Derrick Johnson has been a father for 24 years. It’s been a rewarding time, maybe even saved his life, as he wrestles with the responsibility of fatherhood and a past he’s just hoping his children can learn from.
Johnson has four children: 24-year-old Ramone, 22-year-old Deria, 21-year-old Tayanna and 14-year-old Elijah.
“I know it’s cliché,” he said, “but it’s amazing, just actually seeing them go from little kids to now graduating and going to high school. I could go on and on for days and days about that, knowing they’re mine and I made them.”
Johnson had his first child when he was 20 and said he wasn’t ready to be a father yet. He was fighting a case in court for dealing drugs and was facing possible prison time. He ended up avoiding that, but it was a wake-up call. He asked himself, was this the person he wanted his first child to see?
Johnson said he started to leave that lifestyle then, but he didn’t get away from it completely until his oldest children were nearing their teens.
Johnson fathered five children. His son Derrick died two years ago when he was 18 years old. He broke into a home in the Castleton area in the middle of the night. The homeowner was home, along with two other people, and fatally shot him.
Johnson, 43, said he wonders sometimes if that tragedy could have been avoided if he had left the streets sooner.
“I put it all on myself,” Johnson said. “Even to this day, two years later … I don’t know what the exact words are. It felt like I should’ve been a better father years ago. Toward the end of his life, his life kind of mirrored exactly what I was doing. I should’ve done better.”
But Johnson also said he grew from that experience and has turned his anger into a positive force by trying to be a better person and father.
“I know if I let it beat me, it’d kill both of us,” he said. “In order for me to let his legacy live on, and try to make the good come out of a bad situation, I have to embrace it and move on.”
Elijah Johnson, 14, is the youngest child and said his father started talking more openly with his siblings about life and the issues they were facing.
“He really took steps forward,” Elijah said. “He stopped smoking. He stopped drinking. He became really positive.”
The elder Johnson’s advice to other parents — especially those who have children who are putting themselves in danger — is to not take their time together for granted. Johnson assumed his son would grow out of that life the same way he did. But that didn’t happen. Now Johnson said one of his best qualities as a father is that he’s honest with his children.
“I don’t put blinders on them,” he said. “I see life from all perspectives, the good, the bad. I don’t send my kids out here in this fantasy world. I know the realities they’re faced with every day, not only from just being kids, but especially being Black kids in the inner city. I know what you’re faced with.”
As much as he’s given his children by turning his life around, Johnson said they’ve given him more. It was only because of his children that he was able to leave that life. He went back to school and earned a degree in nonprofit management and civic leadership from IUPUI in 2015 and now works for the county election board.
“I tell them all the time, I owe myself to y’all,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have had kids, I know I would either be dead, in prison or I’d be caught up in the streets.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.