DECATUR, Ala. — Eleven-year-old D.J. Graffree didn't realize he was a child.
For much of his life, he was a cocky kid who didn't need any adults to look after him or tell him what to do. He was always in and out of schools in his small town outside of Jackson, Miss. He spent a lot of times out on the streets.
At one point, he slept in a trash bin to stay warm.
Yet two weeks ago, D.J. was named Decatur City Schools' Elementary Student of the Year.
D.J.'s face was bewildered when the honor was announced at the school system's annual breakfast May 10. His cousin and guardian Patti Lewis' face was first joyful, then tearful.
He later said it was simply luck that earned him the award.
When pushed further, he finally conceded it was more than that.
"They like my behavior and my attitude," he said.
Long, tough journey
For Lewis and her family, taking in D.J. seven months ago has been a long, tough journey. But then, it has been for him, too.
"He seems to have turned his life around and I think it's because he wants to," Lewis said. "But it wasn't all peaches and cream when he first came. We had to let him know that we were in control."
When D.J. came to Decatur, he was placed in CASE Alternative School in Decatur. He had been kicked out of his last school system in Mississippi.
So when D.J. finally left CASE and came to fifth grade at Somerville Road Elementary, neither his family nor school administrators knew how he would fare. He had a bad attitude, wouldn't do his work and was disrespectful. Because of all of his time on his own, he resented authority and boundaries.
D.J.'s teacher, Judith Looney remembers that defiant Graffree well.
"You could tell by his posture, his body language and expression that he didn't want to be here," she said. "He had that attitude like 'Don't mess with me.' "
D.J. would come home to Lewis and cry over his homework and tell her he couldn't do it. But she knew better.
"There were several times where he told me he'd like to go back to living on the streets because it was easier for him," she said.
D.J. also had trouble fitting in with his peers. His adult humor and persona came from growing up quickly and hanging out mostly with adults.
Yet Lewis would discover him playing with her 6-year-old daughter's dolls at home. He told her he had never seen so many toys before.
"He never had a chance to play or never had a birthday party," she said. "He's missed out on a lot of his childhood things."
When Lewis went to visit D.J. and the rest of her extended family in Mississippi last year, she was shocked.
On that trip, D.J. broke down and told her everything about his life on the streets — about the drugs, being forced to steal to eat, and being whipped with chains. With his mother in jail, he had been shifted around to different relatives several times and had even run away from them.
He told Lewis, "I need a break."
Already the guardian for D.J.'s older brother Patrick, who had been in her custody since he was two days old when his mother said she couldn't care for him, Lewis was tempted to reunite the two brothers and give D.J. the stable home life he never had.
Yet she was worried about taking another child into her small apartment at East Acres housing project, where she, her husband, daughter Ashley and son Patrick live. On top of raising three children, Lewis also works as a school crossing guard and at the cafeteria at Decatur General Hospital.
"Sometimes we have to make sacrifices, you know," said Lewis, who also cared for her ailing mother for 16 years.
"God wants me to just care for people and that's what I do ... I want to help someone else because I figure it's too late for me. I get my enjoyment out of my kids."
After continued support from his family and his teachers, Graffree's attitude slowly began to turn. Instead of garnering attention through acts of disrespect, he began to get noticed for positive things.
He won an anti-smoking poster contest at school, began tutoring kindergarten students, and started raising his hand in class.
He morphed into a classroom leader, an excellent reader and a compassionate person, Looney said.
He finally began to become the child he should've been in the first place, not the cocky adult he thought he was.
"When I realized he could do the work ... basically it was give him time and give him some space and call on him when he knew the answer," Looney said. "I think he wanted it. He just needed a chance."
D.J.'s family agreed.
"I think he surprises himself," Lewis' husband, Tony Townsend, said. "I look at him sometimes and I don't think it's the same child."
Administrators and teachers at Somerville Road agree. In a letter they drafted to the administrators who chose the student of the year, they wrote "As we write this in early April, we are tempted to check his (D.J.'s) fingerprints to make sure we're talking about the same kid. And we are, and we have begun to see D.J. not for what he was, but for who he is becoming. And that is a delight."
D.J.'s quick turnaround is rare, Looney said.
"I've taught for 18 years and never seen anything like this," she said.
Somerville Road Principal Dee Dee Jones agreed.
"Success stories like this are very few," she said. "I told him, 'I really wish I could bottle what has happened with you.' His resiliency for all he's been through is amazing."