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Bus 19: Life on the Line

Brothers seek a way up and out

George and Johnny Huynh want a better life - and they believe they can get it through school. They have to. It’s the only thing in their control.

By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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Fourth in a series of occasional articles chronicling the people, and the world, of Bus 19.

It’s 6:30 in the morning. The bus will be there in 15 minutes, and as usual George Huynh is still sleeping. He’ll sleep as late as he can. Teenage late. Ten minutes is all he says he needs, and he can pull it off. He showers at night, and eats breakfast at school because he likes that food better and, unlike at home, he knows there will be food there.

His older brother, Johnny, is already up and ready. He was awake until 2 doing his homework, but is always up in time to make sure George doesn’t push it too late. He watches for George’s light to come on; he’ll knock if it’s getting close.

With 10 minutes to spare, the light comes on and George shuffles down the dark hallway to the bathroom. He moves quietly. His older sister is still sleeping. So is his mother; or at least the door to her bedroom is shut. It’s usually shut.

With two minutes to spare, the brothers head down the stairs, past the second-floor unit that always reeks of weed, and out onto a cold morning on Geneva Avenue. The blue lights of police cars that rake the street many nights are gone and a pale blue dawn is spreading behind the three-deckers across the street.

The bus stop for the No. 19 is directly across the street from their house. This is the MBTA bus that goes from Fields Corner and Grove Hall in Dorchester to Dudley and Ruggles in Roxbury, connecting the dots between neighborhoods where struggling to make it is the norm.

But as Johnny looks down the street toward Fields Corner, he is looking for a different Bus 19, one that will carry him and George out of those neighborhoods. For once a day, the 19 becomes a charter bus to Boston Latin School.

Johnny spots the bus making its way up Geneva Avenue, and moves toward the street to signal the driver. Sometimes the driver will miss them and keep going. Johnny is 17, a junior in high school, and George is a 15-year-old sophomore, but they are small. They are easy to miss.

They board and immediately it feels like a different place. At the front, kids are playing chess on a portable board. The rest of the seats are full of kids reading or doing homework or sleeping. Most of them are white kids from the Irish-Catholic neighborhoods of Dorchester; few have been handed much in life.

Since seventh grade, this has been George and Johnny’s routine. Wake up on their own. Get themselves on the bus. Go to school. Work extraordinarily hard.

They do this because they have been promised something by Boston Latin School, something they both desperately want - a better life - and they are trying to study their way there. They are two of the top students in the city; theirs is the kind of Geneva Street story you just don’t often hear.

Schoolwork is not the concern. They can handle the famously rigorous curriculum at Boston Latin. The concern is how they handle everything else, with so little to lean on but each other.

“They’re living on the side of a cliff,’’ said Emmett Folgert, the mentor they have come to rely on for so much, “and any moment they can slip.’’

Police at the door

Johnny does this thing with his legs where he bounces them up and down frantically, as though he’s counting out an endless list of things to do to keep things from crumbling on him. At times, it’s almost as if his whole body is buzzing.

George is the opposite. He says little and shares less. If pushed, he will say simply that he gets it done: the bus, school, after-school activities, back to Dorchester on the train, basketball practice, homework past midnight.

Johnny works most afternoons tutoring Vietnamese kids, then walks home with his head down and his hands in his pockets, past the trouble on the street.

They live in a quiet house. Their mother doesn’t speak English. The boys don’t understand much Vietnamese. The living room is used for storage. Most of the time, everyone is alone in their room. That’s where they all were that night, three years ago, when the police came to the door.

George doesn’t remember much of that night, only that one of the officers was Asian and carried a photo of his father. The boys didn’t see their father much, and when they did they had to meet him at a police station.

They weren’t exactly sure why they had to meet him at the station, but they assumed it had something to do with his beating them, and their mother. But their father, David Huynh, spoke English, so they could at least talk to him. And despite it all, they still loved him.

The police had a translator with them, and the translator told their mother the news. David Huynh had jumped off the Tobin Bridge. It would be a while before the boys learned the full details, before their mother told them he had died from suicide. But the police gave them a bag with some of his belongings, and Johnny remembers that the wallet was wet, and his father couldn’t swim. He went into his room and cried a lot that night. But not George. He just held his head in his hands for a very long time.

From Grove Hall to Gatsby

In a second-floor classroom at Boston Latin, George drags his desk across the old wooden floors and pushes it into a group with three other students. The 10th-grade English class has just finished reading “The Great Gatsby’’ and is gathering into groups.

The teacher walks around the room and assigns each group a character from the book. George’s group gets Gatsby, the main character, a poor man who tries to win back a wealthy girl by building his own fortune; the class has been discussing him as a parable of “The American Dream.’’

