ALSO BY THE THREE DOCTORS
DRS. SAMPSON DAVIS, GEORGE JENKINS, AND RAMECK HUNT
The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream
We Beat the Street: How a Friendship Pact Led to Success
THREE YOUNG MEN LEARN TO
FORGIVE AND RECONNECT
WITH THEIR FATHERS
THE THREE DOCTORS
SAMPSON DAVIS, M.D.,
GEORGE JENKINS, D.M.D., and
RAMECK HUNT, M.D.,
with Margaret Bernstein
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
New York 2007
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Published simultaneously in Canada
George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt; with Margaret Bernstein.
HQ755.86.D37 2007 2007022947
SECTION ONE: GEORGE
Chapter 1: GEORGE JENKINS
Chapter 2: GEORGE JENKINS, SR.
Chapter 3: GEORGE
Chapter 4: GEORGE
Chapter 5: GEORGE
Chapter 1: SAMPSON DAVIS
Chapter 2: SAMPSON
Chapter 3: SAMPSON
Chapter 4: SAMPSON
Chapter 5: SAMPSON
SECTION THREE: RAMECK
Chapter 1: RAMECK HUNT
Chapter 2: ALIM BILAL
Chapter 3: RAMECK
Chapter 4: RAMECK
Chapter 5: RAMECK
THE THREE OF US grew up in a world where it seemed normal for men to abandon their children. Fathers weren’t important in our lives at all.
For us and for a lot of the kids in our Newark neighborhood, Father’s Day was never a big deal. We hardly knew when it fell, and rarely celebrated it when it occurred. To us, Father’s Day was “kind of like Rosh Hashanah,” as Rameck puts it. “It seemed like a celebration for other people, a day that belonged to another culture.” To this day, George remembers the humiliation of having to ask a classmate how to tie a necktie because his father wasn’t around to help him learn. And Sampson knows firsthand the destructive lure of the streets and how valuable a father’s steadying influence would have been when times got tough and he found himself out there.
Our dads weren’t our heroes. In many ways, they were the guys we hoped we’d never be like. So fatherhood and the crucial role it plays in the lives of children and families weren’t important to us as kids, because we didn’t know any better.
We do now.
Not having fathers left gaping holes in our lives. George rarely saw his father after his parents split up when he was a toddler. Rameck’s father was hooked on drugs when Rameck was born, so he spent his time either locked up or out on the streets searching for a fix. And Sampson’s father moved out when he was still a child, leaving Sampson’s mom with the job of rearing a houseful of kids on her own. It was inevitable that we tripped in these holes every day of our lives. Rameck forced himself to sign up for Pop Warner football because it was something he thought boys were supposed to do and was so embarrassed that he didn’t know how to put on his shoulder pads he quit football instead of asking for help. Sampson ventured out into the streets in search of male role models because he couldn’t get his emotionally distant dad to pay attention to him. He allowed friends to hustle him down the path of crime and easy money, until he found himself locked up in the juvenile detention center for a summer. And George had to gulp down his pride many times to ask friends to help him learn even the simplest tasks such as how to shave.
In our world, it was our mothers and grandmothers who had to do the heavy lifting of parenting. They fed us, clothed us, hugged us, and fretted over us. As we grew, they tried their best to drill positive values into us, lecturing us to go to school and stay off the streets. Though they tried, they couldn’t teach us everything we needed to know. It was an exhausting job to raise us, and it was scary watching them get worn down by poverty and stress.
In many ways, we ended up replacing our absentee dads on our haphazard journey to manhood with one another. In high school and college, we pooled our limited knowledge and shared our strengths. Together we figured out many of life’s mysteries, from how to treat women to how to pick out a graduation suit.
But while this is a book about the profound emptiness of life without a father, it’s also a book about hope. While we explore how vitally important fathers are to a child’s development, we also celebrate that it’s never too late to connect with your father. In these pages, we speak frankly about the sense of loss that the three of us felt as fatherless kids, and we explore a lot of questions most fatherless children ask: Why did you leave me? Did you ever wonder if I was missing you? Did you miss me? Was I on your mind? Why didn’t you call more? Why didn’t you send for me? We also explain how as adults we made a conscious effort to create relationships with our fathers that we didn’t have as children, and how that connection has changed us and our fathers.
This book is written from a male perspective. Although we know that fatherless daughters struggle with their own issues of loss and compensation, this is our story, so we focused on our own feelings and experiences to illuminate the points we want to make.
You’ll find that this book is divided into three distinct sections, so that each of us can explain our own relationship with our father. In Chapter 1 of each section, we share our experiences growing up without fathers. In Chapter 2, you’ll hear from our dads themselves as they explain what went wrong in the father-son relationship. One thing we realized through the process of researching and writing this book is that although these men contributed half our DNA, we knew precious little about them and their history. We were stunned to find that all three of our fathers share common traits that account for a great deal about their inability to be devoted dads.
We resume our own stories in Chapter 3, letting you know where we stand emotionally with the information we’ve gleaned about our fathers. In Chapter 4 you’ll meet real people who have impressed us by taking a bold stand to stop the cycle of fatherlessness in their own lives. They’re people who didn’t have fathers in their lives as kids, but they were smart enough to decide not to pass on the pain to another generation. We admire these people and want to banner their success so more people can learn from it. Little by little, one victory at a time, is the best way to put an end to this harmful trend.
In the final chapter of each section, we offer ideas that you can put to work immediately to help reduce the harm being done by absentee dads and to welcome these missing fathers back into their children’s lives.
Remember, this is a book of hope. We refuse to give up hope that things can change. Thousands of young people who read our first book, The Pact, told us that positive friendships have the power to push a young person to success.
Once again, we’re putting our faith in friendship. We believe there’s no stronger force for change. We’re confident that our nation’s men are strong enough to put other influences aside and live lives in which children come first. That’s where they have always belonged.
We believe a new era is possible, and that adults can successfully band together to form a bond and to wash away the crippling legacy of absentee fatherhood. It can happen, if we wake up and voice the hard truth to one another that it’s a heartless thing to deprive a child of a father who should rightfully be a protector and a cheerleader.
We compare it to a quest. And there are tasks that must be completed to be a healthy, complete man. First you must teach yourself to succeed. Then you must teach yourself to become a father, even without a role model. And last, if you can find it in your heart, forgive your father. In the coming chapters, we will provide our best advice to you on how to achieve all of these goals.
Every time we see one of our friends break through the baggage of his past and become a loving and loyal guardian of his kids, it energizes and excites us. These are the good guys who prove that change is possible. Watching them, we know the truth: There is unrivaled joy in being a father who provides the stability and attention that encourage all children to soar.
THERE ARE a thousand things I’d rather do than venture out of the tiny comfort zone that my father and I have created. I haven’t seen my dad, George Jenkins, Sr., since my graduation from dental school in 1999. He and I have always been friendly but distant: he lives in another state, and we’ve never really connected as father and son. My lifelong strategy has been to not think too deeply about our relationship, to keep from actively resenting him.
It was my mom’s firm desire to rear Garland, my older brother, and me in a stable environment that led her away from her short-lived marriage to my father. My mother disapproved of my dad’s heavy drinking during the time we lived together as a family in my dad’s hometown in rural South Carolina. One day when I was a toddler, Mom abruptly packed our bags, grabbed my hand and my brother’s, and led us to the bus station. She delivered Garland and me to her parents in North Carolina to take care of us, then headed to Newark, where we eventually joined her after she landed a job.
I don’t think I’ve seen my father a dozen times since we got on that bus.
As a child, I convinced myself that I was cool with my dad’s absence. After all, hardly any of my friends had a father, either. As a grown man, I know better. Yet when we decided to write this book, I stalled, switched gears, and finally stopped writing altogether. It was hard to grasp how deeply I had buried things and how unwilling I was to disclose them. Not having a full-time father, I realized, made me vulnerable in ways that I would rather not announce to the world.
