As a 15-year-old growing up in Washington, D.C., Marcus Bullock knew his mother, the Rev. Sylvia Bullock, was working hard to raise him and his sibling on her own. When Marcus saw the effort his mother was putting in and how little his family had, he decided to take matters into his own hands.
In 1996, he and a friend committed a carjacking and, despite his age, Marcus was tried as an adult and served eight years in prison for the crime.
At the beginning of his sentence, Marcus says he was focused on survival.
"That long road trip on that prison bus, it was like three or four hours," he said. "The whole time, I'm mentally preparing myself for warfare."
During the time that Marcus was gone, Sylvia said she thought about her role in the community and her role as a mother.
"You know, here you are trying to help everybody else, and you can't even minister to your own," Sylvia said. "Because I felt like, what could I have done differently and how did I not see it?"
Marcus told his mother that he believes she did everything she could, but both admitted that the time apart from each other was difficult.
"Initially, it was a real sense of feeling alone," Sylvia said. "I stopped cooking dinner, but what kept me truly alive and focused was being able to write to you."
The letters Sylvia wrote to her son were long. Marcus recalled them being six, seven or eight pages, adding that "the letters were everything."
"I would picture you writing and your hands would be moving across the paper," Marcus told Sylvia. "You were really baring your soul to me. Before then, it was always like, 'Hey, I'm your mom. Go put your shoes on. Hurry up, let's go to church.' "
But the letters weren't the only way Sylvia checked in on Marcus. She also talked to the wardens about how her son was doing and made sure they knew he was still a teenager.
"You was such a mom," Marcus said. "What mother calls to the prison and talks to the warden? It's not a guidance counselor in college."
Through the phone calls and letters, he said, Sylvia became a more caring, concerned mother instead of the authority figure he knew at home.
"That's what kept me alive, because a year out here is not the same thing as a year in there," Marcus said.
Though the passage of time was hard for Marcus, he said he realized that he would eventually leave prison and still had the potential for different opportunities in his life, while others in prison would probably never leave.
And Marcus did get to leave, but he didn't forget the letters that helped to give him strength. After his release, he created Flikshop, an app that makes it easier for inmates and their families to stay in touch. In addition to running the company, Marcus, now 35, runs different programs for people re-entering society after incarceration.
Through all of this Sylvia, 65, is right by her son's side. She works for the company not only as a fulfillment manager, but also as the official "mom-in-chief," and says she's proud of her son.
"I see a young man who said that, 'I'm going to change the world,' " Sylvia said. "I see a man who loves his children and his wife. And I am thankful that you have grown up to be the person that you are today."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kerrie Hillman and Andres Caballero.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
It's Friday, and that means time for StoryCorps. Today's story started 20 years ago when Sylvia Bullock was raising two kids on her own near Washington, D.C. Her teenage son, Marcus, stole a car. And although he was 15 years old, Marcus was tried as an adult. He served eight years in prison.
MARCUS BULLOCK: That long road trip on that prison bus, it was like three or four hours. The whole time I'm mentally preparing myself for warfare.
SYLVIA BULLOCK: Survival.
M. BULLOCK: Yeah. How did you cope with being a minister with a son in prison?
S. BULLOCK: You know, here you are trying to help everybody else, and you can't even minister to your own because I felt, like, what could I have done differently? And how did I not see it?
M. BULLOCK: I think that you did everything that you possibly could. You kept me in church Monday through Sunday.
S. BULLOCK: OK, well, being in church and being engaged with what you're doing there is two different things.
M. BULLOCK: What was life like at home while I was gone?
S. BULLOCK: Well, initially, it was a real sense of feeling alone. And I stopped cooking dinner. But what kept me truly alive and focused was being able to write you.
M. BULLOCK: The letters were everything. The way that you wrote six, seven, eight-page letters to me, I would picture you writing and how your hands would be moving across the paper. You were really baring your soul to me. Before then, it was always like, hey, I'm your mom. Go put shoes on. Hurry up. Let's go to church.
S. BULLOCK: I remember, you know, talking to the wardens like...
M. BULLOCK: You were such a mom. What mother calls to the prison and talks to the warden?
S. BULLOCK: (Laughter).
M. BULLOCK: Like, this is not a guidance counselor in college.
S. BULLOCK: (Laughter) I was, like, I need to talk to the warden, and you need to know that my son is here. He's only 15.
M. BULLOCK: You became less of my authority figure mom and became more of my caring and concerned mom. That's what kept me alive because a year out here is not the same thing as a year in there. A year in there was just the same day every day, over and over and over again. And because they sent me to these prisons where people had so much more time than I had to serve - in my mind, I'm like, I got eight years. Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do?
But in their mind, they're like, I potentially may die in prison. You're going to go home one day. Why are you acting like you have my kind of time? Do your eight years, go home and make us proud. Like, if you can't make it out there, then none of us can make it. So when you look at me today, what do you see?
S. BULLOCK: I see a young man who said that I'm going to change the world. I see a man who loves his children and his wife. And I'm thankful that you have grown up to be the person that you are today.
M. BULLOCK: I'm honored to be able to say that I had that direction from you and you being a mom in my life, so...
S. BULLOCK: I love you, too.
M. BULLOCK: ...Thank you.
S. BULLOCK: (Laughter).
M. BULLOCK: I love you, Mom.
S. BULLOCK: Love you.
CHANG: Marcus Bullock with his mom, Reverend Sylvia Bullock, at StoryCorps in Washington, D.C. After his release, Marcus created an app to make it easier for inmates and their families to stay in touch. He now runs a tech company, and his mother is one of his employees. This conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILLY TAYLOR TRIO'S "I WISH I KNEW (HOW IT WOULD FEEL TO BE FREE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.