Marquise Cormier, in photo, shows posters announcing from his younger days as a child author and motivational speaker. Photo: Charlene Muhammad.
Part 1 of 2 articles. Read part 2 here.
LOS ANGELES--On the surface, Marquise Cormier seems like an average teenager—he’s happy, plays on his high school football team and likes going to parties. But underneath his 16-year-old shoulder pads is a weight of poverty and want brought on by the death of his grandfather and the severe illness of his grandmother.
The Los Angeles youth’s grandparents, Paul and Kenny Jones, had raised him since he was about a year old, at the request of Kenny’s son from an earlier marriage, who became the boy’s father when he was only 17. Marquise’s teenage mother did the best she could, Kenny said, but was simply unable to provide for him and her daughter.
The aging couple was uniquely qualified for their unexpected new parenthood of their grandson. Before retiring, both worked with young people. Kenny directed an at-risk youth center and Paul managed a gang intervention program in L.A.’s low-income and largely African American South Central section.
Marquise and his grandparents lived comfortably until Kenny, now in her late 60s, became ill, and Paul, in his mid-70s, died of a heart attack a year ago.
Prior to Paul’s death, he and Kenny relied on their two Social Security checks, and both Kenny and Marquise earned money through motivational speaking engagements and the sale of books they’d each written.
An Author at 7
By age 7, Marquise achieved recognition worthy of a child prodigy. To occupy himself on the weekends and stay out of trouble, the child entrepreneur bought wholesale products and created a company to sell them called Unique Treasures.
At the same age, he wrote the book, I Am Not a Problem Child (Milligan Books, 2002), about how he successfully fought his school’s plan to put him on medication and in special education classes.
Marquise was secure financially, mentally and spiritually in a home with two loving grandparents. He and Kenny were inseparable.
Then, in August 2009, Kenny began bleeding from her brain. About three weeks after she returned home, she was hospitalized again due to a severe allergic reaction to medication she took for an unrelated infection. Kenny found she’d developed a rare condition called Steven Johnson Syndrome, which causes severe allergic reactions to medication. She fell into a coma for 21 days, and emerged from it partially blind. Today, she continues receiving treatment.
Marquise’s stability was shaken. Kenny was everything to him -- grandmother, caregiver, publicist, manager, transporter and cheerleader. His grandparents meant a lot to him. The proud grandmother chronicled his life and accomplishments in several large-sized photo albums and scrapbooks, volumes that eventually took on special meaning for him.
“To go from where I was has been very, very difficult for me because I can’t see,” Kenny said. “I’m not able to get around like I used to, and I do things around my house based on memorization.”
Payday Loan “Hell”
Kenny detailed how her life with Marquise spiraled downward after Paul’s death. “Here I am, basically handicapped. I don’t have any money.”
Besides the emotional blow, Paul’s death slashed the household income by $3,000 a month – Paul’s Social Security and disability checks.
Her remaining income “doesn’t go very far,” she said. “It totals $1,164, and I still have a grandson I need to take care of.”
Kenny worried over costs, such as her past-due gas bill of $94 and utility bills. “I’m not able to help Marquise buy anything like I used to, nor take him around where he was very independent and earned his own money,” she said, adding: “Sometimes I feel very inept and inadequate. But I say, to God be the glory.”
A devout person, Kenny stressed that she doesn’t throw “pity parties,” and doesn’t blame God for her troubles.
Kenny tried to hold on to the home she and her husband had rented for years, but her reduced income made that hard.
Now, living at a low-income housing unit for seniors, she recalled, “When I came in here, I was so behind in debt due in part to medical bills after my husband died, I started getting payday loans, and that is bondage. That is straight out of the pit of hell! I found myself having to go back and continuously get a payday loan to pay off another payday loan, and another, and that’s how I had to balance it for a while to pay off all the payday loans,” she said.
Although Kenny was able to move into the senior complex, her lease agreement restricts the number of days visitors can stay overnight. As a result, Marquise must shuttle between her apartment and the homes of his maternal grandmother— who is also stretched thin helping both him and her other grandchildren.
“He’s changed,” Kenny said of Marquise. “He’s not a little boy anymore.”
She lamented, “Here he is, a junior in school. It’s winter time. He only has two pair of long pants that he’s outgrown because over the summer he shot up. He got thicker and taller. He has about two pair of sweats, one pair of jeans and some shorts. He has no clothes because I don’t have the money right now to let him go buy three or four pair of slacks. He plays football, and he does not complain because he wasn’t raised that way.”
Despite their hardships, Jones said she gets by because of her faith in God and help from family. Her daughter and a few friends make sure they have food, she said.
Marquise said he views the ordeal as a blessing in disguise because it helped him to mature. In these tough times, he said, he began to understand life in a different way and view it from others’ perspectives and experiences. He feels he became more humble and less selfish, and that the experience built up his leadership skills.
Marquise started taking buses and learned “when and when not to use my resources,” he said. He began selling candy because “I didn’t have any money at all to eat. I had to go the whole day without eating until I got home and hopefully, there was something to eat,” he said.
“It was just a process of me becoming I guess a man, if that’s what it is,” Marquise said.
He continued, “I adjusted by staying with God, first of all. That’s what kept me grounded and focused on what I needed to do. . . . I had to really sit down and think about what’s going to happen. What’s not going to happen. What I was going to allow to happen. What I cannot control and how to accept that.”
“This is Who I Am”
Marquise also found strength in the scrapbooks his grandmother had put together.
“I really went back to my book and was like, man, so this is who I am. This is what I really am, and I’ve got to prove to people this is who I still am. I really have a talk with myself,” he said.
Wistfully Marquise recounted: “Sometimes, subconsciously, I’d walk around with my shoulders back and my head up like, yeah, I’m not a problem child. I used to do the speaking engagements. I used to sign autographs all the time. Every time I sign my name on a paper, I write in cursive just because I feel like I’m signing a book again, and I feel like it’s my signature and it’s important.”
“I never thought I’d be in the situation I’m in now, looking back on my life,” said the 16- year-old.
Charlene Muhammad wrote this series through a New America Media Fellowship on the Hidden Face of Poverty. Part 2 will show that Marquise and his grandmother are far from unique, as generations struggle to get by in America.
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