Two years ago, at 15, Jordan Teklay became legally emancipated from his parents and moved on his own from California to New York City. Since then, he has been learning to juggle the responsibilities of work, school and taking care of himself. Emancipation has brought both freedom and hardship. Struggling to negotiate his path in the world, Jordan is trying to understand what it means to be an adult.
Teenagers are famous for getting into conflicts with their parents over independence. Occasionally, that tension even leads to a separation of some kind—such as moving in with a relative or going into foster care. But Radio Rookie Jordan Teklay didn’t want to be a part of anybody else’s family. When the situation with his mom became unbearable, he sought his freedom through the courts.
REPORTER: Well this is me. Jordan Patrick Austin Teklay. (Spaz alert, spaz alert…). On my own like I always wanted to be (I’m losing my mind…), physically and financially. (Bills, bills, bills, bills…).
I landed in New York City two years ago, when I was 15. Imagine a skinny black kid getting off the Greyhound bus. In one hand, I had my emancipation papers. And in the other, a suitcase filled with my nicest jeans, my Nikes and my Jordans, and my retainers for my teeth.
I thought all I needed was 122% determination, a job….and maybe someone to cut me a deal on the rent.
STUART: Well, Jordan had $200 on him when he moved in. And I just didn’t have the heart to take all of it.
REPORTER: That’s Stuart Charles Shenkman. His friends told him he was insane to rent a room to someone who was 15, but Stuart gave me a chance anyway.
STUART: Stop wai-ai-ai-ait, Mr. Postman…
REPORTER: Stuart is a Motown-loving, 61-year-old Jew. I am a 17-year-old black male.
REPORTER: Do you like Keyshia Cole?
STUART: I don’t know who Keyshia Cole is.
REPORTER: As far as I’m concerned, Stuart was born with the dinosaurs.
STUART: Can I use dirty language? There was this girl- I wanted to make out with her. She had one of them Jacqueline Kennedy bouffant hairdos that was popular then…
REPORTER: [rrrrrr…] Let me back up for a minute. I didn’t move all the way from California to hang out with a 61-year-old guy and his stank-stupid cat and all his sexual fantasies. I came here because my relationship with my mother was ruining my life.
REPORTER: I live in a zoo, a zoo!
REPORTER: When my mother came home from work in a bad mood, it was like a parade of wild animals storming through the door.
MOM: I have to go to work everyday and put on this happy face when I’m not happy.
REPORTER: This is my mom, the last time I went to see her in California.
MOM: I gotta come home to a house that’s not mine. I want room for my pets. I ain’t got my bunnies anymore. I had to give them up. I had an orange cat named Pumpkin, I gave him up too.
REPORTER: Did you hear that?
MOM: People make fun of me because I keep saying I’m going to win it.
REPORTER: Here she is, going off about winning the lotto.
MOM: You know something, when I win it, I’ll have more friends than you could ever know. But I’m gonna to win it and you’ll see, and then you’ll know that I’m not crazy.
REPORTER: I really don’t think my mom is crazy. She raised two kids as a single parent, she’s a college graduate, she holds down a job at the DMV. She took us to Chuck E. Cheese on our birthdays! Bottom line, what you’re supposed to do as a mother, my mom did. But her mood swings were crazy. And guess what? I started to get in everybody’s face too.
MOM: I couldn’t control you. You were getting out of control, son. You were cursing me. You were doing things. You weren’t listening to me.
REPORTER: Ok- she’s right. But I felt like nobody was on my side—not my mom. And sure as heck not my father, Daddy Habtom. He hasn’t been around since I was one.
So I petitioned to the Sacramento Family Court for my emancipation.
ROBERTA: You can petition for emancipation if you’re 14 years or older.
REPORTER: Roberta Katz was the family court mediator for my case. In her county, about 35 minors petition for emancipation every year, but only a handful actually get it.
ROBERTA: They have to be able to understand what it means to live independently, and to be able to pay the kind of bills that are required when you’re no longer under your parents’ roof.
REPORTER: My mom didn’t want me to go through with it.
MOM: It was very, very scary for me. I didn’t see how you could make it on your own.
REPORTER: But after a trial period where I lived with my mother’s friend in New York, my mom agreed to sign the papers and the judge declared me an emancipated minor. There it was, all in lights:
SONG: Prince- “Emancipation”
REPORTER: Whoo-- this is my theme song, by Prince. Emancipation- free! To do what I want…
REPORTER: Free at 15! Credit cards, checking accounts, designer jeans, no rules, partying, being on your own and being a MAN! Wooo!
[sound of alarm clock]
REPORTER: Well ladies and gentlemen, it’s 4:15 in the morning. And I’m like so tired right now. But I have to go to work. It’s amazing, the damn sun is not even up yet.
