Father Figure 

What kind of life is that for a kid?

What kind of life is that for a kid?

By Beverly Keel

Photography by Eric England

Despite the searing June heat, 18-year-old Eugene Bassham is wearing a long-sleeved plaid shirt and khakis. Still he looks crisp and cool, sipping an iced tea at a corner booth at Lee’s Chicken before heading for his part-time job as a karate instructor. A Stratford High School senior—he’s the school’s only male cheerleader—Bassham has preternaturally brilliant green eyes that only add to his undeniable charisma, the kind that would be bankable in Hollywood. His warm, caramel-colored skin is peppered by the few freckles playfully scattered across his nose.

In another time, another world, Bassham might be the Big Man on Campus, the center of extracurricular activities and the sort of boy who makes girls swoon as he talks confidently about his college plans. But the typical teenage life is just a faint memory for Bassham. He is homeless and the father of two, the older of whom was conceived when Bassham was 12. Any dreams of college and a life outside the housing projects have been temporarily replaced by worries about where he’ll stay tonight. This is the story he tells:

“I grew up in one of the worst parts of East Nashville, Settle Court in the Sam Levy Homes. It wasn’t gang-infested, but it had a lot of drug dealers, and a lot of people carried guns. Firecrackers and gunshots sound the same to you, right? I can tell the difference right off. When I was little, if you heard gunshots, no matter whose kids were outside, we’d grab them and bring them in and start calling their moms.

“I can remember waking up because I heard gunfire and looking out the window to see what was going on and then lying back down because I knew, if I kept my head out the window, a bullet might hit me. My grandmama said, ‘A bullet ain’t got no eyes. It can hit anybody.’ I saw my first dead body when I was 5. I’ve seen four people shot and a gun has been pulled on me three times. I’ve been robbed three times, once with a butcher knife and twice with a gun.

“I knew I was in a bad neighborhood; that was one of the things we used to brag about—‘I live in the hardest neighborhood in Nashville.’ You gain respect if you go to another area and say you’re from Settle Court. They’re like, ‘You survived?’

“Violence was just a part of the environment that I grew up in. It didn’t take control of me, but I wanted respect, and the only way to get respect was to fight and win because they would fear you. I don’t know what influenced me to be a Crip, but it started in the seventh grade. We were Crips; Settle Court was Crip Court, that’s just how it was. We didn’t have an initiation or anything; we just all stuck together. We would never gang anybody. If somebody was messing with one of our boys, we would say, ‘You can fight head up.’ If one of their friends jumped in, we’d jump in. But if nobody jumped in, it would be a fair fight.

“I used to wear a blue bandanna in my back pocket. If I got into a fight, I would wrap the bandanna around my knuckles so when I fought they would know they were being hit by a Crip.

“I was a Crip for about two-and-a-half years. I developed a bad reputation at Maplewood, and I was sourced out in 1993 and never came back. I guess there are about 50 fights on my school file. But I never initiated a fight. If somebody hit me first—like my grandmama said—I’d hit them back. It’s been about three years since I’ve been in a serious fight.

“I have eight half-brothers, three half-sisters, and one sister. My father had children by four different women, and my mom had four children by three men. At one time, we had up to 16 people in our four-bedroom apartment.

“I met my dad when I was 13. My grandmother ran into the store and saw him, and she got his phone number and told me to call him. I really didn’t know what to say, so I got her to call him and set a date to come over. I said, ‘As soon as he walks through the door, I’m going to hit him because he’s been gone for so long.’ But a friend said, ‘If you do that, he’ll probably never come back again because some people don’t understand where that anger comes from.’ I didn’t spend too much time catching up with him. I didn’t know how old he was until he died three months later of a brain aneurysm at 54 in 1993.

“I was 12 and in seventh grade at Isaac Litton Junior High when I conceived my daughter, Michelle. Her mother, Yashajel, was my first, and she might have gotten pregnant the first time we had sex. I told her, you don’t have to wait until you’re married if you know you’ll be together forever, and I felt that way. I shared all of my dreams with her. We talked about getting a house and taking long walks.

“I was so young, I didn’t even know what protection was. My friends told me that I wasn’t a man unless [I] slept with a girl, so I thought I was gaining respect from my peers. I remember those pictures that they showed us in fifth grade: ‘This is a woman’s ovaries and these are her eggs.’ I didn’t really learn anything. I was thinking I was too young, nothing could happen to me. One of my buddies used to say, ‘Man, I’m not even fertile yet,’ and I used to believe that.

