Starting to grow up … Young Charles realized strength through life’s tests

Published 6:50 pm Tuesday, August 18, 2015

This is the second of a four-part feature on Port Arthur native Jamaal Charles, who currently stars as a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs. See Thursday’s issue for part three.

By Vahe Gregorian

Kansas City Star

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Inside the extended family, it wasn’t so bad that Charles’ brothers and the cousins he considered siblings might call him a whiner or a crybaby. After all, they weren’t wrong.
“I definitely was a baby,” Charles said, smiling.
They’d call him “Ja-Millie” — at least until their grandmother heard them. Then she’d yell, “Don’t call my baby Ja-Millie,” and shoo
everyone else outside to console him.
Charles’ true anguish came from outside the home, where he frequently was mocked by those who thought he was slow or dumb because he had trouble speaking and reading.
It didn’t help that his teeth weren’t nice and his clothes were worn and that the more abuse he absorbed, the more he withdrew.
“He was afraid even to raise his hand in school,” said Arlene LeBlanc, the aunt with whom Charles lived during his adolescence, “because people would laugh at him.”
After Mazelle Miller died when Charles was 8, and with no father around and flux in his mother’s life causing them to move frequently, Charles remembers feeling like he didn’t know who he was.
Charles would try to heed what his uncle, Robert LeBlanc, would tell him about his father.
“Your dad made a decision, and we’re going to go on with life. I just say, ‘Be the better man. Regardless of the situation, be the better person.’
“Because God has given you the strength to handle a lot of things.”
But often as a young child, Charles cried himself to sleep and agonized, “Why me?”
Around third or fourth grade, Charles was steered in and out of regular classrooms into what he called “certain classes.”
Stealthily, hoping no one would see, he’d make his way to the resource room for several periods a day.
“That was how I really started knowing something was different about me,” he said. “I knew something was wrong then.”
Something, it turned out, that could be solved.
Something that became a springboard toward becoming who he is.
Of all that went into navigating this maze and rewiring how he processed information, fundamental to the equation was Charles simply slowing down his anxieties.
“He was very unsure of himself at first,” said Vicky Conner, one of his special education teachers. “You have to let [special education students] know we all have challenges.
In Charles’ case, the greatest one was that “he’d just run right past” punctuation, LeBlanc recalled. He couldn’t recognize periods and commas, reducing sentences to chaos, and he faced frustrating moments in learning how to tame it.
But it helped to have a sense of camaraderie in the classroom with the special-needs students.
“Nobody was really the same. Everybody was good at something,” said Charles, who remembered Conner as “a special lady to me” and added that Conner and others who helped him and his classmates provided amazing patience. “God’s going to bless the people like that.”
Beyond the intense dedication and support he found in school, Charles also benefited from extra work at home with Aunt Arlene, whose house Charles would frequent even before coming to live there most of the time from seventh grade through the end of high school.
Late at night, or after football or track practice, Charles would sit at the foot of her bed.
They’d read the Bible together, out loud.
With her gentle inspiration, free from the judgment of peers, Charles could make mistakes and correct himself and take his time.
Sentences started having structure, and everything started to change.
“That’s how he got his confidence,” she said.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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