Night after night, Brandon Pittman woke from bad dreams of being homeless, afraid of failure. He had survived a young life of crime, taking what he wanted and prepared for whoever came at him, carrying a stun gun, a switchblade, a pistol tucked into his shoe.
He had served two years in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice, coming out with a "jail mentality" that kept him from trusting people and had him expecting the worst.
Today, though, Brandon Pittman will wake up with a remarkable success to his credit - a diploma from Richland Northeast High School.
His graduation Friday was celebrated by a circle of teachers and families who noticed his charisma and potential, who saw he had goals and wasn’t giving up. They pledged to help this 19-year-old student by giving him a home, helping him find work and arranging tutors for a second challenge ahead - an eligi-bility exam he’ll take this summer for the National Guard.
"I want to look back down the road and see what I came through," Brandon said recently, sitting behind an office desk at school, his hair cropped close and his T-shirt bright white. "I want to have my own car. I want to have my own house. I want to have a nice little life." Not long ago, that was the farthest thing from his mind.
Crime and regret
Brandon said he was "sneaky" as far back as he can remember.
Born in Florence, he moved to Columbia with his mother and little brother when he was 13. That was the year he got his first illegal gun.
At 14 and 15, he was hanging out with older guys who had their own cars. They were breaking into houses, hot-wiring cars, selling drugs, making pipe bombs.
"Me and my friends, we had our hands in everything," he said.
The worst thing he ever did? Brandon lowered his head and covered his eyes briefly before confessions came out in a stream, one story, then another, fact mixed with regret.
He remembers a neighbor, not realizing he was responsible, approaching him with the news that some-one had broken into her home.
"The fear in that woman’s eyes. The worries. I think that night, she didn’t even sleep in that house."
He remembers finding a rifle, proud he knew what kind of bullets it used. An explosion from lighted paint and aerosol cans. Learning that a vacant house he and his friends vandalized was owned by an eld-erly woman who had passed away with nothing but that home.
Thinking he was going to die.
Realizing that, to live, he had to stay alert and carry a weapon everywhere he went.
When all his friends were joining gangs, he never did. He’s not sure why.
"I wasn’t scared to get beat up or anything. It was just too much. Even though I was bad, that stuff right there, it was too much."
At 15, Brandon pleaded guilty to arson and burglary in exchange for dropping other charges, he said.
Records of crimes committed by people younger than 17 are private in South Carolina, and a SLED check shows his adult record is clean.
Jail was a life-changing experience for Brandon. It was dismal, unpredictable. Trouble came out of no-where. He had 24 months of it, enough to know it was not what he wanted out of life.
He continued his education while he served his sentence and remembers a teacher at "jail school" who assigned a five-page essay on the word "INTEGRITY." She defined it for him - "Doing the right thing, even though you know you can get away with the wrong thing."
He lay in bed that night, thinking about the word. Something clicked. He knew his life could be differ-ent. Change was possible.
'He pays attention
By 16, he was out of jail. He enrolled at Richland Northeast as a sophomore in January 2006.
Two days before graduation last year, he found out he had failed one essential class, a fastpaced, busi-ness-computer applications class required for career prep students.
The teacher, Betsy Kinsella, said he was devastated. He could have gone to summer school but didn’t. When he didn’t turn up for the fall semester, Kinsella figured he was gone for good.
But some influential people - teachers, his girlfriend and her family - came into Brandon’s life about then, people who gave advice he was willing to follow.
One piece hit home: Don’t just think about tomorrow or next week; consider what you want five years from now.
In the meantime, he and his mother got into an argument and she put him out. He hasn’t had contact with her since.
He doesn’t like to talk about it, saying only: "When you do bad things, it affects everyone around you. …. Maybe I hurt her so bad in life, she don’t know how to handle me right now."
With no place to go, he called Tomsiena Robinson, his girlfriend’s mother.
Jazmine Waiters, 18, had brought Brandon over for a big family cookout at the start of the school year. Her mother took a liking to him right away; her husband, Frank, a 67-year-old paralegal "and a student of life," tends to be a little slower to warm up.
He sat back and watched. Brandon’s manners were evident and he was open about his past - especially after Jazmine’s older brother Bernard started "grilling him."
"He said, 'I got in trouble and I couldn’t finish, but . . . I plan to go back to school,’" Tomsiena Robinson said.
As time went on, Brandon proved he was someone who puts forth effort - not just talking about what he was going to do, but doing it, Frank Robinson said. He was willing to take advice, too.
"His body language says, 'I’m listening.’ If he’s doing something, he’ll stop," Frank Robinson said. "He pays attention."
So when that call came from Brandon that he needed a place to stay, the Robinsons wanted to help. They called on friends Barbara S. McNeil and her husband, Clarence - no strangers to house guests. They had hosted a down-on-his-luck exchange student from Germany for a couple of weeks and let an Obama campaign worker stay with them for a few months.
They didn’t hesitate to help out, and it has been an easy arrangement, Barbara McNeil said. Brandon has a key. He comes and goes as he pleases, though he’s considerate and usually is home by 10 p.m.
With Tomsiena Robinson’s help, he got a job as a janitor and a car, a 1992 Subaru. He pays for his own gas and his own cell phone.
True to his word, Brandon returned to school in January to pass that class. He approached Kathy Jeffer-son, a transition specialist who helps students with academic challenges figure out what they want to do after high school.
Brandon told her he was interested in the military.
"This is a young man worth helping," Jefferson said. "There are some students I’ve come across that you want to help, but they don’t want to help themselves."
Jefferson, along with the school’s social worker, Abby Beckley, and teachers like Betsy Kinsella, have set their sights on Brandon’s future. Even as the school year wound down, his advocates were helping arrange tutoring over the summer and buying study guides to help him pass the Armed Services Voca-tional Aptitude Battery.
It’s the algebra and geometry that are giving him problems.
"If he could get in the military, I just know he could find his way," said Kinsella, who leads the career-prep department.
"He’s got a great personality," added Beckley, the social worker. "He knows how to work it - he knows how to get what he wants, but he has good intentions."
The Robinsons and McNeils say they just want to help a young man reclaim the promise of youth - and ensure he doesn’t slip up.
"Kids need to know if they are determined to do right, to change their lives and improve, there are peo-ple willing to help," Barbara McNeil said.
As for Brandon, in the past few months, he’s learned to reach a little higher, expect a little more of him-self. He has learned to talk less and listen more, he said. He no longer looks over his shoulder. His most basic goal is to be happy.
"The one thing that always put a smile on my face was when people said, 'I’m proud of you’ because I did something good. I made a whole bunch of bad mistakes. Eventually, it all caught up with me and, honestly, I’m not mad at the world. If I had a second chance ... I’d do the same thing. It made me what I am today."