"I wanna be a Batman!"
Week after week for five years, we’ve played the same clip at the start of every State of Opportunity story. You hear three kids telling us what they want to be when they grow up: a firefighter, a ballerina, and a Batman.
We’ve heard from countless listeners, friends, and even colleagues over the years. And they all want to know: where’s Batman now?
So, as my last story for State of Opportunity, I set out to track him down.
(Editor's note: This is a story for your eyes and your ears! Make sure you click the audio clips as you're reading to get the whole story.)
I first met Batman on June 19, 2012. It was at a support group for low-income moms and their kids at St. John Providence hospital in Detroit. I was able to track down the sign-in sheet from that day.
There were 13 names on the list and 13 phone numbers. I got to work making calls.
I was striking out on Batman. By this point, I’ve got less than a week before my deadline.
And then, a breakthrough! I got an email Friday night from Rusty, our IT guy at Michigan Radio. He had found the original tape from when I first met Batman! Now I had his full name, but no working number for his mom.
I do some more digging, and then with about 48 hours to go:
It’s Batman’s mom: Dieisha Fluellen.
I tell her the deal—how I’m on a deadline and have been searching for her son for weeks. Fluellen says ok, come over tomorrow morning. I’ll keep him home and take him in late to school.
So yesterday at ten o’clock, I walk up to their brick apartment, knock on the door, and there's Batman—twice as big as when I first met him.
Justice Fluellen is now 10 years old and in the 5th grade. He's a little bit shy. When given the choice of being famous or rich, he’d choose rich every day. He loves basketball, math, and most science, but says "when it comes to animals, like frogs," he's not that interested.
We talk for a few minutes and then it dawns on me: regular Michigan Radio listeners have heard his Batman tape week after week for five years, but Justice and his family have never heard it.
So I get out my cell phone and play the clip for them.
The one you hear laughing the hardest is Trinity, Justice’s 9-year-old sister. Justice is trying hard not to laugh, too.
I ask him: so, do you still want to be a Batman?
"Well," he says, "when I kinda found out that it was fake, I kinda didn't, but then I still want to." He says he remembers when he found out Batman wasn't real and that it was just a movie.
"I was depressed, but it was other stuff I can do in the world. So, since Batman was like a lifesaver, I might...be a police officer."
"You can be Justice Man," says his mom. "Your name is already superhero-ish!"
Justice says he'd also like to be a basketball player, depending on which position he'd get to play.
There are so many ways this story could’ve ended. We want to believe kids from low-income families will have an equal shot at success in life, but there’s a pile of research that suggests otherwise.
Finding Justice, this well-adjusted, smart, happy kid from a loving home, was such a relief. His mom and dad both work, they have their own car, and they just put an offer in this week on a little bungalow house with a koi pond in the backyard.
His mom, Dieisha Fluellen, grew up in foster care. Now, she has a job as a supervisor at a bank. She says she didn’t want her family to be another poverty statistic.
"Just because you’re in a certain situation does not mean you have to stay in that situation," says Fluellen. "If you want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, start acting that way now, and your intention will get you there."
Climbing out of poverty is incredibly tough. But some—like Justice and his family—they manage to do it.
And, if you ask me, that makes them superheroes.