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Petersburg High graduate navigated a fractured path to graduation

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They wanted to know why he looked so upset.

On Friday, the Petersburg High School graduates were rehearsing the steps they would take the next day as they received their diplomas. Tests were complete, classes were done, and Chris Jones was the only one among them who would attend the University of Virginia in the fall.

So they wanted to know: Why wasn’t he smiling?

Jones didn’t reply, and a quick answer might be too easy. For the 18-year-old, Saturday’s graduation marks a milestone in a long journey — one of a fractured family, school fighting and suspensions, and one that began in Richmond, in two-bedroom apartments in the Essex Village and Mosby Court housing complexes.

Living there with his parents and three younger siblings, he learned that the safest place to play was inside. He and his siblings used their imaginations to turn the rim of the couches into the ropes of a wrestling ring, and he could fly in from the side and land on the floor below.

But much of the time, he was the quiet one.

“I lift him up more in prayer because I can see the hand of God on him,” said his “Grannie,” Mary Jones. “He was quiet. Even in school, quiet. His sisters and his brothers would tease. But he was smart. He’s destined for more.”

Staying silent was also a way of staying strong, he said. He was 5 when his parents divorced. He wouldn’t see his father again until he was a teenager.

“I could see the things between my mother and my father,” Jones said.

“I knew how I could conduct myself in a matter to have a leadership demeanor. Even though my brothers and sisters didn’t understand, we still had to be strong,” he said Friday from his grandmother’s living room.

“My dad and me were really close. It just hurt me when he had to leave,” he said. “That was one of the most traumatic things that happened to me in my life. I didn’t understand why he left. When I went to school, people didn’t understand me.”

So he remained reserved, yet he found spaces to be more free outside the four walls where he lived. In the classroom, there was a routine — and subjects he would easily get A’s in.

“When I come into the classrooms, everything flowed,” Jones said. “You knew what you were walking into every day.”

But much of the time, he said, the other kids didn’t expect a kid from the projects to raise his hand in class.

“I would get upset because my intelligence was being insulted. Kids would pick on me — ‘Why did you do that? Why did you answer that question?’ ” Jones said. “And in that world, disrespect means you should fight.”

The fights were also an escape. With the punches went the stress and sadness of not seeing his father. With them also went the weight of figuring out what to feed his siblings that night. His mother worked graveyard shifts, so he often would walk to the nearby grocery store and pick up a pack of Ramen noodles or bologna. On special nights, it was a box of Church’s Chicken.

“People would say, ‘You’re too smart to be doing something like that,’ ” he said of fighting. “But it’s because of where I was at. Sometimes I’m not in a good head space. Fighting at first was my only way of relieving stress.”

He eventually started welcoming the suspensions and the punishment of alternative school. Alternative school meant more solitude, where he could maintain straight A’s without the bullying. His mother didn’t understand that, he said, and saw him as a troublemaker.

But Jones still felt he had an ally in his father’s sister, “Auntie” Sandra Jones. She encouraged him to keep up his good grades.

Looking Friday at a photo of a young “Auntie” in her wedding dress, Jones covered his eyes and started to cry.

“I haven’t seen her in so long,” he said. She died unexpectedly when he was 10.

“I think that’s a big thing that keeps me going, her memory. And what she wanted for me,” Jones said.

The year after her death, when he was in the sixth grade, the family moved to Varina. He eventually attended a specialty school for communications and continued to get straight A’s.

There, more mentors emerged. Coaches took him to restaurants and bought him clothes when they noticed he wore the same outfit multiple days. They became like second fathers. So much of his emotion would go into football games that he would cry if his team lost.

But his relationship with his mother deteriorated. There was miscommunication, he said, because she felt he wasn’t keeping up with the house and was too rough on his siblings during the wrestling matches.

Jones moved to Petersburg in the summer of 2016 to be with his grandmother, in need of a “new start,” he said. And it was good timing for her, he said, since his grandfather had left and she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. His siblings continued to live with his mom.

Over the next two years, mentors helped him let go of his anger.

“I think he had more anger when I first met him,” said one mentor, Xavier Richardson. They met when Jones was in 11th grade.

“He always had strong goals. He was ambitious, but his anger simply got in the way,” Richardson said.

Through daily phone calls where he let Jones vent and told him of his own struggles with his alcoholic father, Richardson helped Jones understand that he can say he’s a self-made man — that he can let go of the things he can’t control.

“Many people, particularly some of the people he will be going to college with, come from a place of privilege. But I try to help him understand that he has been able to succeed despite his obstacles, and he can thrive from them,” Richardson said.

He plans to give Jones rides and any help he can while Jones is at U.Va. He helped him navigate much of his financial aid package after taking Jones on multiple college tours.

“If it wasn’t for these people in my life, I would’ve been just another kid whose dad left him,” Jones said.

From his grandmother’s living room Friday, he lowered his eyes and shook his head as “Grannie” talked of his National Technical Honor Society award and Richmond Times-Dispatch Sports Backers Scholar-Athlete award, which she has framed on the end tables. The other tables are filled with his other accolades and pictures of Jones and his siblings.

On Friday night, he planned to take his maroon graduation robe off the hanger and press it the way Richardson showed him. Jones wants to help future Petersburg graduates in any way he can, and he has already talked to an association of superintendents about how teachers can communicate effectively with students.

He didn’t have much to say to his peers Friday when they asked him why he was upset. Jones was in fact happy — but he was also caught up in the memories of the journey that brought him to this point. It prompted him to share a message for future students:

“Don’t let your surroundings, anyone or any person, determine who you are going to be. You’re great. You’re beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re going to do great things in life. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

On Saturday, he will walk down the aisle and receive his diploma. Richardson made sure that he and Jones’ “Grannie” got good seats.

“We will probably be the proudest two people in the audience — for all that he has achieved in his life, despite what he has gone through,” Richardson said. “He is a beautiful person.” vremmers@timesdispatch.com

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