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Created: February 26, 2003
Latest Update: February 26, 2003
Rescuing a Boy From the Streets
A policeman's decision to help a 9-year-old instead of taking him into custody transforms both lives in ways they didn't imagine.
By Sandy Banks
Times Staff Writer
February 26, 2003
Derwin Henderson first encountered 9-year-old Terrance Flournoy six years ago, breaking into Compton's Centennial High. An off-duty cop with 10 years on the job, Henderson was coaching a youth football team on Centennial's field when he was summoned by suspicious neighbors who had seen a group of boys slip inside.
The boys broke and ran when the policeman arrived — all but Terrance, who stood his ground and met the officer's eyes. He wasn't stealing, he said, just sneaking around in the closed school "because I don't have nothing else to do."
Henderson had heard that before. Patrolling the streets for the Los Angeles Police Department, he had arrested more than 500 kids: burglars, rapists, drug dealers, robbers. "Hook and book" had become his motto. "I thought juvenile hall was where they belonged."
But he had begun a new assignment the year before: visiting schools for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, talking to children about gangs and drugs. And in every class, he met boys like Terrance: aimless kids destined to drift into trouble, all energy and audacity. Bit by bit, boy by boy, he was coming to another point of view.
So he didn't take Terrance into custody, at least not in the LAPD sense of the word. That turned out to be a momentous decision for both the boy and the officer.
"Nothing to do?" Henderson said. "Come with me."
He led the boy to the football field. Henderson had recently taken over his nephew's Pop Warner team, because the coach had quit unexpectedly. Already he had loaded it with boys he met on his rounds of inner-city schools.
Terrance shook his head when Henderson asked him to join the squad. His mother wouldn't let him, he said. The family had just spent six months in a shelter for the homeless. There was hardly money for groceries, much less football.
So when practice ended, Henderson drove the boy home and made his mother an offer he had made to other mothers: He'd pay the fees if she would let him join. Like the others, she signed up her son. She was 25 and single, with four children and problems of her own. She knew she needed help with her burly, hard-headed oldest child.
At first, Terrance wasn't much good at football. He was big, but didn't know his left from his right. Still, he seldom missed practice, even when he had to walk the three miles to the park.
Henderson coached his team the way his dad had coached him. Henderson had been the star wide receiver at Harbor City's Narbonne High School and earned his college degree on a football scholarship at James Madison University in Virginia.
Discipline, he would tell his players, means investing in something outside yourself. His boys couldn't be late for practice, be disrespectful to teammates, talk back to coaches or get bad grades.
From the start, it was a struggle.
Most of his players came from families too poor to afford league fees and uniforms. So, Henderson ponied up the money.
Many had no way to get to practice, because their single mothers had no cars or worked nights or were just too busy to get them there.
So Henderson took the money he had been saving for a house and bought a van big enough to carry them all. Some boys wouldn't show up for Saturday games. So Friday nights, they went home with him.
On those overnights with his players, Henderson tried to simulate the middle-class childhood he knew growing up in Hawthorne 30 years ago.
His father, Louis, was a salesman at Sears but found time to coach his son's baseball and football teams. His mother, Betty, worked part-time as a clerk but spent most of her time tending Henderson and his sister, Carletta. "What I remember most," he said, "is they were always there."
So he gave each player chores — setting the table, taking out garbage — "so they'd have some responsibility," he said. "We'd go to sleep at a certain time, get up in the morning all together, have breakfast as a family, then head for the game. I wanted them to see what that felt like."
To some boys, the hard-nosed Henderson seemed more warden than coach. Many quit the team. Others were kicked off for breaking rules. But Terrance soaked up the attention.
Henderson realized Terrance was coming around the night that an 11-year-old teammate stole the coach's cell phone. Terrance went to him and fingered the thief. "That went against everything he'd learned on the streets," Henderson said.
On the field, Terrance's hard work was paying off. A running back with size, speed and tenacity, he began to attract the attention of high school coaches.
