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“I’m not even going to let little things like that worry me, or I’ll have a head full of gray hair before I turn 21,” he says. “I always knew that they meant well. They just have problems” It was Betty he called Mom. And it was Betty who sang to him and helped with his homework when she could. But she stumbled, too. She pleaded guilty to trafficking in drugs when Bernard was 2, to carrying a concealed weapon when he was 6, to possessing drugs when he was 12. So, one more time, Granny stepped in. She was there, solid as always, when her daughter got sick in 2003, the year Bernard turned 16. Then, in the winter of 2004, Betty missed a couple of dialysis appointments. Bernard still doesn’t know why. He watched her start back, though, on a cold, snowless day in February. She was so weak, Bernard and his uncle carried her out to the medical van, sat her in the wheelchair, watched the lift hoist her up. Bernard climbed in, too, to snap his mom’s seatbelt. She didn’t move a muscle. He tapped her arm. “Mom?” She opened her eyes, nodded, then closed them again. “Is she breathing?” Granny called from behind Bernard. He leaned forward, listened. “No.” Everything ran together after that. The van driver called 9-11. A fire truck came, then paramedics, an ambulance. Bernard climbed into the front seat of the ambulance and rode with his mom to the hospital, too afraid to turn around and look at her lying on the gurney. Two weeks later, they buried her. Another week later, Bernard’s grandfather died. That left Bernard and Granny with nothing to live on but his grandfather’s Social Security checks. “That,” Bernard says, “is when I grew up. Bernard quit school, went to work full-time, at McDonald’s, taking the bus across town. When the bus ran late, he got written up. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t get a raise, why he couldn’t get the $5.50 an hour everybody around him was earning, why he was stuck at $5.15. He applied for other jobs. But nobody wanted him. He didn’t have a diploma. He was angry, depressed, didn’t want to talk to anybody, not even his grandmother. * * * What a boy without a dad needs most, aches for, is someone to show him how to be a man. No matter how much he loves his mother, his grandmother, any woman who cooks for him, buys his clothes, gives him a place to lay his head at night, to sleep, to dream, to grow, he still needs something more. Bernard Hill’s father spent years of his life behind bars. So Bernard grew up, like 70 percent of the kids in Cleveland’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, without a dad at home. He didn’t have to turn to the streets for a role model though. He had Pooh. That’s what he and the rest of the family call the cousin who grew up with Bernard in Granny’s house, the one who is 12 years older than Bernard. Pooh was the guy with nice clothes and money, the guy who taught Bernard how to drive and defend himself, who insisted he stay in school, no matter what. He didn’t want Bernard stealing cars and selling crack, joining a gang, carrying a gun. But he let Bernard watch him do those things. And he talked to him about it. “I’m teaching you to box so you’ll never have to pick up a gun to defend yourself:’ he’d tell Bernard. “Guns are for punks,” he’d say. “They cause more problems than they solve.” He’d give Bernard $50 to wash his car, $30 to run to the store, so Bernard wouldn’t have to turn to the streets. “Your mother and father were on drugs just like my mother and father were Pooh would tell the kid who felt more like a little brother than a cousin. “I had to resort to something else to fill that void in my life. I don’t want you to have to do the same. Pooh tried to escape Mount Pleasant the right way. He graduated from high school and enrolled at Kent State. But in 2004, the year Bernard’s mother and grandfather died, Pooh was charged with shooting into an occupied building. He’s doing six years at Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut for that crime. And he’s converted to Islam, changed his name to Hasan Shakur. Bernard admits he followed in his cousin’s footstepsfor a while. It was another one of his setbacks. “I did all that hanging around or whatever:’ he says, refusing to go into details. “No one told me to stop. I got myself out of it. I knew that this wasn’t for me. I could be doing better than this!’ Pooh watched as teachers selected Bernard for a gifted and talented program at a school on the West Side; watched him get into trouble there for disrupting class and fighting; watched him fail the fourth grade, get sent back to his regular school, fall apart just like so many other people in his family had. Bernard explains that part of his life with another one of his sayings. “You can’t blame a child if he follows his father” He didn’t follow for long. He pulled himself up. “I ask God to bless me with understanding and commitment so I can commit myself to understanding. ‘Cause if I’m going to do anything, I have to commit to it:’ That commitment is what pushes Bernard back to the Murtis Taylor center, on a gloomy, overcast afternoon in late September, three months after his GED class was canceled, to find out why he hasn’t gotten a letter from the state giving him the OK to take the test. So here he is, walking into the lobby, ball cap in hand, to see the center’s chief program officer, Elbert Clark. “So are you ready to take the GED test?” Clark asks. Clark gives Bernard the address and a name and number to call if he has questions. “Do you have a possibility of a job?” he asks. JUNE 13, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21