“When she told me she was pregnant, I got mad at myself because we had talked about how we would get married and get out of the projects. I thought, now we might never be able to do all of this stuff. I was sad because I felt like I messed up her dreams, and I didn’t know what to do. I knew I couldn’t get a legal job.

“I was there when my daughter was born, and I held her for a few minutes. My daughter’s grandmother came in and said, ‘If you don’t put her down and leave now, then I’m going to leave and leave you here to take care of both of them.’ I was just 13, so I dropped my head and handed back the baby. That’s all I could do. That night, I just started crying. I felt like a baby. I was helpless.

“If Mom would’ve told me that she had her first child at 13 and that it was a hard life, I wouldn’t have had my first child at 13. My family has this cycle—most of the women have a child before they get out of high school. I’ve only had a few relatives graduate from high school after having a child. All of my brothers and sisters had their kids before marriage. My youngest sister had a child at 15.

“My daughter lives with her mother, and it’s been that way for five years. My daughter’s mother has always thought about what her mother thinks, and she doesn’t even think about my feelings as far as spending time with my daughter. I tell her that she doesn’t know how it feels to be away from my daughter, because she’s with her every day. I sit at home and think about how big she’s gotten or what neat things she’s done lately. I never get to see her fingerpaintings. Sometimes I go a month without seeing her, depending on how her mother feels.”

To help support his daughter, Bassham helped a friend on his newspaper route, earning between $30 and $50 per week. He also sold cookies door-to-door, making $1 a box. Because he looks older than he actually is, Bassham landed several real jobs by lying about his age, only to be fired when the truth was discovered. He doled his money out to Yashajel slowly, so that her mother, who had banned them from having contact, would not become suspicious. Undeterred, he anonymously dropped off diapers for his daughter at Maplewood High School’s day-care program. He says he visited his daughter there frequently, first reading to her aloud, then to the group of children who had gathered around him.

On July 21, 1995, Bassham’s second child, a boy named E.J., was born to his then-girlfriend, Precious.

“I was 16 when my son was born. I’m a typical teenager; I felt like, the first time was an accident, and the second time, it ain’t going to happen to me. I’m going to use protection. I felt like, if I didn’t use protection once it wouldn’t matter because I had all of these other chances that I’m going to use protection. I just didn’t learn from my first situation. I thought, like most teenagers, that it wouldn’t happen again.

“When she told me she was pregnant, I just grabbed her and hugged her and told her I was sorry. Later she asked me why I said I was sorry, and I told her it was because I knew the sacrifices she would have to make. I didn’t tell her about Michelle until she was eight months pregnant.

“After E.J. was born, I would get up at 4:30 a.m. and catch the city bus to my mother’s house, drop him off, and catch the city bus to Stratford. After a while it kind of got tiresome, and I thought, I’ll stay home and take care of him, and I can go to Maplewood and see my daughter. Eventually, I just decided that I’d just get two jobs and take care of both my kids and not have any worries. I quit school for a year and worked three jobs—the Spaghetti Factory, Sonic, and Spencer’s Gifts. The most I would make was $300 a month because I needed to spend time with my kids. I decided to go back to school at 17 after some teachers told me that a G.E.D. is OK, but a high-school diploma is better.

“Anthony is E.J.’s brother. He’s a year old, and I take care of him too. When his mother got pregnant, she figured it was mine. We had a blood test about four months ago and I found out he wasn’t mine, but I told her, as far as Anthony is concerned, I will always be his father because I’ve been with him since Day 1.

“I don’t pay any child support because they know if they need something, just ask me and I’ll try to get it for them. As far as me not wanting to take care of them, that’s not an issue. Whether they’ll let me is the question.

“Most of my friends who had kids in high school dropped out of school. Some say they’re going to get their G.E.D.s, and some just work; a lot of them sell drugs. I said to myself, if I sell drugs and make this amount of money in a day, this would be good, but if I got caught, I would be away from my kids and that would be bad. A lot of people I know, the only way they could take care of their kids is to sell drugs, but I’m going to show you differently.”

Bassham, who has earned a black belt in karate, is putting a group of seven men and one woman through their paces at Max Scruggs Karate Center on Clarksville Highway. Arms akimbo, he barks out orders with military precision, but he follows up more gently with instructions and demonstrations. In his karate uniform, Bassham looks like the epitome of power and authority. After all, there are no surprises in the centuries-old martial arts.