But off the field, his life was careening out of control. He was arguing with his mother, battling her boyfriends, fighting his schoolmates, failing his classes.
His mother would be gone for days, and he would skip school to baby-sit his siblings. He ran the streets with older boys, who called him Duke because he was always ready to brawl.
"Terrance was so streetwise," recalled Henderson, now 38. "He knew everybody, knew where to get drugs. When he was 10, I'd call his house.... It would be 1 a.m. and he'd be out with his friends. He was 10 years old and nobody knew where he was!
By 11, he was like a grown man inside — he had done so much just to survive."
And at 11, Terrance cinched his outcast status when he was expelled from fifth grade for brandishing a knife in a schoolyard fight. Permanently banned from public school, he was sent to an alternative campus full of teenage gangbangers.
The place was a warehouse, Henderson said. No books, no homework; teachers just going through the motions. They were surprised to see the soft-spoken, strait-laced policeman show up whenever Terrance got in trouble. I don't know why you bother, they'd say. The boy will never amount to anything.
"Prove them wrong," Henderson would tell Terrance. "That's how you fight it. Prove them wrong."
But behind the bold talk, Henderson was questioning himself. How had a cop who never gave a second thought to hundreds of delinquent boys become a man who couldn't stop worrying about one?
He realized that his work with DARE, designed to change young lives, had actually changed him.
"I saw kids I would have put in juvenile hall and realized they were crying out for help," he said. "I saw their lives, their families, their neighborhoods. It changed my views about young people. Some never had the opportunities ... like you had, like I had. Didn't every kid deserve that chance?"
It didn't matter that Terrance kept falling. Henderson admired the way he kept getting up. "So many times, Terrance tried to do the right thing, but there was always so much working against him," Henderson said. "I just wanted him to have a chance."
So he started picking up Terrance after school, feeding him, taking him to football practice, taking him along on errands. They would run, lift weights, watch football together. "I told him to watch me, listen to how I talk, how I conduct myself. Do what I do." It's the way boys have been learning to be men forever.
Terrance didn't consider it a lesson. He just knew: "If D was rollin', I wanted to roll with him."
Rolling with D became his way out of trouble. Terrance began calling the coach when he felt angry and overwhelmed: "Come get me, D, before I hurt somebody." Each time, Henderson would drive from West Los Angeles to Compton, wrestling with feelings of pride and dread.
Football could be Terrance's ticket to college, if only he could sidestep trouble. Henderson had seen other talented players spiral off his team and wind up in gangs, on drugs or jailed. One boy he kicked off the team for a bad attitude was found the next week in a trash bin, dead.
Terrance was on the verge of his own epiphany. He had seen buddies brought down by gangs and drugs. When one of his best friends was shot, "I realized that could happen to me," he said. He didn't want to go out like that. "I said, 'Enough. I'm getting out.' "
He called his coach "because I knew he'd come. Because whenever I called him, he always showed up." Neither of them may have realized it then, but Henderson was the first adult the 12-year-old Terrance had learned to trust.
The coach hesitated when that phone call came. He was growing weary of the drama of Terrance's comings and goings. "If you're sure you're ready," Henderson told him, "pack your things. And take all your stuff, because we are not coming back to Compton."
When he got there Terrance was waiting, holding one tiny duffel bag. A frustrated Henderson exploded: "I thought I said get all your things!"
This is it, Terrance told him softly, tossing his bag on the floor of the car. He had one pair of pants, a shirt, two pairs of socks, the shoes on his feet and a set of underwear.
They headed home to West L.A. and a life together that would challenge them both.
"Having Terrance around kind of messed up my lifestyle," Henderson recalled with a rueful smile. He was 35 and single. There were nights that he had to forgo dates "because I couldn't find anybody to keep Terrance" — never mind that Terrance had never really been "kept" before.
Henderson didn't realize that a growing boy would eat so much, take up so much space and make so many dumb mistakes. But he learned to live with less free time, less money and the constant undercurrent of worry that comes with raising a teenage boy.
