Originally created 03/03/98

Staying power

Some days Marcus Johnson gets tired. Tired of studying for tests and still doing bad. Tired of getting lousy grades. Tired of trying.

He has thought about dropping out.

His big brother dropped out of high school with one credit to go. His other brother dropped out last year, and most people in his Bradleyville, S.C., neighborhood have dropped out too.

Marcus, 15, failed a grade, putting him a year behind his peers. About 504 students don't graduate with their class each year in Aiken County, according to the South Carolina Department of Education.

But North Augusta High School's Seven to Nine dropout-prevention program helped Marcus make up coursework and catch up with his classmates in the ninth grade.

Marcus was one of 30 students in a class of teens who have dropped out, failed or need a little extra help to keep them in high school -- 18 are left.

"We're gonna pull Marcus through," says Linda Strojan, the guidance counselor who created and coordinates the program. "The problems each one of them has are so huge and insurmountable it's amazing they even get here. Marcus could be gone real easily because he's easily swayed -- but he's trying real hard."

"I'm trying to be good and catch up where I fell off at school," Marcus says. "I was goin' to school, but I wasn't paying attention."

He never was an A student. Mostly he came to school just to talk to his friends, he says. He left his homework in his locker.

He'd get so mad in class he'd throw papers off his desk or snap a pencil between his fingers. He was a regular in the detention room and was sent home a lot.

"I just kept getting in trouble," Marcus says.

He was suspended three times and failed sixth grade. Straight F's.

"I wanted to drop out," he says.

He sat in class drawing. The teacher didn't like that.

"She'd just snatch up my drawings, ball 'em up and throw 'em in the trash and make me sit in the hall," he says.

Then she'd write a note home to his mother telling her how disruptive he was.

"I'm raising Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," says his mom, Turetia Luchey, 43. "The things his teacher said he was doing he wouldn't do at home."

His mom's a long-term temp with no benefits. Marcus has three brothers and two sisters. His parents aren't married.

"There are six of us. My mom couldn't pay attention to just one person. She had to pay attention to every one of us," Marcus says.

"I see other students succeed. I wanted to, too.

So he started working.

In seventh grade he made B's and C's, except for a D in gym. He kept forgetting to bring his clothes to dress out. "Now I got this method," he says, tugging on his khaki pants. "I just wear my gym clothes up under my school clothes."

That summer he started the Seven to Nine program and he made his first set of A's.

"I felt good bringing a report card home," he says. That hadn't happened before.

He still hates sitting in desks because they hurt his back. And he detests the pushing and shoving through the halls. (He walks outside if he can.)

"You got your little societies and little cliques, and he's not in any of them," says Austin Newman, a 15-year-old freshman in Marcus' gym class. "He's mostly by himself. I think that's cool. I'm mostly by myself too."

At lunch Marcus is in constant motion. He grabs a soda and a candy bar and moves from group to group.

That afternoon, he aced a test on the Dewey Decimal System in English, sat through science, then went to his favorite class -- sixth period resource. "That's my coffee break at school," Marcus says.

It's the class that goes by the quickest. It's just Marcus and one other guy in Carolyn Huey's resource class. It's like study hall, she says. Since Marcus is a visual learner and a talented artist, they go through his vocabulary words and he draws them on the board instead of writing out the definition a hundred times.

For "infuriating" he drew a bald guy with an egg frying on his head. for "opportunist" he drew a wallet falling out of a man's pocket and another guy picking it up, for "controversy" he drew congressmen arguing -- then he erased it and drew President Clinton giving a speech.

"I see a motivation in Marcus I don't see in others," Ms. Huey says. "Most kids you can't get them to plug in. All year he's tried and tried. It hasn't been easy for him. But he's tried and done real well."

"I don't want to fail the ninth grade -- I just got up here," he says. "I'm hanging by a string, but I'm trying. I got a lot of people helping me now.

"Let me vamoose before my ride leaves," Marcus tells Ms. Huey after the bell rings.

After school's out he changes into camouflage pants and breaks engines down to the block and puts them back together. After he's finished rebuilding a rusty Yamaha he found at the junkyard he chains it to the skinny pine tree in his sandy back yard -- otherwise it would be stolen.

Round the side of the house, Cedar Grove Baptist Church's white van sits in his driveway. Marcus is painting new letters on the side.

He has brought home three-legged turtles, tadpoles, lizards and any animal that's hurt. He reads fix-it-yourself books and repairs people's cars. Someday he wants to own his own shop (and his own Cadillac -- he likes the wood grain and the power windows).

"You gonna go to college?" his 12-year-old sister, Leslie, asks.

"I don't know about that," Marcus says. He looked through Morehouse College's brochure and sent off for the T-shirt. But right now he's just concentrating on getting his high school diploma.

"If you drop out you're not gonna know much," says his 10-year-old sister Jessica. "When you go out in life you're supposed to explore things. If you drop out you won't know which way to go."

"Listen to Grandma Moses over there," their mom says. "Well said."


Sixty-nine percent of South Carolina's students graduated on time in 1996:

  • 72 percent in Aiken County;
  • 64 percent of Georgia's students graduated on time in 1995;
  • 56 percent in Richmond County;
  • 72.8 percent in Columbia County graduated on time.
  • Source Kids Count of Georgia and Kids Count of South Carolina


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