The group must make a poster critiquing Gatsby like you might in an online review of a hotel or restaurant, rating him on things like “compassion’’ and how “American’’ he is.

The three other students in the group debate the topics. George writes his thoughts down.

“He is American,’’ he scribbles on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, “to the extent that he is living a life of luxury.’’

Boston Latin, the city’s top entrance exam school, gives off a feeling of aspiration. It is the nation’s oldest school, founded in 1635, a year before Harvard. The school’s name is almost always preceded with adjectives like “elite’’ or “prestigious.’’ But such labels obscure the fact that its student population is rather scrappy. It’s the kids of Boston, in all their breadth and variety, ticking every racial and social and cultural box. The only thing they really share is promise.

The American Dream is sold in heaping spoonfuls at Boston Latin, especially in the auditorium, which is next door to George’s English class.

Inside, names of the school’s famed alumni ring the frieze, names like Hancock and Emerson and Kennedy. There remains always one empty space, open to the next great alumnus. The idea they push at Latin is that all students have access to that level, regardless of where they begin.

George and Johnny work hard, but their aspirations are decidedly lower than making the top frieze in the Latin auditorium. They don’t quite know what they want. They’re teenagers; the future is a foreign country. They just know that they want out of their present situation.

Sitting one day in the auditorium, beneath the giant-font names, Johnny is talking about a North Face jacket. He wants one desperately because that’s what the other kids at Latin wear. “I’m jealous,’’ he says. “But I’m only jealous because I have to work to get the bare necessities. That’s my only option.’’

It’s a life of welfare, of food stamps, of Section 8 housing, of putting out cockroach and mouse traps at home. Hard, but not that unusual in their part of town. What is comparatively rare is their will to break out, and to do it together.

After high school, Johnny’s thinking, he would like to go to a local university and study computer science, because he’s been told that’s a pretty stable path, and stable sounds appealing. Maybe he can get married, he says. Maybe he can get a dog.

“I just want to fit in,’’ he says. “I’m tired of being known as that poor kid who is struggling.’’

Hoping to be noticed

Johnny’s usual table in the cafeteria is full so he awkwardly takes a seat at a table where two girls are doing schoolwork. He has a class with one of them, but they pay no attention to him.

He’s been working out. He has a weight bench in his room now. He’s trying to put on some muscle. Girls, he says, don’t pay attention to small people; they like big white guys. There isn’t much protein at home, mostly rice and noodles, so he ordered some whey powder on the Internet. He’s been talking a lot about it, waiting expectantly for it to arrive. He tried to buy the whey at GNC at the mall, but the woman wouldn’t sell it to him. She told him he had to be 18, and that he should talk to his doctor. If he was a regular white kid, he doesn’t believe she would have hassled him.

The bell rings and as he walks out of the cafeteria, he points out a freshman. The boy had recently harassed him, he says. “I think he thought I was an eighth-grader.’’

He’s a junior now, but he’s only 5 feet 2 inches and 100 pounds. He’s tired of being small, tired of going unnoticed. “Who the hell doesn’t want to be bigger?’’ he says. “Who the hell wants to be small and tiny?’’

Throwing out a lifeline

Emmett Folgert walks into a small conference room in the Dorchester Youth Collaborative and greets Johnny and George. The boys have been sitting across from two women from Catholic Charities, who have been interviewing them about their personal lives, about school, about the suicide. Folgert had arranged the meeting, and he stops in see how it’s going. Three years ago, he got the charity to pay for their father’s funeral, and now the boys are going to deliver a speech at the charity’s $500-a-plate black tie Christmas gala.

The conference room, like everything else at DYC, is threadbare. The center, which Folgert founded 30 years ago above a row of shops on Dorchester Avenue, is little more than a few empty rooms filled with broken furniture, a few computers, a Ping-Pong table, and a room in the back where kids practice break dancing and crumping. Usually, kids are also playing video games, but the PlayStation has been stolen again.

It was in this conference room that Folgert first met Johnny, seven years ago. Johnny had been playing cards with some friends at the library next door, and followed them up to the center. Folgert noticed the new face, and asked Johnny how he was doing. He immediately burst into tears and put his head down. Folgert asked the rest of the kids to leave the room.

“He just spilled. His emotions were so high,’’ Folgert remembers. “He told me his father had been thrown out of the house, something about a court order, and I said ‘Well if it’s a court order, maybe it’s a good thing.’ And he said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand; my mother . . .’ ’’ He told Folgert about mental problems she suffered, about the medications she took, about the way things sometimes got badly skewed.

Johnny was too young to come to DYC, which is a drop-in for kids 12 and up, but Folgert knew the stakes were high so he let him stay. “These are the exact sort of kids that get recruited into gangs, and we have a thriving Asian gang culture up and down Dorchester Avenue,’’ Folgert says.

