustery afternoon on South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Reservation, 11-year-old Calandra Red Bird cocks her head to the wind, listening for the whispered words of her dead grandfather. Less than two weeks ago, Standly Red Bird, the man who with his brother, William, raised Calandra from infancy, died and was buried on this weed-covered hill near the house the three of them called home. Today, kneeling by the blue wooden cross at one end of the burial mound, Calandra, whipping her waist-length hair to one side, hears nothing but the wind. “He’s probably laughing at me,” she says, propping up a plastic pot of dried flowers. “Maybe he’ll talk to me tomorrow.” Rising, she spots a few anthills nearby and quietly explains, “He used to call them the tears of mother earth. He’d say, ‘Remember, no matter how sad you are, she’s crying with you.’ ”

Before leaving, Calandra glances up, remembering that some folks saw an eagle circling overhead the day he was buried. “Nope,” she says. “No eagle today.” Then, clutching a long onyx necklace her grandfather gave her, she hurries down the slope toward the small three-room house where her Uncle Willie, 81, has been drinking and grieving for his brother. “I cry or I dance,” she explains. “But Willie just drinks, ’cause he’s trying to get away.”

At the funeral, several hundred people from one of America’s poorest Indian enclaves came to honor Standly Red Bird, dead of a heart attack and cancer at 69. But though the mourners praised him for promoting Indian ways and helping to start the local college, they also knew it was in the lissome figure of his pretty granddaughter that he left his most vibrant legacy for the Indians’ future.

Calandra’s parents were unable to care for her, and the newborn infant was taken in by an aunt, who in turn entrusted her to Standly and Willie. The aunt, Mary Sue Walking Eagle, explains that the mother had moved away and the father, Standly’s son, who is currently serving a prison term for assault, was unwilling to raise Calandra. “I had seven kids and was working,” Mary Sue says. “So when Standly and Willie offered, I gave her up. Right off, it was a perfect match. Two old men out there in the country by themselves, raising and loving that kid. Oh, Standly, he used to be married, but no more. And Willie, he never had a woman. So they bought Calandra her Pampers and milk, changed her, held her and watched her grow. Pretty soon they were braiding her hair, teaching her the Indian ways and speaking nothing but old-style Sioux—not baby talk, but speaking to her like an adult.”

Unlike most reservation children, Calandra spoke little or no English when she entered a preschool program in the town of St. Francis, 18 miles away. She remembers other kids laughing at her on the school bus or in class. But as she would in later years on other subjects, she worked hard and learned English quickly. And at home with Willie and “Dad,” as she called Standly, she learned to cook, bake and do household chores. Soon the caretaking roles were reversed. Up at 5:30 a.m., Calandra would wake the men, lay out their clean clothes and fill the cereal bowls or pop the eggs in the skillet. “She’d go around with her hands on her hips telling them what to do,” says her aunt. “They loved it.”

Both men had worked as carpenters and ranch hands before Willie retired oh a small social security pension, and Standly—who had always refused welfare—began giving talks for small fees on Sioux culture. Calandra says they taught her to use a hammer and saw, to tinker with cars and tractors, to weave on a loom and to care for animals. “When I was five, I could ride a horse bareback,” she says. When she wasn’t at the house, she would roam the countryside, looking for snakes and prairie dogs, or she would hike into the forest to find another favorite, a large gray owl. “He’s usually in this one tree,” she says. “Just sits up there, moving his head like he’s listening to my thoughts.”

At St. Francis Indian School, Calandra excelled, especially in reading, math, Sioux history and language. “Most kids have a few talents or one interest, but Calandra locks on to everything,” says Darleen Stout, her sixth-grade teacher. A trumpet player in the school band, Calandra couldn’t play for several months last year because she almost lost her right arm in an accident. She was riding in a car when it overturned, pinning her under a wheel rim and crushing her arm above the elbow. Surgeons narrowly succeeded in saving it. “When I had my cast on, the boys at school used to call me ‘crooked arm,’ ” she says. “So my cousin taught me karate. After that I whipped three kids older than me, and from then on they left me alone.”

Although Calandra has yet to dance in the annual Rosebud powwow—mostly because Standly and Willie couldn’t afford to buy her an elaborate costume—she says she learned plenty about Indian life at home. Like many of the 12,000 Indians on the reservation, Calandra is a Catholic, but at home she often took part in Sioux “spirit sessions,” sitting and praying as the peace pipe was passed around a darkened room. Sometimes she would doze off and “one of the friendly spirits they let in the door would come over and nudge me,” she says. Over the years, on many nights, Calandra heard the men beating the drum or her grandfather chanting by himself in a tepee he built behind their house.

