The Way Out

Nick, his wife LaShunta—an attorney now running for Jefferson County District Court Judge—‚ and their own six kids (pictured here at home) devote much of their time to helping disadvantaged kids from their old neighborhood. Photo by Beau Gustafson.


Nick Boler shares his story of growing up-and moving on-from Gate City.

About three years ago, Nick Boler, a juvenile probation officer for Jefferson County, stood up in front of 30 boys assembled at Erwin Middle School in Center Point to talk to them about the importance of making positive choices. He didn’t have a Power Point presentation; he didn’t have a lecture prepared. Boler just shared his own story. And for about an hour, you could have heard a pin drop in that room.

Boler spent his formative years in the Marks Village Public Housing Community, in the portion of East Lake known as Gate City. Crime was rampant; poverty was a given. He was one of five brothers—among them they had three different fathers, and none was ever really around. Nick’s own father was murdered before he ever met him.

The heartbreak of Nick’s childhood is modern-day Dickensian, full of heartbreaking details of poverty, cruelty, and violence unfathomable to anyone who grew up outside that world. Yet for the at-risk boys at Erwin Middle School who heard Boler speak that day, his story wasn’t shocking at all. What captivated them was hearing a grown man—a probation officer, no less—describe in detail the traumas he, too, had endured growing up. He was speaking their truth.

“Even the teachers were tearing up,” Boler remembers. “And I was like, ‘What’s wrong? I’m still here.’”

The Power of Words

Boler saw the cathartic power of sharing his story—for himself as well as a new generation of kids growing up in similar circumstances. He decided to follow through on an idea that had been percolating in his mind for years, to write a memoir about his life in Gate City. “That night,” he says, “I just started writing the book on my iPhone. The main reason was to try and show the kids that I deal with and the people on the outside looking in that in that world, we do live a traumatizing life. What we see as children, teenagers, and adults in that environment is mostly negative, and that sometimes causes us to react in different ways.

“But in the midst of everything that’s going on, at the end of the day, you still have the power of choice.”

He showed what he had written to his wife, LaShunta (“Shun”) White-Boler, and she encouraged him to keep going. A friend pitched in and bought Boler a new laptop, and within four months, Boler written had a complete book: Footsteps: Growing Up in Gate City. It offers a rare, intimate glimpse into one of Birmingham’s poorest housing projects that comes as close to walking its streets as anyone from the outside might ever get. The details bring Nick’s story alive, and his honesty is brutal. (A sequel, Footsteps: Coming Out of Gate City, examines his teenage years and beyond.)

Imagine, for instance, being seven years old, and your brother finds a .22 caliber pistol hidden under your grandmother’s bed. He grabs it and improvises a game of cops-and-robbers before accidentally firing a shot. No one’s hurt, but the kicker is your unsuspecting mother’s casual reaction: “It sounded like it was just outside.” The sound of gunshots was so common, it didn’t occur to her that her own young children might be playing with a pistol in the bedroom.

Imagine hating the color of your skin so much you bathe with Clorox hoping to look more like your brothers, whose lighter skin tones are seen as more desirable—even in your own community.

Imagine the power and gas both being cut in your apartment because your mom can’t pay the bill. Trying to cope, you do homework by candlelight when darkness falls…but when you hand in your report the next day at school, the teacher refuses to accept it because the paper is soiled from wax that dripped from the candle. She crumples it and throws it back at you as other children snicker.

Imagine growing to dread school so much that you play hookie by hiding for hours in a closet with your brothers, who have their own problems with school.

Imagine, later, slowly watching those same brothers give up hope of ever getting an education or finding real employment, instead taking to the streets like so many of their friends to steal, sell drugs, join gangs, and wind up in deadly turf wars.

Making His Own Way

Soft-spoken and modest, Boler does not portray himself as a hero for becoming a local boy made good—the one who moved away and went to college, got married, found gainful employment and has built a peaceful, contented life with his wife and their six children.

Instead, he examines a series of choices he made along the way. From a young age, Boler became a keen observer of human behavior and its consequences. On the one hand, he saw the temptations of the streets and understood the dream—for a kid who’s known nothing but poverty and bad influences—of having fancy cars and clothes and a sense of power by way of theft, dealing drugs and climbing the ranks of local gangs.

“Any DYS (Department of Youth Services) facility or any prison you go to, the majority of the people you’ll find started out in that direction because they were impoverished,” Boler says. “And impoverished, they wanted things that they thought would make them whole.”