The DYC is full of kids with horrors at home. Folgert, a tall man with a soft demeanor who is almost always wearing a scally cap, views his job as being somebody they can count on. “It’s that simple,’’ he says.

But with Johnny and George, who soon started to come to DYC as well, there was something deeper. Too many give in to the struggle, Folgert says, but these boys refused to.

Folgert is famous in Fields Corner as the white guy who gives out one-dollar bills. He peels them off, two or three at a time, so that kids can go to McDonald’s and get something to eat. He learned long ago you can’t talk to kids if they’re hungry. For years, Johnny would pocket that money - it was the only cash he had access to - and use it to buy things the family needed.

Folgert now fills a lot of those gaps; he’ll buy school supplies for the boys, make sure they have clothes, and try to give them an occasional break from the work of getting by.

He told Johnny that if he saved up half of the money for the North Face jacket, he would cover the rest. When he took Johnny to the mall to get the jacket, he ended up just buying it and got one for George, too. Lately, Folgert has been helping them try to move again. The family has moved five or six times in the last few years, looking for a decent home.

One apartment had fleas. Their current apartment has lousy heat, and the wafts of marijuana smoke from the floor below are too much. They’ve found a place they like, but can’t come up with the deposit. They’ve asked Folgert for help. He has become a father figure to both boys, the first man they had been able to count on.

Folgert wraps up the meeting with the women from Catholic Charities. He can see the boys are tired and hungry, and he takes them to dinner at an Applebee’s. As he drives, he tries to explain to them why they have to get dressed up and stand in front of a room full of strangers and talk about their personal lives.

“You get a lot from us,’’ he says to them, “but we get a lot from you. You represent those people who face obstacles and get it done. It’s not just about you. It’s about all the kids in your situation.’’

The car is quiet for a bit, and Folgert asks the boys if what he said made sense.

“We’re diamonds in the rough,’’ Johnny says. “Or we’re just as rough but a little shiny.’’

A mother’s private turmoil

Johnny opens the door to his apartment and looks down the hallway toward his mother’s bedroom. It’s the middle of the afternoon and her door is shut. He has no idea if she’s in there. He has no idea what she does in there. There’s a lot he doesn’t know about his mother.

Johnny dumps his backpack in his room and heads back out the door to go to his after-school tutoring job in Fields Corner.

In a private moment when the boys aren’t around, Nhung Bui will admit that she knows her boys blame her. Much of it is deserved, she says, but there is much they don’t know.

Her mother died in a terrible bus accident in Saigon when Nhung was 8, and her father had moved the family to the country. She later moved back and met her husband while working at a Saigon coffee shop. He was four years older. He had fought with the United States in the war and then was put in a communist “reeducation’’ camp for more than five years.

He was “weird,’’ she said, and she was afraid of him. But her stepmother insisted they get married, for David’s military service opened the possibility of immigrating to the United States. She did not love him. But they had been told that money fell from the sky in America. Plus, defying her parents’ wishes was unthinkable.

After coming to the United States in 1992, she was lost. The weather was so cold, and she was very afraid of this new land. She says her husband put her through private horrors that she has kept hidden from her children. There are things, she says, that her children do not need to know.

Her health became strained. “I was told that I have mental health problems, and I have a hard time to sleep at night,’’ she says through a translator. And she struggled to raise American children who had wants and demands and attitudes she could not understand.

After her husband died, a wall went up between her and the boys. The children thought they shouldered all the responsibilities, and that she had driven their father away. Whenever she goes into their rooms to talk, they kick her out, she says.

“The children blame me, yes, and I am so sad about that,’’ she says. “I try so hard to raise them and so hard to protect them, but nobody knows the hell I went through.’’

Trying to make the cut

The whistle blows and George charges down the basketball court. He’s pushing hard, trying to impress the JV coach, because this is the sort of drill where he can shine. He’s smooth dribbling a basketball, can move quickly up the court. If he’s going to stand out among the two dozen kids trying to make the team, he knows he has to do it away from the basket, away from the taller kids.

He looks good all the way down the court, then runs into reality. As he approaches the basket, he has to heave the ball up to get it off the glass for a layup.

Another whistle, and the coach has them line up by height on the baseline so he can divide them into groups for drills in tight to the basket. At 5 feet tall, George is at the far end; he’s almost six inches shorter than the short kids. The drills begin and he looks lost, swallowed up.

Back in Dorchester on his Asian basketball club, George is the starting point guard, one of the stronger players. At the YMCA in Chinatown, where he goes to play full-court pickup games, he’ll take charge of the offense, his movements assured, confident. He can play with the Asians, and his strategy for making the team at Boston Latin is to beat out the other Asians.