“When Standly was dying of lung cancer,” says Calandra’s aunt Mary Sue, “all that spiritual life he passed on to her really helped. A lot of us don’t have jobs, and there’s lots of drugs and drinking, so her being strong kept her on her feet. You don’t pity Calandra—she’s a tough cookie.” Adds Teresa Archambault, another aunt: “Standly always told Calandra the best weapon in the white man’s world is education. Right now, that’s all she’s got to fight with—that, and her Indian roots.”

During Standly’s last days, after he was brought home from the hospital to die, Calandra almost never left his side, rubbing his back and joking to lift his spirits. “He wouldn’t eat or take any drugs for the pain,” she says. “And the morning he died, he just said, ‘It’s time, I’m ready.’ Then he said we should cry for him the way we do for a newborn baby—with tears of joy because his suffering is over.”

Now, returning to the house, she tells her Uncle Willie that she has visited the grave on the hill. What she cannot know at this moment is that the silent, stooped figure seated on the bed, his heart broken, will be dead himself in two weeks, and she will go to live with her aunt Mary Sue. At the end of this day, as the shadows stretch across the dusty floor, Calandra is working hard to stop Willie’s decline—right now by tidying up. “If we don’t take care of ourselves,” she says, picking up a broom, “we’re going to go to pot.” Nodding, Willie offers a wan smile and thumps his cane on the floor.

Donnaree Johnson

It is early Saturday morning in the Jordan Downs Housing Project in the Watts section of Los Angeles, and 10-year-old Donnaree Johnson is rinsing the breakfast dishes, while her two younger brothers and an older sister watch TV in the living room. Outside, someone has cranked up the volume on a twin-speaker boom box, and the beat is pounding the air. Just then Donnaree’s grandmother, Marian Johnson Kelly, enters the kitchen, purse in one hand, books in the other. A heavyset, imposing woman of 50, “Ma Marian” is about to leave for the day, first to her high school equivalency class, then to a convalescent home where she works part-time as a nurse’s aide. Before she goes she briefs the family’s second-in-charge. “See the boys don’t go fightin’, hear?” Ma Marian says. “Yes, ma’am,” replies Donnaree. Before leaving by the back door, Ma Marian pauses. “Girl,” she booms, “just mind the store, ’cause you’re my little momma now.”

Three years ago Donnaree was barely able to look after herself, let alone watch out for her brothers and her sister. Their mother had just been shot and killed near the family’s home in New Orleans, and Donnaree and the other children had been sent to Watts, a ghetto neighborhood half a continent away, to live with their grandma. Of the four children, Donnaree was affected the most by her mother’s death, often crying and stuttering severely. “Now she only stutters when she’s talking about her mom,” Ma Marian says. “She’s a whole different child. She knows the facts and she can handle them.”

What Donnaree knows is that her mother, Ann, was a good woman who got in with a bad crowd. She was 27 and had served 18 months in prison on a forgery conviction when she was shot in a street argument with three men. Donnaree remembers that her mother loved to collect strings of beads at Mardi Gras parades, wore her hair long, liked to dance and was always hugging her radio. “Now our grandma’s our momma and daddy,” Donnaree explains, toying with a box full of colored beads,” ’cause we don’t know who our daddy is, and all we got left of…ah…ah…Ann is some cups she gave us and these little beads.”

Yvonne Shepard, a teacher at 102nd Street Elementary School, says Donnaree “used to stammer and cry so much she could hardly speak. But little by little, with some therapy and lots of encouragement, she came around. Now she’s Miss Confidence, the A student, leading assemblies, giving speeches and writing skits. And just you giggle if she slips on a word, and she’ll be up in your face about it.” Shepard and other teachers say their once-troubled fifth grader is obsessively protective of her brothers, Donald, 9, and Darnell, 8. “She waits for them after school like a mother hawk,” Shepard says. “Makes sure no one picks on them.” As for Demetrice, her shy, 13-year-old sister, she is content to follow Donnaree’s lead, whether it involves organizing the housework or deciding what to play.

By early afternoon Donnaree and the kids have finished their chores—making the beds, scrubbing the tub, cleaning the toilet, mopping the floors, wiping every place where dust collects. All is neatness and order inside the sparsely furnished duplex apartment. “Can’t go out and play ’til 3, that’s the rule,” Donnaree says to the others. Her hair is cut short, her smile cautious, her comely brown eyes alert. While the boys and Demetrice go off downstairs to play a board game, Donnaree peers out the curtainless window, pensive for a moment. Then she gets up to straighten the blankets covering the two narrow beds where the four children sleep. One bed, she explains, has no mattress because Blue, Ma Marian’s big, pointy-nose dog, tore it up two years ago. She says she doesn’t mind sleeping on the wooden slats, “but you gotta watch Blue close so he doesn’t tear up the other bed. Momma says he’s like some folks, just askin’ for trouble.”

