“Born down in a dead man’s town,” begins Karl Reed’s favorite song, “the first kick I took was when I hit the ground. You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much, ‘til you spend half your life just covering up.”
Is it fitting or ironic that Karl should love Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” so passionately? Karl was born in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a place so ravaged by corruption, disease and civil unrest that it literally embodies Springsteen’s bitter lyrics. The irony is that the USA has become Karl’s haven from a life of being kicked around. And although he was not born here, since an April 26 ceremony presided over by Alexandria Mayor William Euille, Karl is a U.S. citizen.
Karl was an orphan within months after he was born. AIDS killed both his parents. He was left in a clinic called God’s Littlest Angels, among the mountains north of Port-au-Prince. The clinic was not an orphanage, explained Karl’s mother Mary Reed, but it essentially became one because so many parents who came to the clinic to be treated for AIDS did not survive. “It was a no-brainer,” said Reed, on the decision to adopt Karl. “I would have taken home all of them.”
Reed has been working and volunteering in similar clinics in Honduras and Haiti since the late 1980’s. The Reeds, who live in Mount Vernon, had already adopted four other orphans. “If you see the need, there’s no way you cannot,” she added. “You know they’re not going to have the opportunities we have.”
IN THE MINUTES before the ceremony, Karl gathered with his mother, father and older sister Celeste, whom the Reeds adopted from Honduras, in the administrative offices of St. Louis School, where Karl is in third grade. Karl wore an American flag tie, an American flag bandanna knotted in his belt loops, and red, white, and blue braces in his teeth. “How big is it gonna be?” he asked his mother, about his citizenship plaque.
“How big do you want?” she replied.
“Huge,” Karl said.
He said that he had not had to take any written tests to qualify for citizenship. “I had to take a lot of blood tests though.” The Reeds first met Karl, and made the decision to adopt him, in 1997, when he was only six months old. However, he did not come to the United States until he was nearly two. Karl was born uninfected with HIV, but his mother did pass him the HIV antibody, the immune system’s specific response to each disease. Basic tests for HIV register the presence of this antibody, not the disease itself, and although he ceased testing positive for them when he was fourteen months old, Karl’s initial antibody-positive statues complicated his entry into the United States.
In the school office, Karl was looking eagerly out the window. “I see the mayor, I think,” he called out a moment before Euille walked in with the plaque under his arm. Karl rushed over to him. “I see it,” he announced. “Please let me see it!” Euille obliged and Karl held the plaque up before his face. “I just know its perfect for my wall,” he said. Then he looked at his mother with concern and asked, “How am I going to carry this with my backpack and my lunch?”
SEVERAL HUNDRED St. Louis students assembled in the gym for the ceremony. The students were allowed to wear red, white, and blue clothes in honor of citizenship day. Karl’s family sat with Euille at the front of the room, but Karl stood in the crowd. The students sang “Oh Beautiful for Spacious Skies” and “America” and recited the pledge of allegiance for the second time that day. In the office before the ceremony, Karl had requested “Born in the USA,” but the pianist did not have the sheet music.
Noreen Gilmour, the principal of St. Louis School, addressed the students. Gilmour was born in Scotland and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1984. “One of the best ways we learn to get along with one another is realizing what it means to be a citizen,” she said,before introducing the mayor.
“Raise your hand if you are a natural born citizen of the United States,” said Euille. Almost every hand went up. “Raise your hand if you are not and were born somewhere else in the world.” Only a few hands rose, including Karl’s. “You have an opportunity to become bona fide U.S. citizens,” Euille told those students. He explained the concept of citizenship from a perspective centered on values and good behavior rather than government decrees. “Citizenship is about being a positive individual, treating each other with respect and understanding how government functions.”
Then the moment came for Euille to demonstrate the official side of citizenship. He called Karl up from the crowd and presented him with the certificate. “I just met him for 30 seconds,” Euille said, “and immediately he lit up like a light bulb and I’m sure he’s this way all the time.”
When asked to speak, Karl struggled for words. But after some prompting from Euille, he was able to express the value of the document he’d just been handed. “I’m really, really going to hang this up on my wall,” he said.
“Whether it is in this school, or your neighborhood, or shopping centers or wherever you go our community, our country, our town looks just like the world,” Euille told the students in closing. After the ceremony he explained that he had accepted the invitation to present the certificate because he wanted to “show folks how important it is not only to be a citizen, but a human being.”
Reed said that the family had asked Euille to preside over the ceremony because they felt he was a positive role-model for Karl and other black students, including Karl’s brother Josh, who is in fifth grade. Josh was adopted by the Reeds after being abandoned at birth at a hospital in Silver Spring. “I’m just happy for him,” Josh said about his brother. “We told him last night and he was bouncing off the walls.”