After the final day of tryouts, George gets dressed and walks to the bus stop in front of Boston Latin and waits for the No. 19 to take him home. He’s not feeling very confident. “At the end, the coach put me in a group with a lot of the Asians that aren’t very good,’’ he says. “That’s significant.’’ Later on, he updates his status on Facebook. “Height,’’ he writes, “is such a commodity.’’

The next morning, right after he gets off the bus, George walks to the athletic office, looks quickly at the list of names posted there, then puts his head down and walks back to the cafeteria to eat breakfast.

Shut out at the movies

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, a half-day at Boston Latin, and when school lets out Johnny walks to the Green Line stop on Huntington Avenue with his friend Giovanni DePaulo. They’re on their way to the movies, which has become a tradition for the two of them, and this time it will be a landmark, because Johnny is now 17 and can get them both into an R-rated film.

Johnny met Giovanni in seventh grade. They were in the same homeroom, and they were both into video games. They became fast friends, and Giovanni started bringing Johnny home to his family in East Boston. Johnny liked the DePaulos; they had nice things, and Giovanni’s parents, Thom and Sheila, would do things he wasn’t used to, like ask how his day had been.

On the Green Line trolley headed downtown, Johnny seems anxious. He wants to see a movie called “Invincible,’’ and he wants to get to the theater before noon to get a matinee price.

When they arrive and look up at the digital marquee, they see “Invincible’’ doesn’t start until after noon, and it’s in 3D, which means the ticket price is almost double what he was expecting to pay. “That’s just way too much,’’ he says.

Giovanni could cover Johnny, but he doesn’t reach into his pocket. When he first started bringing Johnny home, the DePaulos could see they embarrassed Johnny when they tried to give him things. Johnny doesn’t like to be treated like a charity case. They limit their gifts to special occasions.

Johnny and Giovanni discuss their options and decide on another movie that neither of them is too thrilled about. There is time before the movie starts, so they walk up the street to UBurger. It’s one of those upscale fast-food joints, and the prices are much higher than the McDonald’s in Fields Corner. In front of them in the line are a bunch of students from Latin, though they don’t say anything to Johnny or Giovanni. One of the girls holds up a couple of twenties and says to her friends, “Does anyone want anything? My mother gave me some money.’’

The kindness of strangers

December arrives, and George and Johnny start preparing for the gala. They work on their speech with Folgert, and he takes them to Men’s Warehouse to buy suits. George doesn’t want to wear a kids’ clip-on tie, the only one that fits him, so one has to be shortened. George goes for a bow tie. It takes them forever to decide on a shirt color.

Back at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, Folgert has them rehearse their speech in the room typically used for breakdancing, and preps them on how the night will unfold, who will be there, how they should act.

When the day comes, Folgert makes sure the boys get to the Fairmont Copley early so they can get a feel for the room. While waiters in white gloves set the tables, they run through the speech again and again. When Folgert is busy, the boys horse around at the microphones.

As the guests arrive, Folgert introduces the boys around. These are the people who help kids like you, he told them.

Their mother arrives with a translator. She has dressed nicely. She stands quietly and says nothing.

The guests take their seats. Dinner is served. The boys laugh at their photo in the program. A few seats away, their mother picks at the unfamiliar food.

After dinner, the room goes dark and a video is shown highlighting the charity’s work. As it plays, Folgert leads the boys to the podium.

The first half of their speech is jokey, a back-and-forth about who is taller, who is smarter, culminating with a story of the time their mother received a turkey from Catholic Charities. She didn’t know what to do with it so she stuffed it with noodles. The crowd laughs.

Things are going well; their delivery is better than in rehearsals. Then they get to the second half of the speech, the part about their father’s death.

First, George tells the story of that night when the police came to the door, carrying their father’s photo. Then Johnny picks up the story. “He was only 54,’’ he says. “He took his own life. And we didn’t have any money.’’

As he says the word “money,’’ Johnny cracks. He tries to push on, but the words won’t come out of his throat.

His whole body seems to cave in on itself, and Folgert leaps up from his seat to support him. His face contorts into sobs. He keeps trying to push the words out, and he keeps losing his breath.

Slowly, he regains his composure as many in the audience lose theirs, and the boys limp to the end of the speech. Johnny is curled up in Folgert’s embrace.

“There are times,’’ Johnny says finally, “when we all need to depend on the kindness of strangers.’’

“It’s true,’’ George finishes.

Johnny staggers from the lectern. The crowd rises to its feet and cheers.

Folgert leads them out of the room to fresh air. Johnny is still very upset, struggling to compose himself.

George has been George; he has kept it together quietly, but now there is real emotion in his eyes.

He reaches out to his older brother and offers his hand. They shake. Then the little brother pulls his big brother in, and gives him a hug.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com

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