In the projects, Donnaree observes without stuttering, trouble doesn’t wait to be asked for. “That’s how come we stay inside so much,” she says. “We’ll be out jumpin’ rope or practicin’ for the drill team, then the shootin’ will start or the gangs will be fightin’, and we gotta run inside. My friend Tippy, he just got hit by a car, runnin’ from the gangs. He’s all right now, but he won’t be walkin’ on tippytoes like he always does, ’cause he’s on crutches.” Ma Marian’s apartment is two blocks from a street known as Charcoal Alley because so many buildings burned during the Watts riots of the mid-’60s. At night, especially on weekends, says Donnaree, she’ll hear the pop of gunshots, bottles breaking or “married folks screaming at each other.” Out the window she may glimpse some woman running around naked. And sooner or later will come the zigzagging spotlight of a police chopper probing for troublemakers.

By late afternoon, the four children are out in back under the big shade trees between two apartment buildings. The boys are watching some teenagers lift barbells, and the girls are slapping hands and dancing to someone’s tape. Ma Marian approaches, looking tired, a frown pinching her brow. She’s carrying a bag of groceries. “Donnaree!” she shouts, and everyone freezes, even the littlest kids playing under the clotheslines.

“Yes, Momma,” Donnaree says, moving toward her grandmother. “Everything’s done. Blue’s fine, chores are done, and the boys’ve been good.”

“I don’t believe it,” Ma Marian says gruffly, glaring at the boys, whose eyes are now fixed on the ground. Donnaree, her mothering duties over for this day, nods. After a moment Ma Marian sets down the groceries and raises her arms—displaying the tattooed letters L-O-V-E on the fingers of each hand. “Then y’all come here for a hug,” she says with a grin. “I got ya somethin’ good to eat. Oh yeah! We got meat tonight.” Later she explains that she got her paycheck today. Drawing on her salary, her social security checks and her aid-for-dependent-children payments, the family of five scrapes by on about $9,000 a year.

The next morning is sunny and warm as the family walks to the Faith Temple Church, where the children are to be baptized. Donnaree, in a white dress and black shoes, passes an overturned trash can, sidestepping a broken bottle. “It’s the gangs,” she says. “The Crips, the Bloods, the Slobs—all of them busy last night. Momma says she knows they’re bad, but she understands them, and they respect her.”

Up ahead, Ma Marian greets a bare-chested young man, complimenting his haircut. “All ya gotta do is be nice to folks and mind your own business, is what Momma always says,” Donnaree continues. “She’s got all kinds of rules about living. Like, it’s not how much you got that counts, but how you take care of it. Stuff like that. And someday when I get married and have my own kids, I’m gonna teach ’em the same.”

“Come on, girl!” Ma Marian calls from the church entrance.

“Comin’, Momma,” Donnaree says, then skips up the stairs and hurries through the open doorway. Inside, with a good view out the window of the street called Charcoal Alley, Donnaree lifts her head and begins to sing the first gospel song.

Eddie Morales

Eddie Morales ambles along the curb of a South Brooklyn sidewalk, pointing to the empty crack vials and pieces of thin, smoking paper. “It’s kids,” he says of the drug trade’s telltale flotsam, ” ’cause the older guys don’t waste the paper.” A short, wiry 12-year-old with a red baseball cap, a T-shirt, jeans and white leather sneakers, Eddie looks just like any other streetwise kid checking the gutter for money, baseball cards—whatever catches his eye. He grew up here, living a few doors down and one block over from the rough area around the projects. But Eddie doesn’t live here anymore. His mother, Carmen, moved him and his older sister, Catherine, to a nicer place a few miles away. “But I’m back a lot,” he says, ” ’cause my school’s here, my grandma’s here and so’s my best friend, Louie.”

Eddie has also left the old turf in another way—he sings opera. Two or three times a week he and his mother ride the subway to Manhattan so he can rehearse and perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center. In the past year, as a member of the Met’s children’s chorus, he has performed in such works as Carmen, La Bohème, Turandot and Tosca, and had a solo role in Samson and Delilah. “I’m the same,” he insists. “I just wear funny clothes onstage and sing in a language I don’t understand.”

If it weren’t for his voice and a chance encounter with a professional singer, Eddie might still be out on the streets. Four years ago, his mother and his father, Edwin, had just been divorced. Eddie was fighting a lot at school, getting poor grades and suffering from severe headaches and stomach cramps. “I was a pretty bad dude in those days,” he says. “But what went on at home wasn’t much better. I used to think all fathers drank and acted crazy. The last time I saw my father before the divorce, he was talking about getting out his machete. We ran out of the house—or else maybe he might’ve killed us.”

