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Hamm listens, especially in light of what has happened to Johnson's 23-year-old son, Brandon. In July, Brandon Johnson and two other men were arrested in connection with the killing of an 18-year-old in nearby Long Beach. Hamm had looked up to Brandon, who was one of the nation's top running backs for crosstown rival Dominguez High in 2006 and went on to play two seasons at the University of Washington. Today he sits in jail awaiting trial, having pleaded not guilty to murder (sidebar, left).
"I try to avoid all [potentially bad] situations," Hamm says, making his way to his first class, physics and anatomy. "Around here one mistake can change your life forever."
That's something Hamm's parents have told him time and again. They also tell him don't waste time—keep busy. He thinks of that when he arrives at class and discovers that the janitor didn't remove the chairs from the tabletops after mopping the floor. Alone in the classroom, Hamm takes down all 35 chairs and arranges them neatly under tables. He finishes just as the other students file in and a substitute teacher gives them the period to study independently. A din of chatter quickly rises as a few kids break out snack food from their backpacks and youngsters cluster into three or four groups. Hamm sits off by himself, pulls out an essay due in another class and works on it for the entire period.
During third period Hamm is summoned to the guidance office. When he arrives, his guidance counselor, Araya Hiyabu, is holding an envelope. "This came today," he says, handing it to Hamm.
It's a package from Norries Wilson, football coach at Columbia. Though Kitam has heard before from the Ivy League school, Hiyabu stresses that this is a request that needs immediate attention. "They want an official transcript," Hiyabu says, adding that Hamm should make sure Compton head coach Brian Collins reviews the letter.
Hamm isn't afraid to tell college admissions officers about his roots. But he can't help thinking that they might not understand. His parents met when they were 15. As part of being affiliated with the Bloods, Kitam Sr. was selling drugs. Donyetta soon got pregnant with their first child, and at 16 was on welfare. That's when she put her foot down and told Kitam Sr. to end his involvement with gangs and crime.
By his own account, Kitam Sr. listened. "Donyetta changed my thinking," he says. "All my friends were going to jail. So it wasn't hard for me to walk away. But my dad used drugs and I didn't have the proper structure to teach me how to provide for my children. I just decided I wanted my kids to grow up and be part of a solution and not part of a problem."
By the time Kitam Jr. was born, his father had been working for three years unloading trucks at a warehouse. "That's how he provided for his family for years," says Donyetta. "He had to butt heads with a lot of gang members. He had numerous fights. But he was determined to be with me and our children. It's amazing he made it. We fought to be where we are today."
Today the Hamms are a model family. Their three daughters were solid students at Compton High, and two are now attending Fremont College in Los Angeles. Both Kitam Sr. and Donyetta work full time—he as an in-home health aide and she as the manager of the apartment complex where they live. Her compensation consists of free rent, which enables them to squeak by on a combined annual income of $21,000. They qualify for food stamps but refuse them. "My pride won't let me stand in that line," Donyetta says.
If Kitam Sr. and Donyetta both took second jobs, they'd earn more. But then they wouldn't be there for Kitam. "Our job right now is keeping Kitam safe," Donyetta says. "I don't want Kitam to be a statistic. I don't want to be the mother who puts on a shirt with my son's picture on it, and throws roses at his grave."