ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When he was just 9, Marcus Buggs became a man.
It's not that he wanted to. He had to.
Up until that point, he was living what he says was a typical childhood in Flint.
It wasn't the best environment. There were drug dealers and thieves — the kind of place where you can get into trouble easily.
But Marcus had his family. Even if his father was dealing drugs and his mother had her own issues, they were around.
And then everything changed. It happened on his ninth birthday, the day he became a man.
Marcus watched his uncle shoot his dad, pumping a bullet into his chest.
He lost his father.
He lost his mother a few weeks later. Not to death, but to prison.
And right then, he lost his childhood.
Marcus became the adult, caring for his sister and later three more siblings, shouldering most of the responsibilities as they bounced around between a foster home and two separate grandparents' homes.
Thrust into adulthood far too early, Marcus could have gone either way. For a while, he went the only way he knew, getting kicked out of school and starting fights.
But with some help from a principal who refused to give up on him, Marcus went the other way.
He's 18 now and getting ready for college.
Marcus knows the next step won't be easy. But he's also certain of something else.
"I don't use all that as an excuse," he said of his hard upbringing. "I know what I have to do to be successful, and I'm going to do it."
There's no sugarcoating it: By now, Marcus says, he should be dead or in prison — not filling out college applications and worrying about his ACT score.
After his mom, Endia Jones, was sent to prison for conspiracy to commit bank robbery and embezzlement, he and his oldest sister — now 12 — spent time at his grandmother's house, in foster care and at his grandfather's house. Marcus and his sister were joined by his now 8-year-old brother, born while Jones was in prison.
There were varying levels of supervision. It didn't matter. Marcus still found ways to get in trouble.
In 2007, his mom got out. She looked around Flint, saw who Marcus was hanging around with and decided to move. The family ended up in Ann Arbor, where Marcus had already lived for a short time with his grandfather.
Life didn't improve much there.
His family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. It was so small that the living room and kitchen were the same room. Marcus slept on a futon in the living room with his brother. His sister slept on the couch.
His mom wasn't around much. She eventually had two more kids, and Marcus sometimes had to watch them as well.
"She was there, but she wasn't there," Marcus said. "She'd come in and go right back out again. I'd be at the crib by myself for days."
Marcus acted up. He got kicked out of Ann Arbor's Clague Middle School for fighting. He was sent to Roberto Clemente Student Development Center, normally the last stop for students in the Ann Arbor school system before expulsion.
Big trouble struck again on April 21, 2010.
At 2:45 a.m., Ann Arbor police were called to a local emergency room, where Theo Patterson — Jones' boyfriend and the father of her two youngest children — had been brought in. Jones had stabbed him in the chest with a serrated kitchen knife during an argument in their apartment.
Marcus wasn't home, but his four siblings were.
His mom was sent back to prison. She's currently in Danbury, Conn., and expects to be released this spring.
Marcus and his siblings ended up in their grandfather's townhouse. Marcus crashes in the basement.
His grandfather worked then, leaving Marcus to care for his youngest sisters. Some days that meant missing school, and other days it meant bringing them with him to school. His grandfather is now retired, freeing Marcus from some of those duties.
Ben Edmondson is tough on his students.
As principal at Ann Arbor's Scarlett Middle School, he courted controversy by holding students back a grade instead of following district practice of social promotion. He canceled the eighth-grade dance one year after a food fight in the lunchroom.
He's not shy about his expectations either, frequently laying them out to his students.
He is, by his own admission, tougher on African-American males — he's African American and knows the challenges. He pushes them to step off the well-trodden path of dropping out of school and ending up in jail. He also spends time mentoring them.
He often points to his job, his car, his house and his salary as evidence that an educated black man can succeed in life.
When he took over at Clemente in 2009, he began to push the students there.
One of them was Marcus. They clicked. Edmondson practically adopted him.
Marcus began spending some nights at Edmondson's house, playing video games and hanging out with Edmondson's kids.
Marcus' grades began to improve. His GPA climbed above 3.0, and he was named to the school's honor society. He took the lead part in the school play, became a key player on the basketball team and garnered recognition from the local chapter of the NAACP.
Soon it was time to start thinking about college.
But the principal and student admit they were worried about college.
It will be Marcus' first taste of real freedom and independence. He'll fret about his siblings and about how he'll afford college. And he'll face academic challenges without the tight-knit support system he has relied on so much.
Marcus really wanted to go to Michigan State University. Still does, even though MSU turned him down.
It fit his search criteria: It was close enough that he could slide home and visit his siblings, far enough that he would have some distance and big enough to offer lots of opportunities.
That's why, as he was applying to MSU with the help of Roberto Clemente staffers, his fingers weren't working like they normally do.
"Nervous?" Edmondson asked about 15 minutes into the process.
"Yes," Marcus replied. "I feel like I'm signing my life away."
Edmondson walked him through the essay portion, stopping where it asked him to write about his life.
"With your story and the way you've taken off, they're going to want to grab you," he told Marcus.
Marcus laughed and nodded. He began to write.
"My grades could have been a lot better if I didn't have so many obstacles in my life," he wrote in an early draft. "Education is the key to my door, and I am carrying my brother and sisters on my back, waiting outside the door to be a father/brother to them."
Marcus is now waiting to hear from other universities. He applied to Wayne State, Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Grand Valley State universities. WSU conditionally accepted him, but he said CMU might now be on top of his list.
"I know what needs to be done, and I'm going to do it," he said. "It's all about having the right mindset."
Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com