SOURCE LEDGER ENQUIRER COLUMBUS GA.
As he tried on his cap and gown for the first time last week, LaMarieous Franklin said, "It's like I'm speechless."
His actions have spoken louder than his words.
May 22, this Central High School senior will celebrate beating the odds as he becomes the first male in his family to graduate.
LaMarieous, 18, and his younger brothers, 7 and 9, live with their single mother in a Phenix City public housing complex. The summer before LaMarieous started ninth grade, his mother moved the family here from Union Springs to live closer to relatives and have a better chance to find a job to which she could walk because she didn't have a car.
Tasha Franklin braids hair, recycles cans and babysits to earn some money but still doesn't have a full-time job or a car. She does, however, have hope LaMarieous has broken the cycle that trapped their family and many of their peers.
"Sometimes, I want to cry, I'm so proud of him," she said. "No matter how hard it gets, he keeps trying. … I often pray that someday I can be rich, but I'm already rich to see my oldest son graduate."
LaMarieous used to be afraid the drugs and violence in his neighborhood would count him as another victim. When he passed a bunch of guys hanging out, smoking and drinking, he would try to walk as tough as he could and pray, "Oh, Lord, please do not let these people do something to me."
They never messed with him.
"I guess they see that I was going to school and doing the right thing," he said. "My neighbors tell me how proud
of me they are."
LaMarieous praises Central for giving him a positive environment.
"When I got here, there were more opportunities," he said. "My old school in Union Springs (Bulloch County High School) isn't as structured as Central. I wasn't exposed to success as much as I am here."
Such as the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. LaMarieous became the battalion operations officer as a junior. He was a lieutenant when he left the program last year to take dual-enrollment classes. He earned a scholarship to pay for the English 101 credit from Chattahoochee Valley Community College. "I might find somebody to pay for English 102 by next week," he said.
LaMarieous attended the prestigious Boys State summer program last year at the University of Alabama, where he joined other outstanding students selected for their leadership, hard work, strong morals and activities. He liked the campus so much, he made it his goal to attend college there.
But the effort to overcome his circumstances almost proved too much to take.
Background of woe
LaMarieous explained the circuitous background of woe almost in one breath.
"The only person who had a car in my family was my grandmother," he said. "She was working at that casino in Shorter, but when it was closed down she lost her job. Then my aunt hit a deer in her car. Then I had an uncle in jail. So nobody had a car.
"It was really, really tough. Then my grandmother started working at a nursing home, doing CNA classes, and saved up to buy a car from an auction. Then one morning, somebody stole her car.
"Then everybody was carless again, except my aunt, so my grandmother started using her car. My other aunt still didn't have a car, so we all tried to use that one car. Impossible."
But he found a possibility. The spring semester of his sophomore year, he started working after school at the Piggly Wiggly on 13th Street in Phenix City. He could walk the 1.6 miles between home and the supermarket.
Store manager Patsy Taylor called LaMarieous "a very sharp young man that wants to make something out of himself. … He walked every day in the rain or whatever, that young'un was here."
The job helped him pay his family's bills and save enough money to buy a 1996 Nissan Altima. The job and car boosted his self-image.
"It made me feel very good and very independent," he said. It also allowed him to pay the favor forward by giving other friends rides.
"I learned that I'm a very hard worker," he said, "but I probably need to work harder at not giving myself away in the face. Customer service, that's a very tough job. I learned that, no matter what a customer says, always be polite and keep my composure."
But he couldn't keep his grades up, so he quit the job during the fall of his junior year.
"If I wasn't at work, I was doing something with ROTC and trying to balance school and maintain a car," he said. "It was too much."
Without the job, he couldn't afford to drive the car. So he went back to Piggly Wiggly last April after getting his grade-point average back to a 3.0.
"I really needed the money," he said.
'Downhill from there'
But his car broke down in November, and "it just all went downhill from there," he said. "I wasn't really focused on schoolwork like I should have been. I started staying at home more and missed school days. I was tired. I walked to work and walked the entire time at work and had to walk home. I was too tired to do the homework, then I would stay home to do the homework. Then I started comparing myself to other people, and I was really depressed."
The confident young man who strode tall -- who even walked 5 miles to school when he missed the bus or couldn't get a ride -- suddenly started shuffling with his head down.
"I was embarrassed to have to walk to work," he said.
LaMarieous wanted to quit school and buy a bus ticket to … to … well, he didn't care where.
"I was just going to go somewhere and not come back," he said.
And he wasn't going to tell anybody.
"I guess I thought I could run away from problems," he said.
But first, one day this winter, LaMarieous visited a lawyer's office across from the Piggly Wiggly and asked about becoming emancipated and dropping out of school.
The lawyer dissuaded him and helped LaMarieous realize how close he was to graduating and having a path to a brighter future.
"I was tired of being strong," he thought. "I can't do this."
So he gave his supporters at Central the chance to help him.
Jenny Kite, the senior counselor at Central, called LaMarieous "a fine young man who has so much potential. … He had come too far and worked too hard to just throw it all away.
"We worked out a game plan for him to get back on track in order to finish high school."
Sun and son rising
LaMarieous scored a 21 on the ACT and was accepted into Alabama, where he plans to major in accounting or finance.
"I really want to own a business," he said. He isn't sure which kind of industry, "but I want it to be like a conglomerate and something that people would need."
He earned a scholarship from the Hudson Family Foundation, plus other financial aid, such as a Pell Grant.
And he'll get to room with his best friend, Diondre Threatts, who was inspired by watching LaMarieous persevere.
"He encouraged me to do better," Threatts said. "He's a very strong-minded person. He can look back and see where he came from and where he got to."
LaMarieous learned to not take on too much at one time and to not worry about stuff he can't control.
He used to wish he could live in a better environment. Now, he uses that notion as motivation to succeed.
"I stayed true to myself," he said. "Even though I saw a lot of people doing bad things, I knew that's not me."
Last year as a junior, LaMarieous, the student who was speechless after trying on his cap and gown last week, won first place in the county and district in the American Legion Oratorical Contest.
Then he turned his speech into an essay that won first place in the state in the Sons of the American Revolution Knight Essay Contest. In his essay, "Sunset or Sunrise -- You Decide," LaMarieous wrote:
"At the Constitutional Convention, it is noted that Benjamin Franklin couldn't determine whether the image on the chair used by George Washington represented the dawn of a new day, or dusk and darkness coming on the land.
"Once the constitution was finally approved and signed on September seventeenth, Franklin said, 'Now, I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not a setting, sun.'"
LaMarieous has shown he is a rising sun -- and son.
"He always wanted to do better," said Tasha, his mother, who read to him as early as her pregnancy.
When he graduates with his fellow Red Devils in Garrett-Harrison Stadium, LaMarieous said, "I think I may be a bit emotional, considering everything that's happened. I'll be excited to go to Alabama, but I'll also be kind of sad. Every morning I wake up, I realize I'm getting closer. Oh, man. I can't believe it.
"I'm more self-confident because I know that I actually endured. I made it to this day."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.