Max Scruggs has become the father figure Bassham says he has always wanted. He has taught his pupil to say “yes sir” and to remove his hat indoors. Push-ups were the punishment for cursing.

“Mr. Scruggs would take us into neighborhoods of successful people and say, ‘With hard work and not sitting on your butt collecting welfare, this is what you can have.’ I’d look around and say, ‘Man, that is the kind of yard I want—no glass but actual grass.’

“I met him when I was 5, and I took free karate lessons from him at the community center. When I was 11, I met him again at the Center for Black Family Life. What made me want to take karate even more was that I got ganged one time. I told Mr. Scruggs he needed to help me get some guys together and go get these guys, and he said, ‘No, I can’t do that, but I can teach you to defend yourself better.’ He started taking me places outside the projects and making me feel good about myself.

“Last May 19, my brother Lamont was murdered. He got shot in the back about seven times. He fell in front of the door, in front of his girlfriend and her newborn baby that he treated like a son. When I go to sleep sometimes, I can picture everything in my mind. It was the worst time of my life, because it was like a part of me went with him. He would help me keep my head on straight.

“Mr. Scruggs found me and told me my brother had been shot and killed. I didn’t cry; I just went in my room and started punching a wall. I was a zombie for two or three days, then I finally realized my hand was broken. Mr. Scruggs stayed with me until I promised I wouldn’t retaliate. My brother’s 5-year-old son told me, ‘I’m going to kill the man that killed my daddy.’ I’ve got to get that out of his head. I can’t have him growing up trying to seek revenge on somebody he may never know.

“In the last two years, I’ve lost five friends and 12 people I’ve known. I lost an uncle when I was working at Hooter’s. I got off work and saw 12 police cars in the yard. I asked, ‘What’s going on? I live here.’ It’s the only place I have to stay, and all of my stuff was there. I got some of my clothes back, but I didn’t get my TV, books, weights, or pictures. That’s why I don’t have a picture of my daughter.

“I feel blessed in a sense that I’m not dead.”

From the time he was in fourth grade until ninth grade, Bassham lived with his grandmother, who encouraged school attendance. Then he moved back in with his mother, but they couldn’t get along, so he stayed with family and friends, spending a night in the park or the karate studio when nothing else was available. Earlier this year, his mother moved without telling him, leaving Bassham’s karate trophies behind for the maintenance man to deal with. Bassham had been staying with a housing official at Vanderbilt University until last Saturday, when he was informed that his friend was moving immediately and that he would have to find somewhere else to sleep on Sunday night. He stayed with his grandmother again briefly, but he prefers not to stay there, he says, because family members steal and sell his possessions. Bassham has applied for housing assistance through the Oasis Center, an agency that helps troubled teens.

Bassham now relies on friends and city buses for transportation because his van was vandalized at school earlier this year. Also vandalized was an ice-cream truck he had purchased to earn extra money. He walks door-to-door downtown selling boxes of M&Ms to raise money to repair his truck.

During the school year, on days when he has custody of E.J., he wakes at 4:30 a.m. to feed and bathe his son before boarding a city bus to take him to day-care. He then boards another city bus to return to his neighborhood to catch the school bus. He attends school from 7 a.m. until 11 a.m. Then he spends the next several hours at his side businesses, perhaps selling candy until 3:30 p.m., when his job at the karate school begins. He finishes nightly at 9:30. He used to make extra money by donating plasma, but he stopped doing that after he almost fainted during class. Now that it’s summer, Bassham spends his mornings working in the Fisk University bookstore.

“Mentally, I’m not stuck in the projects, but financially it’s hard [to find housing] because you’ve got to find a place that is going to accept you. My age is one factor, and I have dependents. Some of them want you to make at least $1,100 a month, even if the rent is $325. They’ll say, ‘We can’t accept you because you don’t make $1,100,’ and I’m like, ‘I just spent $25 on an application fee for nothing.’

“When you have no permanent place to sleep, you get stressed out. Sometimes I just wish I had a regular old normal life. I guess it wouldn’t be enough for me, but it would be a lot easier.

“Sometimes I feel I haven’t even had a teenage life. I went to camp for one week when I was 13. Even then I thought about my daughter. Everything else I do, I have to be mature.

“Like in school, I don’t think it’s appropriate to act like most of my peers, hanging out in the hallways and yelling and cursing. I used to do that and I didn’t get anywhere. Mr. Scruggs told me that people judge you by your appearance. I started pulling my pants up and wearing my belt around my waist, and I started getting respect from teachers.”

