Martin Folsom was valedictorian of his Jacksonville high school class, even though he was homeless for some of the time in school. He gives much of that credit to his mother, who tried to make life as normal as possible.
When Melva Folsom found out she was pregnant with her son, she started talking to him that very day, reading to her growing belly. What she read was a hard copy book — “Love You Forever,” by Robert Munsch.
I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, As long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.
She read it to her womb, and she read it after he was born, and she read it as he grew up, just as the boy in the book grew up.
She has two other copies in a closet, but the original she keeps out. That’s how much it means to her: I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always …
Folsom made sure that Martin Folsom always knew that. He needed to know that, even as they had to flee her abusive husband, leaving their home in Silver Spring, Md., in 2012, and moving — always moving — to Ohio and North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and upstate New York, where she grew up.
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It wasn’t safe for them to stay in one place, and that was difficult, she knew, for her son.
“So I’d make it like we were on vacation, and say, ‘Just think, Martin, these are places we’ve never been before.’ I took that as life experience, in a good way. I’d say, ‘Just think, Martin, you’ve been to all these states, and some kids have never traveled.’”
At one point though she told Martin he didn’t have to go through this. He could go and live with his grandfather.
And though he wasn’t yet in his teens, he had a ready answer: “No, Mom, we’re going to do this together.”
So they did. And this fall, after several periods of homelessness, it will be time for yet another departure.
This one, though, is a happy one: Martin, 18, will leave for Valdosta State University in Georgia, where he plans a course of study that could take him to the FBI one day.
It follows an illustrious high school career at A. Philip Randolph Career Academies, where he was a class president all four years and where he graduated as valedictorian with a 3.89 GPA.
He persevered despite having to live with his mother for seven months in The Salvation Army homeless shelter after they got to Jacksonville in 2016 (they were supposed to live with a relative, but that didn’t work out).
He persevered despite having to take two city buses, each way, to get to school. Despite having to study in the common area at the shelter. Despite briefly becoming homeless again in 11th grade — a low point, Martin says — before finally getting an apartment of their own.
Despite not seeing his father, who has mental health issues, since his ninth birthday.
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Despite having to go on the run from his mother’s ex-husband (not his father), who is now in prison in Virginia after his role in shootings that led to a death.
His motivation came from his mother, he says, who was always encouraging him to stay away from trouble, to do well at school.
And when he did well, it made him feel good. And when he told his mother how well he was doing, that made him feel even better.
That’s not to say he didn’t get discouraged.
“I’m not going to lie to you. The idea crossed my mind a couple of times,” he said. “But I would push it out of my head. At all points in my life, I had people try to help me, to invest their time and effort in me.”
If he gave up, or didn’t try his hardest, he said, “I would be letting himself and Mom down, and people who wanted to help me.”
Some of those helpers came from Daniel, a nonprofit agency in Jacksonville that works with homeless and in-need children and their families. It helped the Folsoms get housing and furniture, and gave Martin bus passes, a prom outfit and mentors to guide him through high school. It’s also giving him a scholarship to defray expenses at Valdosta State.
Carmella Prescott, director of Daniel’s Independent Living Program, said Martin is a star.
“Of anybody that I know, he’s just amazing,” she said. “I just know he’s going to be one of these completely successful people. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in the White House doing something.”
She credits his mother for giving him the foundation for success.
“Martin’s mom is amazing,” Prescott said. “Research says when children and adolescents are facing adverse conditions, you have to have a highly supportive and nurturing person in your life. That’s how you overcome adversity and trauma, and she was that.”
In turn, Melva Folsom, who’s 51, credits her parents, who gave her a stable childhood in Ithaca, N.Y. She says she wanted to provide that for Martin, even when things were far from stable for them.
“My main focus was to keep things as normal as possible and to get him through high school,” she said.
Folsom is going to miss Martin when he goes to college. After all, for so long it’s just been the two of them, and she admits that she called him often when he was on his way to and from school, just to make sure he was OK.
As the book says, As long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.
She chuckled: She’s going to have to back off on some of those phone calls once he’s in the dorms, making his own decisions, his own future, the one she helped him get ready for.
“You know, what? I’m having anxieties,” she said. “But Martin, he’s going to be good, no matter what.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.