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StoryCorps is an independent nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.

To Save A Failing Student, This Dean Offered Not Just Help — But 'Family'

Carlos Walton, 45, and Jim Saint Germain, 27, on a visit with StoryCorps in New York City.
Carlos Walton, 45, and Jim Saint Germain, 27, on a visit with StoryCorps in New York City.

Jim Saint Germain moved to the U.S. from Haiti as a kid. But the adjustment wasn't easy. He was often in trouble — so often, in fact, that by the age of 14, he was kicked out of his house by his parents.

That's when Saint Germain's middle-school dean, Carlos Walton, stepped in — even offering Saint Germain a place to stay for a short time. As Saint Germain recalls, Walton's house was clean, filled with pictures of black leaders and something more intangible: love.

"You were the first man ever who told me that you loved me," Saint Germain tells Walton, on a recent visit with StoryCorps. "And I remember telling you that back, and I remember feeling awkward. Where I'm from, we don't tell other men that we loved them. That was big."

Walton says that love came from a place of empathy. He seeks out those kids whom most teachers give up on, partly because he used to be one of them himself.

"I am that group, you know?" Walton says. "I remember being told that I couldn't get a recommendation for college. I remember hearing people like me don't belong here."

Saint Germain heard the very same things growing up — "but I knew better, thank God," Walton tells him.

It wasn't a smooth progression, though. When Saint Germain's hopes for playing football were dashed by a wrist injury, he was crushed. And he began to spiral backward.

"You weren't about school, you weren't about trying anymore," Walton remembers. "When you started to get into the whole drug game, I remember trying to talk to you, but you weren't hearing me at all."

Finally, for Saint Germain, one moment finally broke through. He'd been out on the street corner when, by chance, Walton stopped at the red light right across from him.

"I wanted to pull over — I want to grab you, I want to talk to you," Walton says. "But I couldn't let you feel you could live that life and still have me on your team."

So all he did was wave once, then keep moving.

"And I remember driving away. I remember that s*** hurt like hell," Walton continues. As the aphorism goes, you let a bird fly away, and if it returns to you, it's yours — "but leaving that bird, and knowing how much you love that bird? Bro, you've got to understand now, that was not easy."

These days, though, Saint Germain has returned to the path Walton had hoped for him. The 27-year-old is not only pursuing a master's degree in public administration at City University of New York, John Jay; he also founded a mentoring organization of his own in Brooklyn, called Preparing Leaders of Tomorrow, or PLOT.

"To see you go from where you were makes the whole full-circle part just that much more beautiful," Walton tells him.

On the day Saint Germain graduated — with a degree in human services from Borough of Manhattan Community College — he says he donned his cap and gown and drew the eyes of everyone around. "You know where I came from," Saint Germain tells Walton, "so you can imagine what the look was like in that neighborhood, where you don't see too many of that."

Still, the moment was bittersweet.

"I remember I felt like a superhero, but I was by myself. No family members, just me," Saint Germain says.

"But I knew you were going to be there," he tells Walton. "And to me, that's family."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 21, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
An earlier version of this story and its photo captions misidentified Carlos Walton as Carlos Watson.
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