On a recent Sunday evening in the nation’s capital, Reginald Hatter sat fidgeting in his room on the 10th floor of the W Hotel. As late as it was, he still couldn’t sleep. “Man, I just hope I don’t pass out,” he said. Beat. “I’m serious.”

He knew he wouldn’t be the first Houstonian to visit the White House, of course, nor the first to receive an award and hug from the First Lady. Still, the possibility that he might faint, however slender, worried him. “Or I’ll just start crying,” he said, “or something crazy.”

Earlier, Hatter had been through a “White House pre-enter thing,” a rehearsal, that is, designed to allay his fears about the next day’s events but which had instead compounded them. For one thing, he had been rattled by all the talk of how one should walk inside the residence—there is a preferred gait, apparently—and in what manner he should greet Michelle Obama. Which is not to greet Michelle Obama, apparently. Don’t initiate contact with the First Lady, Hatter was told. Let her talk to you.

For another, it reminded him that, well, Michelle Obama would be talking to him—to him, the co-director of an after-school program in the Third Ward. How had such a thing come to be? Sure, Workshop Houston, his day-and-night passion for over seven years, had been phenomenally successful at giving kids in the neighborhood something to do, activities that captured their imaginations and stoked their creative fires. If any organization deserved something called a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, his did. But still.

Hatter is a thinker—he loves philosophy, has read all the greats—and what he was thinking about at that moment was his specialness, or lack thereof. The 33-year-old had been born in Los Angeles to two drug-addicted parents who dropped him off one day at his grandfather’s and then never came back. But there was nothing special about that, not in the neighborhood where he grew up. “Everyone I knew had parents who were on drugs,” Hatter said. True enough, he’d witnessed with his own eyes his father being gunned down, but that wasn’t an uncommon sight either. (“In South Central, a good day was when no one got shot.”) And while Hatter had once been incarcerated for stealing a car, that was in the ’90s, when “all the kids had felonies.” Yes, we said, no longer able to resist interrupting, but you were 11 at the time.

I had to go to jail at 11 to realize that I didn’t want that kind of life. Literally, everyone I grew up with is either dead or they’re in prison.

“I had to go to jail at 11 to realize that I didn’t want that kind of life,” he replied. “Literally, everyone I grew up with is either dead or they’re in prison.” Slowly, it began to occur to Hatter that maybe he was being honored for his skills as an escape artist. After all, such abilities are as prized today as they were then, if not more so. “I see kids today having the same struggles I had, but I don’t think they deal with the pain the way I dealt with it.” No, they join gangs, Hatter said, calling the impulse a search for love, however misbegotten. “That’s all gangs are. It’s a child growing up who feels neglected, who’s not getting love from parents, especially a father figure. A lot of the kids I see, they go that route.”

But not all of them, not if Hatter has his way. Rather, some will come to Workshop Houston and build choppers and design clothes and write music and work on their studies. Of those, he knows that only a few will go on to be escape artists like him, so few that Hatter’s thought of quitting several times, of trading it all for the better-paying jobs his ex-wife once begged him to take. “You should go work for Exxon, you’re really smart,” she used to say. Maybe she was right, he sometimes thinks. But then—

“But then I will have a student come up to me and say, ‘Mr. Reginald, I wouldn’t be here today without you….Everyone else gave up on me and you never did.’”


 

On Monday, the sun rose to reveal a beautiful autumn morning in Washington, and at two in the afternoon, Hatter found himself seated in the East Room of the White House. He was on the right side of the room, somewhere between the mustard drapes glowing in the afternoon sun, a painting of George Washington—the one Dolley Madison famously escaped with when the British burned down the White House—and the spot where Secret Service agents finally subdued Omar Gonzalez, the intruder who scaled the fence last September and entered the residence with a knife.

“Ladies and gentleman, Mrs. Michelle Obama,” it was announced. The crowd stood and clapped until the First Lady made them stop. “You’re out there in the trenches doing the really tough, important, wonderful work, and we’re just so grateful,” Hatter heard her say. Soon, the awards were handed out. Workshop Houston was the sixth of 12 honorees, acclaimed for “creating a community that provides youth with support, expanded opportunities and alternative definitions of success.” 

Hatter walked gingerly to the front of the room, just in the way he’d been told to walk, and he did not stumble once on the steps leading to the stage. He did not make the mistake of initiating contact in the brief second before the First Lady approached, her smile almost as wide as Hatter’s. She gave him a warm embrace, whispered a few words, and then posed with Hatter for a few pictures. The ceremony over, Obama invited everyone to a reception (“Enjoy yourselves. Don’t tear anything up—we’re watching”), and he walked—carefully again—into the Cross Hall, where a Marine Band was playing cocktail hour music just off the North Portico. 

And then it was over. Reginald Hatter flew home that very evening to the Third Ward, excited to tell the kids back home about his trip, and about the wide world waiting for them, if only they can escape to it.

 
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