"I hate this." Says my student looking over a test which covers prisoners' rights in disciplinary proceedings..
"So do I" I reply "but you have a lot of participation points. That'll help pull your test grades up."
He fixes his eyes on mine over the top of the test. "That's not good enough." He says. "I want to make 100 on the tests too."
This is not the usual response I get from students who make low grades on exams, but then Mr. Ralph Martin is not the usual student.
Mr. Ralph Martin is one of those students who but for the grace of God and a lot of hard work and diligence, might have ended up learning about prisoners' rights in a prison instead of a classroom.
Mr. Martin is serious about his education.
Mr. Martin is at his seat, prepared, with his notes arranged before 8:00 AM every morning when I walk into the General Classroom Building of FAMU. He talks to no one and sits at the front of the class even though some of the other students kid him about it. They're started to ask him though if they can study with him.
Mr. Ralph Martin, by his own admission grew up in "one of the roughest parts of Miami, if not Florida" - Overtown. He grew up as one of 13 kids taken care of by his grandmother because her children were either dead, in prison, or strung out on drugs. Mr. Martin's mother was "abusive and on drugs." Ane Over town was a world in which there was "daily crime, drug deals, and shootings."
Because she had so many children to take care of, his grandmother couldn't give him the things he wanted, and he envied the other kids for their designer clothes and attractive cars.
He became what was known as a "Burdine's Bandit"
"It was instant fame," he says. "And I just loved the attention." But Dorothy Dunn, a middle school teacher, intervened in Mr. Martin's life.
As Mr. Martin tells it, "She said something I didn't like. So, I called her a fat f------ b----." But even so, Dorothy Dunn was able to look past the profanity and the relationship was forged.
"She started letting me come over to her house and wash dishes and cut grass to make money and the relationship just developed from there. She was always telling me that it's not the clothes that make the man but what's inside him."
"If it wasn't for the guidance of my teacher in middle school, I don't think I would be the man I am today." He says. " Everything she has given me is priceless. She's been the mother figure for me for the past 14 years."
Mr. Martin lied to Ms.Dunn about his continued involvement with gangs and crime. But in 1994, something happened. "My friend George." He says . "Was my best friend. He thought I was superman. We were sitting together one night at the Bayside marketplace and we were looking at the sky. George told me that when he died he wanted me to look at this one bright star every night and in the morning. The next day he got killed. Two older guys had recruited him to steal a car, and the owner had come out of the house and shot at him. It ripped the back of George's skull off."
"It affected me so hard." Says Mr. Martin. "He was my best friend. And to see my best friend get wasted over some sort of nonsense like that. I said to myself, my life is not even worth that."
So, after graduating from high school in 1994, Mr. Ralph Martin told himself that his crime career was over. He was going to college
"I got tired of seeing my friends being killed in high speed chases and I had already been shot in the arm twice in 1992."
But 11 days after he graduated from high school he was incarcerated for a year in the Dade County Jail because some of his friends had implicated him as the ringleader in some of the Burdine's rip offs.
"That year in jail gave me a lot to think about." He says. "I was reading books and thinking about how I wanted to live my life. And I was so mad, thinking about how my friends had dictated how I lived for so long."
His teacher warned him not to go back to Over town, but he did.
Ten days after he got of jail, he was lying in a hospital with four bullet wounds in his body. He had gotten in a car with some other people he didn't realize were heavily involved in crime. Somebody shot into the car, and Mr. Martin was the one hit.
He was given probation and, according to him, that probation was a "godsend." "It made me want to get out even more."
So, he enrolled in Miami/Dade Community College. "I was the vice president of the African American Student Union, a W.K. Kellog fellow, campus ambassador, and the recipient of $4000 scholarship from the Shane Family foundation. I managed to become the first person in my family to graduate with an associates degree."
Mr. Ralph Martin is now sitting in classes at FAMU, headed toward a law degree, perhaps at the University of Florida.
The hardest thing I had to do, " he says "was ending those friendships that I had accumulated over 5 to 10 years. The thing that hurts the most is that some people won't let me forget my past, or hold things against me for my past. And, my family, they could care less about my success."
"With my friends, it was like when they started to see my success, they started to realize their failures. They wanted to pull me down again." "That's why I'm not satisfied making a C or a B." He says. "I've overcome too much for that."
As I said, Mr. Ralph Martin is not the usual student.