My mom, Ella Jenkins Mack, was a twenty-three-year-old single mother living in Rahway, New Jersey, when she met my father. At the time, she was on her own, caring for baby Garland. My parents were introduced by my father’s sister, Rosa Lee, who lived down the street from my mom. My parents hit it off from the start: my mother was intrigued by handsome George Jenkins and his engaging conversations. He had been to college and seemed knowledgeable about so many things. As they spent time together, going to movies and parties, Mom thought they would make a good couple. Within a year, they married, in 1972. My dad returned to his native South Carolina to run his father’s country store, and Mom and Garland soon followed him. I was born in 1973, not long after they moved.
The marriage didn’t last long, which is why I have almost no memory of living with my dad. He had a drinking problem, and my mom got fed up quickly. They had little money, the electricity often got cut off because he hadn’t paid the bill, and my father refused to let her work although she longed to bring in extra income. After I was born, her patience with him wore even thinner. She didn’t want to raise children in an unhealthy environment.
When my mother asked my father if he would consider going to Alcoholics Anonymous, he irritatedly replied that he would drink as long as he wanted to. He would quit, he informed her, when he got good and ready.
There wasn’t anything left to discuss after that for my determined mom, born into a large, close-knit family who worked hard to build a good life for their children. She couldn’t see how we were ever going to find the good life if we stayed with him. That was the moment she realized it was time to “giddyup,” as she puts it.
She packed a trunk and a suitcase with our stuff. It wasn’t much to carry, she says with a laugh, because we had so few belongings at the time. And that day while my father was working at the store, she took us to the bus station. I wasn’t quite two years old. Garland was three.
Our mom never looked back. She says she felt wonderfully free at that moment, even though our future was uncertain.
We headed for her parents’ home in Warrenton, North Carolina, a small country town about fifty miles outside of Raleigh, where Mom’s family welcomed us. It was a comfortable refuge, filled with loving relatives, but I didn’t know what to make of all the changes. “Where’s Daddy?” I asked Mom over and over again.
After a few months, Mom headed north to Newark, where she knew she could find a job. She also knew that her parents could watch us full-time until she carved out a stable life in New Jersey. Mom was gone for an entire year, but she visited us often. She always had a hard time tearing herself away when she had to return to work. It broke her heart the day she realized I had started calling her sister “Mommy.”
My dad never came after us. When I was young, I felt he never sought us out to make sure we were safe. We could have been hungry or homeless. It seemed like he didn’t care.
In 1977, when I was three and Garland was four, Mom showed up triumphantly, ready to move us north. She had been in such a tremendous hurry to pick up her babies that she got a speeding ticket along the way, in Virginia.
She moved us into an apartment in the Stella Wright projects on Muhammad Ali Boulevard in Newark. Mom was working in a factory back then, and a friend at work happened to mention that he knew someone who was looking for kids to babysit. That’s how Mom met Willa Mae, our loyal and longtime babysitter who lived just a few blocks from us. “She was an angel. God sent her to me,” my mom has often said, declaring it one of the luckiest moments of her life when she met Willa Mae.
Although Willa Mae lived in a notorious housing project nicknamed “Little Bricks,” I have only the warmest memories of my time there. I loved going over to her apartment, where her daughters helped care for us. I remember sitting on the couch next to Willa Mae, keeping her company while she watched her soap operas. She always kept boxes of chocolate and strawberry Nestlé Quik in the cupboard, and I used to drink so much of that flavored milk that I’m sure I’ll have strong bones for life. (Now that I’m a dentist, I don’t recommend such sugary drinks, though.) Willa Mae was like a member of the family. Mom could lean on her. She would take us to the doctor or dentist if we had to go, and once she even kept us for an entire week when Mom was sick.
