By Larryse Brown
Martin Jack, a likable far-rockaway Queens native and junior at Mercy College is friendly and pleasant, even in his quietness. There’s something genuinely positive in Jack. To the audience, his selfless demeanor and good-humor serve to conceal a past full of turmoil. The average on-looker would never detect the residue from his stormy past in his eyes. The average on-looker wouldn’t suspect anything more than just your average 22 year old looking for a good college experience. The average on-looker would be very wrong.
Jack’s childhood was one for the fiction books. He grew up in a foul environment where he and his brother had to stay at his grandmother’s at a young age because his mother was deemed “unfit” to raise any of her 12 children. His grandmother acted as caregiver and housed most of his troubled family, and soon his grandmother’s home quickly became a run down, drug infested shack that was especially ill-suited for a child.
“I remember seeing a bag of skittles that had crack in it,” Jack recalls of what he describes as a mad house.
In order to survive, Jack and his older brother Mel had to learn to walk and talk quickly if they were going to live in an environment where crack was candy and Old English was water. This was the only normalcy he knew. For Jack, “trying to survive” included sleeping on trains since the age of five just to escape the obscenity of his grandmother’s house where his drug addicted relatives stayed. It was necessary to dodge the ugly scenarios that went down when strangers came by to purchase their next fix.
“I skipped out on all the sexual parts,” Jack explains. Those “sexual parts” included women coming to house looking for drugs with whatever they had to sell, which in most cases was their bodies. Like clockwork at midnight, Jack and his brother had been reduced to sleeping wherever they could have some small measure of peace.
When Jack did see his mother, he would encounter her boyfriends who often had guns lying around the house. He recalls holding his first gun at six during the meeting of one of his mother’s boyfriends, named July.
“If someone looked at him wrong, he would want to kill that person,” Jack remembers.
Jack’s childhood heroes were few, so the only time he saw positivity and a measure of success was through an uncle he was named after, Martin Jack.
“Martin was the only one who went to college and actually made something of himself. I wanted to be like him.”
Soon, though, coming back home would prove to be his uncle’s downfall, and Jack would learn a lesson about the poison of his environment.
“It drove him crazy,” Jack says of his uncle, who let his family take advantage of him, driving him back into a negative life. It wasn’t long before he became a drug addict himself and returned to the life that he worked so hard to repeal.
“I came from a family of killers – gang related, drug related – it was family against family”.
Jack’s demeanor changes as he now sits comfortably and smiles when he talks about his grandmother, whom through it all he refers to as “his mother.” Although she lost control of her house, she had not ceased to be the caregiver of her grandsons. It wasn’t long before she had Jack stay with his aunt in hope of a more stable environment.
There he received harsh punishments for actions that before went unnoticed.
“When I acted out and did something wrong, I remember having to sit in the corner for three days straight.”
As time went by, his brother began committing juvenile crimes that led him to a juvenile facility. It was from there that a social worker stepped in, and he faced what he describes as “one of the worst moments in his life.”
Jack was split from his family completely and started on a journey bouncing to and from foster homes where he was mistreated and only wanted a way out. Jack began to act to out until he was transferred to a residential treatment center.
At this time that Jack’s grandmother, who was charged with 14 cases of neglect, passed away at age 65. He was left to juggle through group homes after empty promises by both his mother and his absentee father. In many of his group homes, such as the Abbot House, Jack experienced negligence by the staff who dealt drugs to each other and the kids.
Despite his circumstances, Jack describes that he “always had faith.” He began to play sports, putting all his energy into it. It got him noticed.
He found himself in Fox Lane in Mount Kisco, a school described as preppy and one where had to prove his place to skeptics who felt he didn’t deserve it. He began working with a social worker who offered him a scholarship to college and gave him a mentor who would later prove to be his saving grace.
While Jack might have been doing better than his previous years, his history taught him to reject anyone who tried to get close to him. Jack describes his first experience with meeting his mentor Shay, an Italian woman who at the time was pregnant.
“She used to come by and I played basketball. I used to run her up and down the court after me hoping that if I was horrible enough to her, she wouldn’t come back”.
But Shay kept coming back in hopes of reaching him. Jack took notice and began to open up to her as she showed him something that seldom people had: love.
“She trusted me,” Jack recalls of his mentor who he still refers to as “his mom,” who became a huge part of his life. Soon Shay gave birth to Joe, and Jack had a little brother who looked up to him.
His life was rapidly improving, and he began to take college more seriously. He was transferred to a group home where he had more freedom, and looked at Mercy College to further his education. Everyone said he would fail.
Yet Jack rose to the challenge.
After Jack made it into Mercy, he already decided he wanted to make a positive difference for children, not only because he loved working with them, but he felt he wanted to do for others what the few people had done for him. While he plans on becoming a social worker, he also is a mentor for children, including Shay’s son. Jack often attends events to speak about his experience to inspire and to be a voice that encourages the many children who continue to live his previous reality. Jack recognizes he’s one of the lucky ones to break the never-ending cycle. Now, his plans for his future are many, his goals are high, and he continues to challenge himself.
If there is one lesson to be learned from this entire journey Jack would say “It’s not the problem that defines you; it’s what you do after you’re faced with the problem that dictates your character.”