News & Politics » Miscellany

Survival Skills

A writer returns to the old neighborhood with a message of hope.

by

comment

It's career day at Lawndale's William Penn elementary school, and reporter John W. Fountain arrives without a notebook. Instead he carries a bag filled with copies of his recently published memoir, True Vine: A Young Black Man's Journey of Faith, Hope, and Clarity, and a black case containing laminated newspaper clippings.

Fountain, a Chicago-based correspondent for the New York Times, has visited this west-side school before. Two years ago he stopped by to interview Penn faculty for a set of articles about violence in poor neighborhoods. This morning he's come to talk to the kids about how to guard their chances for a secure and productive life. Fountain can speak knowledgeably on the subject. He grew up a stone's throw from the school, at 1616 S. Avers.

The students need all the guidance they can get. Three years ago, for example, their school was locked down for a day after a leader of the Conservative Vice Lords and another gang member got capped in separate incidents. According to Penn principal Patricia Kent, many families fled the neighborhood afterward, reducing the school's enrollment from 800 to 632. Some teachers left too. And although the school's test scores have been improving lately, most students still perform well below national norms in reading and math.

At 11:15 Fountain enters a classroom where 24 seventh graders, mostly boys, have been studying history. After guidance counselor Lillie Cage introduces him, Fountain says, "Sometimes when I go and talk, I tell people that I grew up on 16th and Komensky. I grew up in the hood. I grew up on the west side of Chicago, and they look at me where I am now and they find it hard to believe. Do you know why they find it hard to believe?"

"Why?" some students ask.

"'Cause they don't believe anybody from the hood, from the ghetto, from 16th Street, could make it to the places that I've been. So I've come here this morning to tell you that you can do that. When I was growing up, my sister and I were so poor. Somebody say 'How poor were you?'"

"How poor were y'all?" a boy asks.

"All together," Fountain says. "Come on now."

"How poor were y'all?" the class responds in unison.

"We were so poor that my sister and I thought a ketchup sandwich was a treat."

Some students laugh. "That's not funny," says math teacher Mildred Johnson to the class.

After some more back-and-forth with the kids, Fountain tells the grim story of Robert "Yummy" Sandifer, an 11-year-old member of the Black Disciples who became the target of a police manhunt in 1994 after he shot and killed a 14-year-old girl.

"You know how they found him?" asks Fountain. The students are silent. "He was shot in the back of the head, execution style." Fountain holds up an article he cowrote for the Chicago Tribune, where he worked from 1989 through early '95. Pictures of Sandifer and Cragg Hardaway, one of his killers, accompany the piece. "They arrested this young man and his brother and charged them with Yummy's murder. They killed Yummy supposedly because he had brought too much heat on the gang. And I say that to you because I want you all to know that Yummy doesn't have to be your destiny. And what happened to this young man, going to jail and being in prison, doesn't have to be your destiny. But it starts right now with listening in class. With listening to your parents. With listening to your Sunday school teachers. With listening to people who love you and care about you."

Fountain watches the midwest for the Times, writing breaking news and features. His coverage of flooding in the region won a Times publisher's award two years ago. He scooped the local press in March when Saint Sabina, a black elementary school on the south side, withdrew from a predominantly white sports league after waging a highly publicized fight to join it. "I waited until the story was sort of out of the news and kept in touch with Coach Mallette and simply did it," he says. "It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. It was a story that was there. Our tendency in news is to follow those things that are breaking. Once the immediacy is gone, we tend to forget about them. I knew there would be an opportunity to follow up."

In his dark blue suit, the 42-year-old Fountain looks every inch a role model, but he allows that his life could have easily gone in the opposite direction. In True Vine Fountain says faith and helping hands made all the difference. The book, published this month by PublicAffairs, details his childhood and young adulthood in K-Town, the section of Lawndale named for the streets starting with K. The title was taken from the name of his grandfather's Pentecostal church; once located on Roosevelt Road, it's now in west suburban Bellwood.

Though it's leavened with funny anecdotes about childhood high jinks, True Vine is essentially about growing up poor. Writing it obliged Fountain to relive some painful memories. "It's no fun to be poor," he says. "It's no fun as a kid to be hungry or as an adult to be hungry. Just recalling even the poverty when I write a chapter called 'Rats.' The very fact that I could write it, the very fact that I could read that now just reflects a kind of healing that has happened along the way."

In the early 1960s Fountain's parents, John and Gwendolyn, divorced. Fountain, his mother, and his younger sister, Net, went to live in one of two apartment buildings his grandparents owned on the 1600 block of South Komensky.

