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Outsmarting the streets

The voice was never far away. “When I was younger I used to wonder who or what it was,” Fredrick Burns says. “But now I know it was the devil.” The better grades Burns made, the nicer he was to people, the more goals he set, the sooner the voice returned: “You are from the streets. That is where you belong. Quit believing all this stuff people are telling you and listen to me. I know you.”

At Wingfield High School’s graduation last week, it was Burns’ time to talk -as valedictorian, having earned a 4.25 GPA on a 4.0 scale because of his excellence in accelerated classes. “Nobody knows how far this young man has come,” says Tyrone Keys, a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears Super Bowl champions and one of Burns’ mentors. Burns, 18, is the third eldest of 10 children who for years bounced from community shelters to foster care families. “I had good parents,” he says. “Please don’t embarrass them in the paper. Life is hard, and they just hit some stumbling blocks.” It trickled down. By age 12, Burns was smoking marijuana, fighting and stealing. Stealing what? “Food, man,” he says. “Trying to help me and my brothers and sisters survive.” That was difficult to picture at graduation as Burns walked confidently to the podium and delivered a speech that drew both stone silence and rousing ovations. At one point, Burns said: “For that young man or young lady in the audience who feels you are alone in the world ... you are not alone. Somebody loves you. All of those nights you cried silently before going to bed, trust me, God heard you. But you must stay strong in order to magnify his glory.” Linda Gorden, who manages the Burger King on State Street in Jackson, was there to see her niece and one of her employees graduate. She had never heard of Fredrick Burns. Now, she can’t stop talking about him. “That young man gave me chills,” Gorden says. “His words touched people’s souls. You could see it and feel it all around me.” Later that evening, at a rare gathering of Burns’ family, his aunt Shirley Burns walked up to him and hugged his neck. It was Shirley Burns who took her nephew into her home just before his ninth-grade year. “I am so proud of you,” she said to him, “because I was so afraid you were going to break my heart.”

The arguing was constant between his mom and dad. Often, it went beyond words. One night when Burns was in third grade, his mother gathered up the children and went to Stewpot Community Services, an outreach program for individuals and families down on their luck. They were placed at Matt’s House, an emergency shelter for women and children. Stewpot officials helped Burns’ family get a house on Deer Park Street in Jackson. His parents reconciled, but it wasn’t long before the shouting returned. Burns’ escape was the street. His dad eventually left. His mom “hit another stumbling block,” Burns says. “She went out one day and was supposed to be back in a few hours.” Hours turned into days and weeks. The 10 children went to live with an aunt in Byram, but she couldn’t handle them all. The Department of Human Services stepped in and sent them to the Sunshine Shelter, an emergency home for abused or neglected children, in Natchez. While there, Burns got into a fight with his brother Cedric. “Just a brotherly fight, nothing big,” Burns says. As they scuffled, a large man at the home approached them. “I guess he was trying to break it up, but I wasn’t thinking clearly then,” Burns says. Burns picked up a stick and swung at the man, who ducked. The stick split Cedric’s head open. Burns spent a week in the Natchez detention center and then was shipped off to a safe house in Jackson. “After Natchez, I didn’t know where my brothers and sisters were,” he says. Over the next three years, Burns lived with foster families in Jackson, Canton and Prentiss. He was sent to a group home in Memphis. He was angry and frustrated and lonely. And the voice kept popping up more frequently. You belong to the streets. That is when his aunt Shirley Burns stepped up. “I had raised one son and thought I was through with that part of my life,” she says. “But I had the room. I knew he needed help.” She also took in Dedrick. She laid down plenty of rules. “I told him he couldn’t be staying out late, that I didn’t want his friends in and out of the house, that the phone couldn’t be ringing all the time,” she recalls. “All Fredrick said was ‘Yes, ma’am. Yes ma’am.’ And he held up his end of the bargain.” He began to excel at school. Those seeds were planted and nurtured by Stewpot Community Services’ after-school program. “I first met Fredrick when he was 8 or 9,” says Caroline Ellender, director of Stewpot’s children’s services program. “He was a good student from the beginning. But it was a process. I was constantly telling him, ‘You have to sit down and finish your assignment.’ That allowed his intellect to grow. “And we talked a lot about verbalizing his feelings instead of jumping into a fight. We talked about calming down and thinking with a clear head. It took a while, but I began to see Fredrick turn the other cheek, so to speak. I knew he was making progress. I also knew he had unbelievable potential.”

In his aunt’s stable environment, Burns blossomed. Through Keys’ connections, Burns and several other high school students from across the Southeast attended the J.C. and Frankie Watts Youth Leadership Conference in Washington. Burns was named the Most Outstanding Leader. “He was a sophmore competing against seniors,” Keys says. Burns, who stands 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, found his niche in football. “I had a lot of frustration built up,” he says. During spring practice before his sophomore year at Wingfield, he hit a running back so hard that longtime coach Odell Jenkins immediately made him a starting linebacker. Against Meridian High that season, he made 14 tackles, blocked a field goal and sacked highly touted quarterback Tyler Russell three times. He has received no football scholarship offers, possibly because he missed eight games his senior year with a quadricep injury. He is leaning toward accepting a partial academic scholarship to Mississippi State University and walking on in football. “Wherever he goes, he’ll play,” Keys says. But his growth in recent years is about more than grades and football statistics. This year he helped classmates fill out their college applications. Burns chose to use money he earned working at the Crawdad Shack on Lakeland Drive to help pay students’ field trip fees. They couldn’t afford it. When he spotted a teammate in the locker room with underwear pieced together by safety pins, Burns bought him several pair. “You can’t describe Fredrick with one word,” Ellender says. “He is a leader. Creative. A survivor. Athletic. He’s all those things, but so much more.” She says he is also “a mother hen” when it comes to his siblings, whom he sees sporadically. The two eldest live in Jackson and have families of their own. Two sisters are with a foster family in Tupelo. Cedric lives with a foster family in West Point. Two other sisters reside with an uncle in Jackson. Dazmond, the youngest who is 6, is with a foster family in Jackson. Dedrick remains with his aunt. About a year ago, Burns asked Dazmond’s foster parents if he could visit. “Why would you want to do that to him?” one of them responded. “They finally agreed to let me go to church with them, and I got to see him like that,” he says. That afternoon, Burns showed Dazmond photographs of all his brothers and sisters. “I don’t know them,” he responded. “Man, that broke my heart,” Burns says. “See, my dream is that one day we’ll all get grown and become a family again. But I just worry that time has taken away so much. Will we have that bond like brothers and sisters should? Is that still possible?”

On the night of his graduation, another voice returned. It was his mother’s. “She told me things I’d never heard before,” he says, his voice cracking. “She told me, ‘I had my own troubles, but there wasn’t a night before I closed my eyes that I didn’t ask God to watch over all of you. And he did. Seeing you up there giving that speech today made me so proud of you.’ Burns fiddles with his cell phone for a few seconds. “I can’t tell you,” he says with a lump in his throat, “what hearing those words come out of my mama’s mouth meant to me.”