Carmen Morales, 40, says she believes her son has come through the worst. A youthful-looking medical assistant at Beth Israel Hospital, she says she wanted to spare her kids the kind of painful childhood she knew in Puerto Rico. “I was born with a very bad cleft palate, so I didn’t have much of a face,” she says. “In our town they called me a monster, and my mother, who didn’t know any better, kept me hidden in a hammock in the corner of the house. She’d feed me with an eye-dropper, and she covered all the mirrors so I wouldn’t see myself. I had an operation, but I still couldn’t speak until I was 7.” Eventually, Carmen’s family moved to Brooklyn, where, after more operations, she learned to speak, was married and had two children, Eddie, and Catherine, now 15.

“We were married in 1970 and after about five years [my husband] started drinking heavily,” she says. “I don’t know why he drank, but suddenly everything I wanted for us as a family was gone, torn apart.” At the time, they were living in a basement apartment on about $500 a month. After the divorce in 1983, Edwin, a ship welder, returned to Puerto Rico, but by then Carmen realized she was losing control of her unruly, hyperactive son. Desperate, she asked for help at the hospital where she worked, and Eddie was treated and counseled for stress. “We were living on the edge, and Eddie was still a little wild,” she recalls. “Then this thing with the singing started. I think that’s what saved him.”

Eddie’s salvation, if that’s what it was, began the day he entered St. Agnes Catholic Church for a religious education class and heard someone trying to recruit kids for a choir. “At first I wasn’t going to sing,” Eddie says. “I was just going to read the words of the music, stuff like ‘Grieve Not’ and ‘Lead Me, Lord.’ I didn’t know what I was doing, but after a while I thought it’d be fun. So I joined.”

Don Barnum, the St. Agnes choir director, says it was obvious from the first rehearsal that Eddie was special. “He wasn’t the most talented,” Barnum says, “but he was the hardest worker in the choir. Never missed a practice, and you never had to tell him anything twice. He was supposed to be hyper, but as a singer he was the calmest, most confident kid I’ve ever directed. No tension in his voice, and he was always helping the others relax with his jokes and clowning around. He’s a ham, but I think music focused him, gave him a purpose.”

Eddie also straightened himself out in school, so that by the time he finished sixth grade at Public School 32 last June, he was a top student, despite having missed more than 40 days during the year for rehearsals at the Met. A year after Eddie came to St. Agnes, Barnum recruited him for his new St. James Cathedral Choristers in Brooklyn. With them, Eddie began singing for residents of local senior citizen centers. “They don’t get a chance to be around kids much,” Eddie says, “so you gotta smile and shake their hands. Gotta cheer ’em up.”

Barnum, a part-time choir singer at the Met, took Eddie to his first Lincoln Center audition a year ago for a part in Tosca. “I had to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ that was it,” says Eddie. “So after I finished, the choir director looks at me and I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m outta here, she doesn’t like me.’ Instead, she says, ‘Good.’ Nothin’ else. I was in. I made it.” Eddie eventually played the role of the ragtag boy who guides the blind Samson in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. Jonathan Vickers, a burly tenor with a reputation among the choirboys for his thundercloud scowling, was Samson. “Eddie never twitched, cool to the end,” says Barnum.

Today, Eddie and Louie Cintron, 10, his friend from the old neighborhood, have just finished playing video games at a corner store. It’s almost 5, and Eddie must meet his mother at his grandma’s place to go to a Met rehearsal. He says his mother is happier now that he’s “gone straight.” Still, he is restless, aware that his boy’s treble voice will soon change to something deeper and he will have to decide whether he wants to continue with operatic singing. “Actually,” he says, “I just want to be famous, like Eddie Murphy. I want to be an actor. And I want to have a dog like Spuds MacKenzie, or a pit bull. Then nobody around here will mess with me.”

The two boys have just turned the corner, leaving behind the Gowanus Housing Project where, says Eddie, “if you don’t watch out, they’ll just crowd you up and take your sneaks if you don’t have any money.” Approaching the building where Louie lives, Eddie points out the best walls for playing handball and the best place for throwing a football at night under the street lights. Louie starts up his front stoop, then whirls around. “Hey,” Louie says, “when you’re famous, don’t forget me.”

“No way,” Eddie says. “You can have Spuds, and I’ll keep the pit bull.” Walking quickly now, Eddie waves a one-handed goodbye; he is off to meet his mother for another trip to Manhattan.