He met Latoria Bouie, who became his girlfriend, and she has exerted a gentling influence, alternately scolding and spoiling Terrance in the way a doting big sister might. When Terrance enrolled in ninth grade last summer, the three of them moved to an apartment near Cathedral High School, a Catholic institution on the edge of Chinatown.
Terrance hasn't always made it easy. He has struggled to fit in at all-male Cathedral, where the boys wear uniforms, say, "Yes, ma'am" and "No, sir," and study religion along with algebra. He had missed so much school over the years that he tested at the sixth-grade level and had to go to summer classes.
Unaccustomed to buckling down, he complained that the work was too hard, that teachers picked on him.
It seemed like every day," Henderson said, "I got a call at work and had to go to school to deal with some problem."
But Henderson made it clear that there would be no football in the fall if Terrance didn't get his act together. By September, Terrance had passed all but one class and had won over his teachers with his dedication.
Now he's at grade level, closing in on a B average and even tutoring other classmates.
"He's just a great kid," said Cathedral's football coach, Kevin Pearson. "Very mature, appreciative, respectful, accountable. He's not perfect, but he never makes excuses for his mistakes. He's got a sense of direction that you don't often see in a kid that young."
At home, Terrance has a closet full of clothes and shoes, a computer, a cell phone, a Playstation 2 and a growing stack of video games. There's a big-screen TV in the living room, which is often crowded with his friends. Still, he sometimes chafes at his lack of freedom, at having to account for every hour to a man so cautious that he won't let a 15-year-old walk to school alone.
"I run a kind of militaristic household," Henderson admitted. "Everything here is by the book." Terrance smiled and rolled his eyes at the understatement. In this family, there's a schedule for everything: what time you wake up, when you do your homework, what hours you can use the phone.
They argue about bad grades, a messy room, too much time on the phone with girls — the typical things that cause friction between fathers and sons.
And sometimes they clash in ways that remind them that they are not, after all, father and son. Their relationship is one that can be undone.
"I put him out once," Henderson admitted. Terrance had yelled at him during an argument. "I'd told him from the start: I will not tolerate that in my household. You raise your voice at me and you're out the door. I don't care where you go, but you've got to go."
Terrance was gone for one night. He came back contrite. They haven't had that problem since.
Last month, the pair took a big step. Henderson became Terrance's legal guardian, giving him the authority to make decisions about the boy's life, but also bringing a sobering measure of financial responsibility.
"I know a lot of people wonder why I'm doing this, what's in it for me," Henderson said. "My own mother gets a little upset — the money, the time. She says I do too much. Sometimes I think about that. But then I look at Terrance.... "
He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to.
Terrance occasionally visits both his mother and his father, who was recently released from prison.
But he has come to understand the hazards. While he was visiting the home of a childhood friend in Compton recently, a fight broke out and a girl he didn't know stabbed him with a pair of scissors. He tried to block the blow and she nearly severed a finger, slicing through tendons in his hand.
Doctors say he'll be all right in time for spring football practice, a relief to Terrance and Coach Pearson. Last fall, Terrance broke his collarbone in his third game as a starter. In his first game back, he injured an ankle and had to sit out the rest of the season.
His reaction was a measure of both his maturity and his vulnerability.
"He didn't get angry," Pearson said. "He didn't give up. But I found him in the locker room at midnight, propped up against his locker, crying. He was worried that he'd lost his shot, that he'd disappointed everybody. I told him: 'It's OK to cry, but you have got a lot of football left.' "
And Terrance has discovered that there are other things in life that offer success.
He watched alongside Henderson from the sidelines as his team played its final game and lost in the playoffs in December.
The next weekend, at the championship game, Henderson watched alone from the stands. All night long acquaintances asked, "Where's your son? How's he doing?"
Terrance had decided not to come, Henderson told them. Finals were coming up the next week. His son was at home, studying.