Former policeman with rough upbringing inspires teens
By Lou Fancher
Public school teachers and students take heart: the unexpected algebra of three little words — I’ll take him — can kickstart a transformation.
Those words spoken by Mrs. Thompson in 1979 to Alton Carter, a school-hating fourth-grade student who’d been booted out of another teacher’s classroom for insubordination, landed Carter, now a published author and inspirational speaker, on the Pittsburg High School stage on Sept.29, and days earlier atLa Paloma and Heritage high schools in Brentwood.
Carter traveled from his home in Oklahoma to tell his story to the Pittsburg students courtesy of the Pittsburg Pubic Library Friends group, Pittsburg High and a small grant from Poets & Writers. The visit was a return trip, one year after his first encounter with students at the high school left kids “mesmerized,” according to library manager Ginny Golden. “Several students came up to talk with him afterward. We know that for some kids here, this is their experience. One student told me, ‘Yeah, this is my life. I know what he’s dealing with.”’
The “bad things,” described in Carter’s 2015 memoir, “The Boy Who Carried Bricks,” include being raised by a mother who was a drug addict and would abandon Carter and his four siblings for days without food; a medical history that had him by age 10 having been to the doctor a half dozen times not for checkups but to have roaches removed from his ears; an uncle who forced him to drink alcohol and pushed him down a flight a stairs when he refused. Carter called the police on him, but after the uncle was arrested, Carter’s grandparents kicked him out of the house because he had “betrayed” their family.
Life on the streets treated him no better. No longer could he “survive” by playing “The Wishing Game.” Describing in his book the game he’d play while sitting in a tight circle with other kids in the family, Carter writes of wishing for shoes, to be rid of roaches and mice, a million dollars to buy a house for his mother so that he could live with her and how, despite never the wishes never coming true, “that simple game gave us hope that someday we would have what most kids took for granted.”
Picked up by county services and placed in the foster care system, Carter continued to suffer abuse. One group home leader forced the kids to carry bricks — giving his book its title — as punishment for “crimes” like spilt milk or failing to scrub an oil pan clean. “Bear crawls” on all-fours that covered half-mile distances were another form of “learning a lesson.” Carter told the students in Pittsburg, “A heart that’s that broken, grows back crooked.” By the time he aged out of the system, he’d been in 17 foster homes.
Fortunately, if not often enough, people like Mrs. Thompson were the “I’ll take you” exceptions in Carter’s life. His grandfather taught him that anyone using the word “nigger” obviously wasn’t talking to or about him, so there was no reason to get into a fight with that person. A family court judge who told Carter’s mother that she was “unfit to parent,” inadvertently marked a turning point in Carter’s maturity. Assuming responsibility for his future instead of angrily blaming other people for his past and present predicaments, Carter vowed never to hear a judge say, “Alton Carter, you’re not fit to be a father.”
Carter and his wife, Kristin, are the parents of two sons, Kelton and Colin. He is a graduate of Oklahoma State University, a former police officer, and director of youth ministries at First United Methodist Church of Stillwater. From a portion of his memoir’s sales, his Alton Carter Inspire Foundation provides financial assistance for young people aging out of the foster care system to earn a college degree.
“It’s up to you to decide what happens,” he told the students.”If you drop out of school, it’s nobody’s fault but your own.”
In an interview, the soft underbelly of Carter’s tough love message is more apparent. “When I speak to kids, I see things that make me feel the way I felt when I was 12.” During the morning’s first assembly, a cluster of kids who “never stopped talking, all through the whole presentation,” reminded him of his angry self. Having learned to “not tolerate abuse” and “never let my belief in myself get drowned out,” Carter said, “I am no longer crippled by things I can’t control.”
Dometri Rodriguez, 17, said Carter’s “be strong and don’t let anyone get you down” message was inspiring. After graduating, he plans to go to Diablo Valley College before transferring to a four-year college to earn a degree in child psychology. His grandparents praise him often, but he says hearing words of encouragement from his mom means the most to him.
Jacob Rodriguez, 17 and sharing a last name but unrelated to his classmate, offered similar sentiments. “I could hear praise from my parents daily—to keep me on track.” Indicating that he’d picked up Carter’s strongest signal, he added, “But it’s only you who can make your future positive.”