Bassham is a frequent speaker at middle and high schools as part of an outreach program sponsored by Crittenton Services Inc., an agency that works to prevent teen pregnancies and teach parenting skills to young parents. This past Friday, he and two other teens spoke about abstinence to a group of fifth- and sixth-graders at Cora Howe Elementary School.

“I had a kid at 13,” he told them simply. Some of the girls gasped. One of the boys asked, incredulously, “Are you for real?”

“Yes, I’m for real,” Bassham replied.

“I was the only guy at Crittenton when I started. They would give me diapers once a week, and that came in handy because I wouldn’t have to worry about bus fare as much when I had that extra $10. They also gave me baby wipes and a little kid’s toothbrush. I guess I’ve spoken to 50 groups, and sometimes there are 300 people in the room.

“I’ve also gone to [the Juvenile Justice Center] and talked to teens about gangs, drugs, and guns. They listened to me more than the regular people because I was their age. I even knew some of the people in there. One guy said to me, ‘I thought about my son when you said you wouldn’t want to be locked up because you would be away from your son.’ I told him, ‘Make your son proud and not come back. Your children will always remember you being there, and they also remember if you’re not there.’

“I think a lot of the parents aren’t aware that their kids are having sex. If they were, they would be more straightforward in explaining how they should handle a person who is trying to pressure them into having sex. Kids are having sex in fifth grade and on up.

“I don’t try to preach to them. I just speak from my heart. I tell them that one mistake can affect them for the rest of their lives. When I speak, I hear myself. And it wouldn’t be right to say what I say and then not do it.

“Am I happy now? Some days I’m in between. When I’m with E.J. and Anthony, I’m really happy, but when they stay with their mother, I wish we were together, and I get unhappy.

“This life I’m living, I wonder how long I’ll live it. If I was to just give up, roll up in a ball in a corner, would it be better? I think if I moved away and started over, it might be better. But I wouldn’t have my kids and my friends who make me stronger.

“In five years, I hope I’ll own my own home. I’ll have a two-year degree, if not a four-year degree. I’ll either have my own karate school or manage a Max Scruggs Center. He told me that no matter what, I’ve always got a job with him.

“Most of my relatives live in the projects, and I want to break that cycle. I don’t want my son to experience the things that I’ve had to, like not sleeping at night because of arguing and gunfights. The people I grew up with really didn’t respect women. I want my son to have the utmost respect for women and adults.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a role model, but I don’t think I’m a saint, because saints don’t make mistakes. I see myself as a man who has gone through a lot, and I’m sharing this experience with others.

“I want to be married five years from now, and most of all, I want to be happy.”

“I’ve also gone to [the Juvenile Justice Center] and talked to teens about gangs, drugs, and guns. They listened to me more than the regular people because I was their age. I even knew some of the people in there. One guy said to me, ‘I thought about my son when you said you wouldn’t want to be locked up because you would be away from your son.’ I told him, ‘Make your son proud and not come back. Your children will always remember you being there, and they also remember if you’re not there.’

“I think a lot of the parents aren’t aware that their kids are having sex. If they were, they would be more straightforward in explaining how they should handle a person who is trying to pressure them into having sex. Kids are having sex in fifth grade and on up.

“I don’t try to preach to them. I just speak from my heart. I tell them that one mistake can affect them for the rest of their lives. When I speak, I hear myself. And it wouldn’t be right to say what I say and then not do it.

“Am I happy now? Some days I’m in between. When I’m with E.J. and Anthony, I’m really happy, but when they stay with their mother, I wish we were together, and I get unhappy.

“This life I’m living, I wonder how long I’ll live it. If I was to just give up, roll up in a ball in a corner, would it be better? I think if I moved away and started over, it might be better. But I wouldn’t have my kids and my friends who make me stronger.

“In five years, I hope I’ll own my own home. I’ll have a two-year degree, if not a four-year degree. I’ll either have my own karate school or manage a Max Scruggs Center. He told me that no matter what, I’ve always got a job with him.

“Most of my relatives live in the projects, and I want to break that cycle. I don’t want my son to experience the things that I’ve had to, like not sleeping at night because of arguing and gunfights. The people I grew up with really didn’t respect women. I want my son to have the utmost respect for women and adults.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a role model, but I don’t think I’m a saint, because saints don’t make mistakes. I see myself as a man who has gone through a lot, and I’m sharing this experience with others.

“I want to be married five years from now, and most of all, I want to be happy.”

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