But on the other hand, he saw where that life usually led. “They ignored everything that came along with it—can’t sleep at night, always looking over your shoulder. In the gangs, in the drug game, in the robbing game, someone’s always going to be after you.” He also saw a lot of the big-time dealers and gang leaders ultimately wind up wasting their lives in prison or dead, shot down in the streets by rivals.

So Boler seized on every positive element he could find. There was a local priest he knew as Brother Dell who always made time for the neighborhood children and taught Boler simple prayers to say when things were at their bleakest. There was the friend who gave Boler a toy from under his own Christmas tree, because he knew Boler wouldn’t be getting any presents. There were family friends who took him shopping for clothes when his didn’t fit and his family was dead broke. Those acts of kindness made him feel like others believed in him, and that gave him hope.

Boler’s biggest turning point, though, came when he signed up to play football for a league in Crestwood. He didn’t even have $50 to pay for the equipment, and the first days of practice were so physically grueling he all but decided he wasn’t cut out for sports—but just as he was about to give up, something happened:

I quit the team on a Monday. As I’m standing in the front yard near our unit under the tree, I see a guy running for his life down Sixty-Sixth toward The Hill with no shoes on his feet. Rickey, one of Mike’s friends, came into view from behind the recreation center. He was firing a pistol. The people who were hanging out began scattering in all directions…I heard 10 shots for sure…I dropped to the ground and covered my head. I said a prayer.

…Tuesday, I was at the bus stop (to go to football practice) at 4:15 sharp. I was the first one to get on and sit down. I was hesitant about playing, but I was sure I didn’t want to be dodging random, eyeless bullets. The grueling practice of football was much better than being in the midst of drama…Football practice was a getaway; a refuge.

Not long after, Boler’s older brother Jay got a part-time job at Eastwood Mall and paid the $50 for Boler’s football equipment. Boler never forgot that, either. “Whenever I thought about doing something stupid,” he says, “I just thought about those people who helped me along the way. I have so much respect for them.”

Giving Back

Boler began playing basketball, too, and soon sports had changed his life forever. His coaches became the mentors he lacked in Gate City. Team trips took him places he’d never dreamed of seeing—the beach in Florida, the marvelous excess of Las Vegas.

“Those were things beyond what I had ever seen,” he says. “The first time I ever put my toes in the sand. The first time I felt the roughness of a palm tree. The first night I ever tasted salt water and realized that it actually tasted like salt. I thought that was a slang term, that the sea was salt water.

“Once I got exposed to that, I was like, man, you know what? When I grow up, this is how I want to live. And then I got out of survival mode and went into the mode of living.”

Eventually, basketball got Boler to college with a scholarship to Snead State Community College in Boaz. He later finished his education with a bachelor’s in sociology and psychology from the University of West Alabama in 1996.

In 2007, he became a juvenile probation officer for Jefferson County, working with kids whose challenges and missteps he understands all too well.

Along the way, Boler met and married White (now White-Boler), who had a cousin in Gate City and was no stranger to Birmingham’s most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods, either.

Yet while both are grateful to be safely out of a life of constant danger and turmoil, able to raise their children in a safe environment in which all their needs are met, they haven’t turned their backs on the communities where they were raised.

Nick works with Determined To Be (D2B), a mentoring program which helps promote positive growth and development for boys ages eight to 18. He also coaches 4th, 5th and 6th grade girls at Phillips Academy, and continues to speak to kids whenever he has a chance about his own life experiences and how the choices he has made have affected his life.

“That’s the main reason I wrote the books,” he says, “is to show people, including the kids I deal with and the people on the outside looking in on that world…we do live a traumatizing life, but it’s still possible at the end of the day to have power of choice. When you get to a certain age, you know what’s right and wrong.”

And though the book is not yet in wide distribution, he’s gotten a lot of affirming feedback from people in his childhood community who appreciate their story being shared. It has also been adopted by two local prisons that use it as part of a book study group for the inmates.

“The connection with all of us in Gate City was poverty,” he says. “All of us went through the same things. A lot of people didn’t tell me that until I put the book out, because it was like, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ Everybody had the same situation, but nobody talked about it. It was humiliating.

“I’m a juvenile probation officer, but I still deal with the issues of my past, so imagine what my two brothers who are locked up are dealing with. We just don’t talk about it. So with me talking about it and putting it out there, I hope it’s like therapy for others.” 

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