The Stella Wright projects were noisy all night long with music blaring and basketball games being played at all hours. The hallways smelled of urine. Mom had no intention of living there for long. After a while, she took an office job at Chubb Federal Insurance and went to work every day determined to save enough money to move. Within three years, she had enough stashed away to buy into a co-op apartment, which was just across the street but seemed like a different world. The windows of our new two-bedroom place in High Park Gardens overlooked a peaceful, attractive yard landscaped with grass and flowers. Hardworking people lived in our building on Quitman Street, and they didn’t party all night. But I had a constant reminder that I hadn’t moved very far. Every time I looked out my window, I could see the Stella Wright high-rise. The projects blocked out the rest of the view and served as my daily backdrop.
As I grew up, I watched Mom bust her behind to take care of us. She had a rigorous schedule: wake up, dress us, and take us to Willa Mae’s house, go to work all day, pick us up, come home to fix dinner, shop for groceries in the middle of the night when we were asleep, and do laundry on Saturdays. I suffered with asthma as a kid, so sometimes I disrupted Mom’s routine with my wheezing episodes. On many nights, she had to drop everything to drive me to the emergency room, with Garland in tow. It took a few hours for the medicine to take effect, but I’d feel better by morning and then sleep for hours at the babysitter’s house. Mom didn’t get to rest. If the next day was a weekday, she would have to hurriedly comb her hair, throw on her work clothes, and go in for her eight-hour shift.
I never felt then that my dad visited much, and he rarely sent money. Mom knew that my father didn’t earn a lot running his store, so she didn’t push him to send more child support. “Why aggravate myself to get whatever little he has?” she would say.
She had a village helping her out to raise the two of us. Her eight siblings, who had all moved north, chipped in to help. Mom’s family had a big influence on me, instilling a huge respect for hard work and higher learning. Four of my mother’s sisters went to college, and I have two aunts, Catherine and Mary, who have master’s degrees. It baffled me that my mother never went to college, so I started nagging her about it. “Go to school, Ma,” I told her repeatedly. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t get a degree. It would have sent me an even stronger message about the importance of staying in school and getting an education. I also had an ulterior motive—secretly, I wanted her to get a college degree so she could earn more and buy me more Christmas presents.
When I was about eleven, my mother reunited with Garland’s father. The two of them got married, and he moved into our apartment. I had my fantasies about what a father would be like—I had observed my friends’ fathers and also had watched plenty of TV dads over the years—but the new addition to our house didn’t exactly fit my expectations. Heyward Mack was a quiet man who just didn’t communicate much. One day, five years after he arrived, he moved out without much warning to any of us.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to appreciate what he actually did for us. He pitched in to chauffeur me to my dental appointments after I got braces in my early teens. He always bought me Italian hot dogs after my orthodontist visits although I couldn’t eat because the tightened braces made my teeth tender. Heyward generously shared his family with me. I loved going over to his parents’ house, especially at holidays when his mother would cook a big pot of the best greens I ever tasted. I think Heyward is like many men of his generation. He was a provider but a businesslike one. I won’t forget how he picked me up from college every semester when it was time to move out of the dorm and helped me lug all my stuff back and forth. He showed his love through action, not by flowery talk. While I was in college, he and Mom reconciled, and he remains a big presence in my life.
Yet I never called him Dad. That wasn’t the way our relationship worked. I usually called him Heyward, and, on rare occasions, I felt comfortable enough to call him Pop. Mom knew she had to step in and be both a father and a mother to Garland and me. Bluntly, she told us about the facts of life. She would remind us often, and quite matter-of-factly, to wear condoms. “Look here, let me tell you,” she would say. “You’re growing up—so make sure to wrap that thing up. When you lay down with somebody, what you do could lead to a baby, and that means you’re tied to that person for the rest of your life. So if you’re eyeing a girl and it’s not someone you want to be with next year and the year after that, then I suggest you keep walking.”
In case any doubt remained, she’d tack on a final warning: “Don’t bring no babies here.” She said it so often that to this day I’m still haunted by those warnings.
