By Joe Bailey, Features Editor—
Part-time University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Marlon Carter’s early life was mired in uncertainty and instability, but there was also hope.
Born in 1986, he started out in Knob Noster, Missouri, began elementary school in Chattanooga and graduated middle school at 15 in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I went to high school in Colorado,” he said. “I moved around a lot.”
Carter’s parents split when he was 8, and he said that the household environment where he grew up was often unstable.
“I was around drugs and alcohol,” he said. “My father, he was a good father, but when I was in high school, he was a womanizer, and when he met my stepmother, she was a gambler. I knew that after high school I had to get out on my own, you know, I mean, because it seemed like all the pressure was on me.”
Carter was 19 when he left home and started college in Raleigh, North Carolina. The year was 2007, and the world was on the brink of economic collapse.
“I felt like the world was on my shoulders,” he said. “I felt like I was by myself.”
Up until he enrolled at college in Raleigh, Carter had accrued a roster of role models from years of watching movies. Black filmmaking figureheads such as Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson inspired him to pursue a degree in communications. Samuel L. Jackson, a Chattanooga native, paved a career path that brought him from a similarly unstable early life, all the way to stardom.
Soon after he started college, Carter had to drop out. Balancing rising financial pressures with grades proved too much to bear at the time. He said the situation was partially the result of bad timing, but that he also could have taken better advantage of resources, be they public or familial.
“What society didn’t tell you is that you could graduate high school, and if you flunk out of college, we’ll still toss you out in the desert,” he said. “And that’s what I felt had happened, but I’m still working my way back in.”
When he learned that he had flunked out, Carter immediately took a Greyhound bus to New Orleans, Louisiana where his father was living. His first day in the city, Carter found a job at a Rouses grocery store, where he would work for the next year.
Over the next half decade, Carter would try on a variety of hats. For a time he worked construction with his father. Next, he would be employed at a Hilton Hotel. He even worked as a D.J. a few nights a week at various clubs around New Orleans and Atlanta.
This period also saw Carter get more involved with racial justice movements. Following his participation with the Jena Six protests in Louisiana, he joined the NAACP.
Carter eventually had to move to Chattanooga, but finding work was still as hard as ever.
“You couldn’t even get a full-time job at McDonald’s,” he said. “That was when I really felt the recession.”
After a few shaky part-time jobs, Carted eventually did find steady work at a chicken house in 2010 where he worked for the next 4 years. In that time, he joined the United Steelworkers Union as well as the Poor People’s Campaign.
“I was working to save up,” Carter said. “That’s when I told myself ‘I am going to get back in school.’ I am. It’s gonna take me a few years.”
Fast-forward to today, and Carter has been a part time student at UTC for five years, working as a custodian on university property. Making his way towards a bachelor’s degree in communications, his dream of one day being involved in media still drives him, one step at a time. Unlike Sam Jackson, Carter sees a future career behind the camera.
Suffice it to say, Carter’s perspective is out of the ordinary among UTC students.
“I’m 34 years old and there are a lot of 20-somethings thinking they can tell me something about God when they don’t know nothing about life,” he said. “They really don’t know what it’s like to be living in poverty while going to college.”
Carter likened this disconnect to the gentrification problems in Chattanooga. He is currently fighting an uphill battle to build up enough credit and save enough money to rent or own a house here.
“I work from 6 a.m. to 2:30,” he said. “And right after work, I go straight into the library and start studying. Sometimes, after I study in the library, I will even go home and study. Sometimes, I don’t even have time to watch TV.”
Carter still blames some part of himself for flunking out of college all those years ago, and said that this time, he is less naïve and knows how much is expected of him. His ability to “cope with life,” as he put it, has grown immensely.
Despite his determination, Carter is still met with some struggles, and believes the university does too little to help its staff and low-income students.
“This is why I wanted to be a student, because, you know, if I was just a custodian, they would care even less about me, just like the rest of the custodians,” he said.
Although he’s mostly optimistic about the path he has chosen, Carter still sees UTC as a cynical institution more than anything else.
“College ain’t fun and games,” he said. “It’s running a business. I’ve been a custodian for five years here at UTC, and let me tell you, the pay is no better than it was when I first started.”
Issues of unequal treatment, he said, are not exclusive to UTC, or even Chattanooga.
“Young people living in poverty, they get treated as outsiders,” he said.
Over the summer, contractors were set to clean and sanitize UTC’s housing facilities. When that deal fell through, the campus custodians had to pick up the slack.
“And guess what they were paying us?” Carter said. “An extra 90 cents an hour. And they want to give us a folder saying ‘UTC cares’—seriously?”
Essential workers have played an important role in keeping things afloat during the pandemic. Carter is one of these essential workers, and has faced potential exposure on the job each day.
One could draw a parallel between the situation in 2008 and the one today. Both saw global hardships that hit the poor the hardest. But 2020 was also a time for the mistreated and oppressed to demand justice. Over the summer, the Black Lives Matter movement inspired many across the country and the world to stand up in the face of racially motivated human rights violations, and hopefully pave the way for a better, more equitable future.
So, what changed between 2008 and 2020 to allow Marlon Carter to succeed where he had once failed? Being “tossed out in the desert” may have been painful, but it also cultivated an ability, not just to cope with life, but to make something of it.