January 1, 2014

College, Not Just for Himself but for His Son
The New York Times

By Sandra E. Garcia

The load on a full-time college student is a heavy one. Finals and midterms, especially when paired with the duties of fatherhood, could crush any 21-year old, but Giovanni Classen, who recently became a single father to his 1-year-old son, Ezio, seems to have found a way to make it work.

“It’s a little hard sometimes, I don’t get a lot of time to myself,” Mr. Classen said last month. “I figure work hard now, and relax later,” he said softly.

Mr. Classen and Ezio had just gotten out of bed, and Ezio, who was cranky, was following his father around the small apartment and crying.

“He’s sick right now, I have to give him his medicine,” said Mr. Classen.

The family used to be bigger, but on Ezio’s first birthday, his mother disappeared.

“In August, she left,” said Mr. Classen. “I remember she woke me up to tell me she had to go to an appointment.”

Ezio’s 20-year-old mother did not return. “At first I thought ‘Oh maybe she’s out with some friends or something,’ but it got really late, so at like 2 in the morning we filed a missing persons report,” Mr. Classen said.

The next time he saw Ezio’s mother was in court in November. She showed up for a custody hearing, the third after Mr. Classen had filed for sole custody when she disappeared. Mr. Classen has not spoken to Ezio’s mother since the November court date, when she told the judge that she had been struggling with mental issues. He currently has full custody of his son, and is working with the courts to arrange visitation rights for Ezio’s mother.

“She said she was depressed,” said Mr. Classen, who has yet to speak privately to his son’s mother. “I don’t know if there’s more to it but she said there were other issues from her childhood that she’s going to therapy for.”

Mr. Classen may not be ready to extend an olive branch to Ezio’s mother, but he still wants her to be a part of his son’s life. “I hope that she gets herself together,” he said. “We don’t have to get back together, but just so she can be in his life.”

Since Ezio’s mother left, Mr. Classen has taken charge of the family, and his priority is Ezio, he said.

“If she’s not going to be around I’m not going to dwell on it,” he said. “I’m not going to drive myself crazy, because then I wouldn’t be in my right mind to take care of him.”

He signed up for food stamps and the supplemental nutrition program known as WIC, which provides food and baby formula for at-risk families. He also enrolled as a full-time student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College; his aunt and his grandmother take care of Ezio when he is in class.

No longer crying, Ezio stood near the family’s diminutive Christmas tree, which was adorned with plastic and gold-colored ornaments and surrounded by bags filled with gifts. He was holding the bottle his father had prepared for him in his hand.

Mr. Classen is not one to pretend that he is Superman. He admits he has little or no time for himself and has had to forgo many of the things he enjoys, like playing video games. “Video games can be expensive,” he said. “I can’t go out and buy something like that. I can’t spend money on stupid stuff.”

Mr. Classen has been taking fatherhood classes at two nonprofit organizations, the Union Settlement Association and the Educational Alliance, a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York, one of seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.

He has also signed up to participate in a New York University study conducted on the Lower East Side, where he lives. “They want to see the types of stresses in the neighborhood for parents,” Alva Cardona, his social worker at the Educational Alliance, said.

“Fathers have 12 sessions, and he just started but he’s been doing pretty good,” Ms. Cardona said. The N.Y.U. study requires Mr. Classen to watch a series of videos and read some pamphlets on parenting, then take an exam.

Mr. Classen was advised by his aunt, who is an accountant at the Educational Alliance, to seek help there, and he said he liked it. “I figured it would be good for Ezio,” he said.

Through the Educational Alliance, Mr. Classen received $500 from the Neediest Cases Fund to buy winter coats for himself and Ezio, as well as baby supplies. He bought diapers and some Christmas gifts. “I got him a bunch of educational stuff,” said Mr. Classen. “There’s one that is a book, and you press a button and it will read the books to you, and you can say the words and the letters. And another toy that helps him with the alphabet. I just bought him a lot of things that help him with his speech development.”

Mr. Classen is also focused on his studies, and plans to transfer to a different college within the City University of New York, a four-year school that offers an engineering program. “I hope in the next 10 years I can get my degree and a good job so that I’m not struggling the way my mother struggled,” he said.

And Mr. Classen has another goal. “I definitely want to pass critical thinking skills down to my son,” he said. “I want him to be smarter than me.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 1, 2014, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: College, Not Just for Himself, but for His Son.

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