REPORTER: You know—it’s hard to get out of bed, when you’re a full-time student and you work 25 hours a week. I figured that out quickly. What I’m still trying to figure out is how to stop being such a hot head!
REPORTER: I’m about to spaz on my dry cleaning lady because she rapes me for money. And my clothes better be clean. She know I’m leaving tomorrow. Let me just cross the street safely! If people know how to drive! But I’m gonna go in there and be nice, I’m going to be polite first.
LADY: How are you?
REPORTER: Hey my beautiful darling, darling. How are you? Yeah…I hope my clothes are ready…
LADY: Yeah, let me check.
REPORTER: I blow up at everybody - my mother, my teachers, random security guards…and even my roommate, Stuart. One time, I locked myself out of the apartment at 2:00 in the morning. [Stuart I’m locked outside. I’m stuck outside!] And I blamed him for it.
REPORTER: I’m screaming your name outside…
STUART: I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t know.
JOMAYRA: When you see Jordan, you think he’s crazy. Cause I thought he was crazy.
REPORTER: This is my lovely friend, Jomayra. We have a class together called “Family Group.”
JOMAYRA: In this class, it’s like everybody talks to everybody. We’re supposed to be like a family.
REPORTER: What was Jordan doing?
JOMAYRA: And Jordan sits in a corner and rocks himself back and forth and he just looks at everybody like he wishes they would burn and die and Lord knows what else he thinks in that mind of his.
REPORTER: I can’t stand it when I feel like my time is being wasted. The first quarter of my senior year, I skipped 30% of all my classes.
ARI: Well, I think that what you need to understand is that the school is not like a gas service station. And the teachers are not just going to make themselves available when Jordan feels that he is capable of coming in.
REPORTER: Ari Raucher is a teacher at my school who looks after me.
ARI: …are you gonna let me talk, or is this the Jordan Show?
REPORTER: It is the Jordan Show
REPORTER: Ari tells me:
ARI: You can catch more flies with honey than you do with salt.
REPORTER: But what can I say— I’m a product of my environment.
REPORTER: F*** everybody!
ARI: Jordan, listen—what you’re missing here is that people are here to support you.
REPORTER: No they’re not!! No! No! No!
REPORTER: Don’t judge me. I’m working on it. Your boy Jordan here got his first “A” in Family Group. And I’ve been taking Ari’s advice. It’s just that when people help me, I feel like a child. It feels like they’re trying to take my independence away from me.
REPORTER: This winter, I got so sick I ended up in the hospital. When I got to the emergency room, they refused to see me because I forgot to bring my emancipation papers.
REPORTER: And let me tell you something, if you’re sick, you forget stuff.
REPORTER: So in the middle of the night, I had to ride the subway home with 102 degree fever, and come back the next day.
REPORTER: Last night was the first time since being here that I really wanted to be next to my mom. My mom may be a lot of things, but every time I was sick, my mom would be that person that would make the soup and that would be there for me. Hold on the nurse is here….I have to go pee in a cup.
[Mom and Jordan laughing]
REPORTER: Grandma sittin in that wheelchair, she waitin for somebody to feed her.
REPORTER: It’s funny, but ever since I moved 3,000 miles away, I feel like I’ve gotten closer to my mom.
MOM: Don’t be talking about my momma…
REPORTER: Have you won the lotto yet?
MOM: No, I haven’t won yet, but it better get me the money to buy your laptop.
REPORTER: Oh god.
MOM: That’s all you want is the money. All you want is the money. You don’t want my fat ass. Momma just show me the money. Show me the money, Momma and I’ll show you the laptop I want. Are you working tomorrow?
REPORTER: Yes, I’m opening, I have to be there at five in the morning.
MOM: Ok, I love you. Bye.
REPORTER: Lord knows I’m trying to be an adult. The hardest part isn’t learning how to do things on my own, it’s learning how to share this world with other people.
REPORTER: Live from Stuart Shenkman’s apartment…
REPORTER: After a year and a half, I moved out of Stuart’s apartment.
REPORTER: 15 months of fun, entertainment, hell…
STUART: Lots of laughs, lots of laughs…
REPORTER: I felt like I was starting to rely on him too much— bringing me food home from work, letting me be late with the rent.
REPORTER: On the serious side-- thanks from the bottom of my heart (hiccup) I really appreciate you. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for you. You’ve helped me a lot.
REPORTER: But I also moved because Stuart’s old roommate came back and started driving me crazy. So I took my stuff and hit the road, Jack.
STUART: Yeah we had a good time man. You’re cool. [high five] You ever want to come back, let me know.
REPORTER: I’m not having as much fun now. And I’m thinking…maybe I threw it away too quickly. I guess with age I’ll calm down, back off, chill out.
REPORTER: I don’t think so.
For WNYC, I’m Rookie Reporter Jordan Patrick Austin Teklay