In 1967 Gwendolyn married Eddie Clincy, who moved in with the family. After Clincy lost his job with a company that made utensils and cookware, the family moved on and off welfare. At times their utilities were shut off for nonpayment. Despite the family's poverty, Fountain's mother sent him to Providence-Saint Mel, a west-side Catholic school. "For years, she wore the same few outfits to church while other women were decked out," he writes in True Vine. "For a time, she had no winter coat and often donned Net's coat and shoes when she went to the store. Even back then, I thought I understood how great a sacrifice it was that Mama and my stepfather--who wore a thin summer jacket in the wintertime--were making for my education."

At Saint Mel's, Fountain played on the basketball team, made the honor roll, played chess, and dated Robin, a fellow student. During his senior year Robin became pregnant. She gave birth to their son John in August 1978. A few weeks later Fountain enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Robin and the baby stayed in Chicago with her parents.

The writing bug struck during Fountain's freshman year. He wrote an essay for a composition class based on his response to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which he'd read in high school. "I really contended that I wasn't invisible, but a shadow," Fountain says. "Not invisible, because folks aren't afraid of invisible men." The instructor photocopied the essay for other classes. "She said that I really had something special in terms of writing and that I might want to consider a career in writing."

Although he was succeeding in the classroom, poverty derailed Fountain's first shot at higher education. Just as he was about to return for his sophomore year, his mother told him she didn't have the $300 he needed to pay his outstanding tuition. He dropped out, and he, Robin, and John moved to an apartment in Austin. After Robin became pregnant with their second son, Rashad, she and Fountain married. He found work as a rate-audit clerk for Bekin Van Lines, but seeing no prospect of advancement and bored by the work, he quit after less than a year. Fountain couldn't find another job and the family ended up on welfare, getting a $350 check and $200 in food stamps a month.

In 1981 Fountain moved his family into the other building his grandparents owned on Komensky. The rent was a bargain at $150 a month, but the neighborhood had gone into decline. There was what Fountain describes as "an openly public dope house" a few doors down, and the sounds of gunfire rang out in the streets at night. Rotting meat was for sale at the grocers, and at the mom-and-pop stores kids bought their candy through bulletproof glass.

Surrounded by trouble, the family sought refuge at the True Vine church. "I really had to depend on God," Fountain says. "I know it sounds fuzzy and cloudy to a lot of people, but really to dig deep and to try and hear the still, small voice within me, and to pray, and to believe. All the things I told those kids this morning. Just to believe in myself regardless of what people said, to not give up, to persevere no matter how hard it got."

Fountain cleaned the church and attended Sunday services, Bible classes, and revivals. He became a deacon and then a minister. "Meanwhile, some of my friends thought I had turned religious fanatic," he writes in True Vine. "They laughed whenever they saw me on my way to church, either on Sunday mornings when we loaded into the church van, or on Sunday evenings when my family and I strolled back to church, or on the countless evenings that I emerged from my apartment building wearing a white shirt and tie and appearing bound again for church. Given the alternatives of drinking, drugging, or womanizing, I figured I was better off wailing with the little old ladies."

In June 1982 Fountain got a job at Truman College, thanks to a city-sponsored summer jobs program. He worked on a student newspaper. "I plugged into the other world, the real world," he says. "It gave me a hunger and thirst for some things I'd forgotten about."

Shortly after the birth of his first daughter, Rasheena, in 1983, Fountain got financial aid from the state of Illinois and enrolled at Wright College, where he earned As and Bs and again worked on the student paper. He felt he was doing well for himself, until one morning he bumped into a high school classmate, Dorian, on the northbound Pulaski bus. Dorian, who was completing a business degree at Loyola University, laughed when Fountain told him he was an unemployed husband with three kids attending a community college. Fountain cried after Dorian left the bus.

After earning an associate's degree in high school teaching in 1984, Fountain cobbled together a package of grants and loans and returned to the University of Illinois to study journalism, taking his family with him. To make ends meet he worked as a security guard at a Venture store, as a cook and dishwasher at a hospital, and as a janitor at a bank, where some Saturdays he'd take his sons with him. Fountain did well at the U. of I. "I was really charged up just in terms of understanding that this was my second chance," he says. "It probably was not going to come back around again. I was so grateful to have that opportunity that there was no way I was going to screw that up."

While taking courses and working at the Daily Illini, Fountain scanned the bulletin boards for newspaper internships. Both the Sun-Times and Tribune turned him down, telling him to reapply once he'd acquired more experience. But he managed to land one at the Champaign News-Gazette at the start of his final undergraduate semester in January 1986. After completing his bachelor's degree that spring, he got a second summer internship, covering the suburbs of Rosemont, Franklin Park, and Schiller Park for the Pioneer Press chain. Fountain remembers his editor there, John Stebbins, telling him, "One of the talents you had is that people want to talk to you. People look at you and want to tell you their story. You can't teach that. You're going to go far in this business. You're a great writer. You're only going to get better."

