May 21, 2010
STANFORD, Calif. - When Leona Banks locked the front door, and secured two locks in the back, her tiny Newhall Street flat felt safe.
Outside, violence, drugs, prostitution, and even toxic waste oozed through the bedeviled southeast corner of San Francisco called Bayview-Hunters Point.
Inside, however, was a refuge, a place where young Tyrone McGraw could lose himself in books, ideas, and inspiration. Tyrone was not only an excellent student, but the fastest kid at St. Paul's Grammar School. In fact, the future would hold great things for Tyrone, who is still one of the fastest kids at school, though that school is now Stanford University.
McGraw will run the second leg on Stanford's 4x100 relay team at the NCAA West Regionals in Austin, Texas, on May 28-29. He holds the school indoor record in the 60 meters and has run on three of the 10 fastest relays in Cardinal history.
But long before McGraw became a collegiate track standout, he was just a 10-year-old boy raised by a single mother under the shroud of a gang war that erupted in the nearby projects and spilled into the neighborhood in the form of drive-bys and random shootings.
Tyrone was immune to most of the background noise just off the Third Street thoroughfare. He was used to distant pops, loud booms, and even the unique sounds of carjackings. But as he watched TV with his mother that night in their living room, this sounded different. It sounded so ... close!
Leona turned toward the window.
"Oh, my god!" she shouted, and ran out the door.
This startled Tyrone, who viewed his mother as "so brave and so courageous."
"I see my mom, who is like the only person in the world to me, running outside," McGraw recalled. "And here I go. I follow her out the door thinking I'm going to protect her if anything bad happened. I couldn't believe the sight that I saw."
At the bottom of the front steps, a young man lay bleeding.
"She yelled at me to run inside and call 9-1-1," McGraw said. "I remember I did."
The memories of that ordeal remain strong in McGraw, now 22. He is a fourth-year student at Stanford majoring in American studies, with a concentration of law and urban America, and scheduled to graduate in the spring of 2011.
Not a day passes when he doesn't think about his mother, who died of cancer seven years ago, or his godfather, a father figure who died of a stroke only four months later. Tyrone was only 15 when he lost them both, yet he never let go of the lessons they taught.
"Always remember the opportunities you've been given," his godfather, Brad Hallet, said. "And always remember to give back to the community that's given so much to you."
Yes, even "Straight Outta Hunters Point," - to use the title of a 2005 documentary chronicling the violent conflicts and culture of the area - McGraw counted his blessings.
"There are many people as talented as I am athletically, and just as smart as I am, in my community," he said. "But they've never been given the same opportunities."
But now come the almost-impossible expectations. After all, there is no way that an individual who has come so far from so little can fade into the working world, not when so many others hold out such hope in his future.
"It's a burden," McGraw said. "But it's one that I welcome. You do bear a sense of responsibility, but it's a balancing act. In the past, I was one of those people that always tried to meet so many people's expectations. Now, I'm a little more selfish. I understand that I have to live my life too."
The common theme is: "He wants to help people," said his father, Tyrone Keith McGraw. "His whole thing is not to forget where he came from."
McGraw has worked summers as an intern in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and for a general surgery physician. He has returned to Archbishop Riordan High School to speak to students and provide inspiration. He is active in the Public Service Leadership Program in the Haas School for Public Service. And he plans a career in social entrepreneurship and public service, with a goal of striving for educational equity.
McGraw doesn't want people to write off an individual or a community without looking at the root causes of the problems.
"When you have a lack of opportunity in school, or you're a young man trying to make it for your family and have to resort to a life of crime ... yes, there is a high-level of accountability there," McGraw said. "But I think society has to recognize its responsibilities in that regard too."
His is the kind of success story that gives faith to the system. Indeed, McGraw proves that success can be determined by the depths of one's fortitude and not solely from the depths of one's bank account.
But McGraw also would like people to know that success is measured in different ways. Yes, McGraw is one of the few to emerge unscathed from his neighborhood. But, no, McGraw is not its only success story.
"I do have friends in the area who are trying to do well," McGraw said. "But `well' for different people means different things. The person may not be in college, but is doing the best he or she can to fulfill their potential, to help their family."
Leona Banks defined such success.
Banks, a nurses' assistant in the cardio pulmonary unit at Kaiser Permanente Hospital, didn't want her son's role models to be drug dealers and gangbangers, so she scraped up the money to send him to a private grammar school in a better neighborhood. She placed him in after-school sports, and then brought him to work so he could be around doctors and other educated adults.
"He never hung out anywhere," Tyrone's father said. "He never did any of that stuff. It was all about school with him."
Leona did not have a car, so Tyrone would take public transit to school, becoming a regular on the S.F. Muni's 25 Divisidero bus line even as a youngster.
Sometimes he was picked on for the way he spoke. His manner of enunciating words did not fit the street persona. Though Tyrone never carried a weapon, his mother once advised him to carry a chain in his pocket, as a means to defend himself against bullying teens if danger arose.
But Leona could not control everything. She died in June 2003, just after McGraw's freshman year at Riordan High. Fortunately, only two blocks away were Tyrone's godparents, Brad and Cherell Hallet, who had provided another line of support throughout his life and offered their home when he needed one.
Brad was Tyrone's inspiration, hiding notes throughout the house with goals for Tyrone to aspire to. One simply read, "1,500 yards," a rushing total that Tyrone achieved as a senior running back at Riordan, breaking a 36-year-old school record.
But, by then, Brad was gone too.
McGraw, then only 15, never wavered. Living with his godmother, he excelled in Northern California's toughest football league, won a Central Coast Section 200-meter title in track, and graduated as Riordan's valedictorian.
Though he played two seasons of football for the Cardinal, McGraw left the team as a means to fulfill his mother's wish. She always placed academics over athletics, and McGraw felt the demands of being a two-sport athlete at Stanford might force a change in his priorities, something he refused to let happen if for no other reason than as a legacy to her.
In McGraw's words, success "comes down to having perspective and really delving deeper than on the superficial level. That may not mean going to college. For everyone, it comes down to trying to do the best you can."
That was true of Leona Banks.
After the shooting outside their home, Tyrone did what he was told and waited, though anxiously, for his mother.
After a long while, the ambulance left and Leona walked back into the house, closed the door, and hugged her son tightly.
"I love you," she said.
Safe in each in each other's arms once again, neither wanted the embrace to end.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics