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Friends and teachers, who were shocked by his final stunt, are starting to realize that they never really knew Nate at all.
Polly Ann Powell sensed that her son was special early on. As a toddler he ambled about with a Dr. Seuss book in his hands and uttered his favorite command: "Read this!" Powell was struck by the way her son concentrated on books, how he seemed to be absorbing them with those piercing eyes of his. "My little sponge," she called him. Powell didn't really consider him a child, at least not like other children. He wasn't just her little sponge -- he'd become her "little man," too. She adored him.
"I used to open the door and just watch him sleep," she says, as she sits in Nate's room in their little triplex apartment. Her smile is beatific. "Just watch him sleep, that's all."
Powell says she was determined to nurture Nate's mind, to let that sponge soak up knowledge. It was she who saw to it that Nate didn't fall into street life or the sports trap or any other black stereotype. "My son has a brain, and he was going to use it," Powell says. She believed that with proper guidance the world would recognize this, too, that he would do something great. She didn't have any idea whether it would be in business or music or politics, but she says she knew deep down that he'd make history.
One of the first signs that she was right came in preschool, when he became fascinated with computers. His teachers told her what she already knew: Nate was a very smart kid. "They saw what I saw -- that this kid had something great," she says. Then, at Barton Elementary in Lake Worth, he distinguished himself as an honor student. The bumper sticker that proclaimed this achievement is still on the back of Powell's white Ford Probe, the lettering now faded almost to illegibility.
More than anything else, Powell wanted Nate to be somebody. For her family it had always been a struggle. In the 1800s her ancestors worked on South Carolina plantations as slaves. A couple of generations after the Civil War, her grandfather was able to buy 100 acres of farmland, which is still in the family. Powell's father, however, didn't like the hard labor of tobacco and cotton and left the country life for Lake Worth, where he worked construction and, with his wife, raised a family of 12 children.
Powell, who is 34 years old, grew up in Lake Worth and at the age of 21, gave birth to Nate. But she and his father, Nathaniel Brazill Sr., never married. The father did, however, pay child support and has maintained a presence in the boy's life. When Nate was three years old, Powell married Wainford Whitefield, a roofer. According to police and court records, the marriage was a tumultuous one from the start. Less than four months after their wedding, Whitefield balled up his fist and punched Powell in the face, according to police reports. Over the next four years, she called police numerous times complaining of abuse and fear of Whitefield.
Powell says Nate himself was never abused, and she says she did her best to keep him from ever witnessing the fights. "He never saw it because I would make sure he was out of the house," she insists. Powell believes her domestic problems had a nominal effect on her son, but she can't be sure. In the end, she concedes, it's unclear what impact the violence had on Nate.
She and Whitefield separated in 1996 and finally divorced in 1997, the same year Powell gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Ebony. The father was a truck driver named Marshall Powell, whom she married last year. Rather than accept his sister, Nate considered the baby a rival, his mother says. "He was jealous at first," Powell says. "It was just me and him for eleven and a half years. I told him, "You're her big brother, and you need to spend time with her.' Time went by, and when Ebony learned to walk, he started paying more attention to her."
Nate may have had to share his mother's affection, but he certainly wasn't starved for attention himself. While Powell has never made much money at the nursing home where she's worked the past 11 years, she always managed to save enough to put Nate in nice clothes and give him toys that belied the family's working- to lower-class standing. Powell concedes that she's been accused of spoiling Nate. In addition to kid stuff like a crane set and plastic fire truck, his little room is loaded with expensive toys, like remote-control cars and airplanes. He also had his own color television and the family's VCR was usually in his room, along with movies such as Blade, Enemy of the State, and Hard Rain, all rated R for their violent content.
But even if she did spoil him, Nate proved just how good a son he was last year, when Powell was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat the disease, and she says that Nate was "there for me all the way through it." She rewarded him with a computer system, and Nate was soon spending most of his time at home playing video games and surfing the Internet. His favorite games were flight simulations, in which he could command a cyber helicopter. He also liked to log on to government military sites and even contacted the White House, which sent him a packet of information on the Secret Service.