Fountain asked to be kept in mind should he hear of any internships. Stebbins joined the Sun-Times as a staff writer later that year and put in a good word for Fountain.

Fountain had begun working on a master's in communications at the U. of I. that fall when he got a call from Sun-Times editor Earl Moses, who asked him to submit some clips. Fountain got an internship there the following summer. The next year he completed the master's and got a summer internship at the Modesto Bee.

But as his job prospects improved, his marriage deteriorated. Tensions between Fountain and his wife came to a head in the summer of 1989. On the day before the family was to leave for Pittsburgh, where Fountain would start an internship at a Wall Street Journal bureau, Robin refused to go. Fountain went without her. The two formally separated later that year and eventually divorced.

While in New York for the 1989 convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, Fountain met a recruiter for the Chicago Tribune, a paper he'd long aspired to work for. That fall the Tribune gave him yet another internship. He worked the night shift as a general assignment reporter, writing obituaries and crime stories and monitoring the police scanner.

The paper hired him full-time that December, assigning him to the crime beat in the northwest suburbs.

In 1995 Fountain left the Tribune for the Washington Post, whose recruiters he'd met at another NABJ convention. He spent time on the Post's police and court beats and then moved on to the metro and features desks. While at the Post he took a leave of absence to do a yearlong fellowship at the University of Michigan, studying race and poverty issues. The time away from deadlines gave him a chance to start work on the memoir.

As the fellowship was coming to an end in spring of 2000, the New York Times offered Fountain a job as a correspondent based in his hometown. "I couldn't turn that down," he says. Since joining the Times Fountain has continued to seek out human interest stories of sociological significance. "I've had people tell me journalism is not a calling, as I've maintained it is," he says. "But it is for me. It's what I love to do. It is what I feel like I was put here to do. I love being able to tell people's stories. I love being able to make a difference, to be a conduit for voices and stories that otherwise wouldn't get heard, would not get read, would not get seen."

In an article of October 2001, "Fear Is No Stranger in Chicago Ghetto," Fountain reminded readers that terror was nothing new in American life. "The September 11 attacks and the continuing anthrax scare," he wrote, "have made people everywhere approach even the most mundane decisions of everyday life with extra care, tinged with fear: Do I get on the plane? Do I go to the mall or to the movies? Should I open this letter? Is it safe for my children to go out and play? But stark choices like these have been a fact of life forever in poor urban neighborhoods like K-Town, which are ravaged by different kinds of terror: poverty, gangs, drugs and gunshots that crack a silent night."

Although he doesn't underplay the demoralizing influences of such an environment, Fountain also maintains that individuals are responsible for rising above their circumstances. "There is a point at which a mistake is no longer a mistake, it becomes a lifestyle," he says. "You've got to change your lifestyle. That whole thing about having your destiny in your hands, it may sound hokey to some people but I truly believe that. I believe that kids have to understand that they have control."

But Fountain doesn't want to be mistaken for a simplistic moralist. In True Vine he confesses to straying from his own standards for a while after separating from Robin. "I seldom went to church anymore, partied at dance clubs, and started drinking with great regularity," Fountain writes. "I was disillusioned with the church and angry with God." In time he realized he'd gotten off track. "I came to understand that's not who I was. It was not going to lead to fulfillment and to what I wanted from life."

Fountain currently resides in the south suburbs with his second wife, journalist Monica Copeland, and their two small children. He occasionally preaches at their church in Kankakee and sometimes returns to True Vine. He doesn't claim to be a flawless man, just one who has survived tough times and can teach others how to do the same. "If somebody reads this book and walks away thinking John Fountain is perfect, they've missed the whole point," he says. "I'm a sinner saved by grace. The point is, in spite of myself, in spite of my circumstances, I was able to overcome by my faith in Jesus Christ. The message, if they take any one away, is that 'If John can make it, I can make it.'"

Fountain tells the class at Penn, "We have about five minutes. Stand on your feet."

The class obeys. Fountain begins a churchy-sounding call-and-response.

"Drugs!" he shouts.

"Drugs!" the kids respond.

"Is not my destiny!"

"Is not my destiny!"

"Failure!"

"Failure!"

"Is not my destiny!"

"Is not my destiny!"

"Prison!"

"Prison!"

"Is not my destiny!"

"Is not my destiny!"

Some students clap. Others crowd around Fountain and pose while an office aide takes a group photo with an instant camera. Just before she shoots, a boy climbs a chair at Fountain's left clutching a copy of True Vine and smiles for the camera.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

Add a comment