Mom made it clear what not to do, but I still needed some instruction on what to do. I needed somebody to explain things. At age fifteen, I found one in Reggie, a dude I worked with at Murray Steaks, a frozen food company. I respected Reggie because it seemed like he knew how to handle his business. Only eighteen and already a father, Reggie was holding down a job, taking college classes, and caring for his young family. A good-looking guy, he’d had plenty of women chasing him in his earlier days so he had lots of expertise to share when we weren’t unloading meat trucks or stocking shelves. He gave me my first condom, which I kept in my wallet. Eventually, it got so wrinkled that I couldn’t use it, but it had done its duty by then, serving as an educational tool. Before Reggie, I’d had some experimental encounters, always rushed due to the fear that somebody’s parents would bust in on us. Thanks to his coaching, I got a better sense of what to do when the opportunity presented itself and how to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
Mom never shied away from the tough parts of parenting, but a woman can’t show you how to be a man. The older I got, the more I found myself scavenging in the streets to pick up the basics of male behavior. Everyday situations mystified me. For one thing, I never felt confident when dealing with the constant confrontations that arise when you live in a neighborhood like mine. Somebody’s always losing his temper; somebody’s always getting shoved around. The root of these beefs is usually something so trivial or petty that I just couldn’t get worked up about it.
I taught myself to sidestep confrontation, either by talking my way out of it or by just walking away, allowing my opponent to feel big and bad. But misgivings always nagged at me when I took the nonviolent approach. Should I have popped him in the eye? Did I look soft when I walked away? I never knew for sure. I could have used a father’s advice to teach me where to draw the line and guide me through the minefields on Newark streets, where fistfights could ignite in a flash.
Newark was a tough town, the kind of place where it felt as if danger was all around you. In the Brick City, as it’s been called, you always stood a good chance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if you avoided obvious trouble and minded your own business. The city Rameck, Sampson, and I grew up in became synonymous with poverty and violence during our formative years, as Newark’s white middle class fled to the suburbs. During the 1970s, the black population grew, and the city erected tall brick housing projects that teemed with poor people. In 1975, Harper’s Magazine dubbed Newark the worst city in America. The city was still recovering from the deadly riots of 1967, and over the coming decades continued to be torn apart by drugs, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness.
It was normal to see teenagers take stolen cars and spin them out, which we called “locking it up.” We could be standing at the bus stop, and all of a sudden we might see a Honda Accord zoom down the street doing sixty or seventy. When the driver slammed on the brakes and turned the wheel sharply, the car would do a complete 180-degree turn. Even though we all knew the cars were stolen, we would watch admiringly. We even had a dance called the “lock it up.” We also had fun watching cop chases. TV shows and movies are full of high-speed pursuits today, but we could see real action from our street corner. One big difference between Hollywood and our Newark reality was that the thieves usually got away. Everybody knew that the police couldn’t go over a certain speed in residential areas because it would put the public at risk.
The crime-ridden brick housing projects towered over our neighborhoods, limiting our ambitions. I didn’t understand a world beyond the Newark projects until I was in third grade at Louise A. Spencer School. There, I encountered an unforgettable teacher, Mrs. Viola Johnson. She took us on field trips to New York City and sent us postcards when she traveled. I became particularly fascinated with England because Mrs. Johnson had formed a Shakespeare club and had us inner-city kids holding weekly meetings to discuss Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. I was the club’s president. I remember dreaming of exploring England’s grand theaters and palaces.
Suddenly, with Mrs. Johnson’s help, I knew that the world had more to offer and that it was up to me to go after it.
By the time I got out of elementary school, I had made up my mind to go to college. “George, you’re bright enough to earn a scholarship,” Mrs. Johnson often told me. Her words influenced me for a lifetime.
In sixth grade, my school recommended that I take the entrance exam for University High, a prestigious magnet school in Newark. It was a lucky break for me. I had no desire to go to our local high school; it didn’t seem as though it adequately prepared students for college or even tried to challenge them.
I passed the test and entered University High in seventh grade. I remember being overwhelmed at seeing the high school seniors walking around. They were so much bigger and seemed so cool. University High in so many ways was a haven for a kid like me. I was surrounded by students who wanted to achieve. It was here that I met Sam and Rameck, who would change and challenge me.