She wasn't sure, with the rain and all, how many kids would come by. She couldn't sit out on the porch and call them over. It was still too wet.
So on the last day of school, she spread the bulging candy bags across her coffee table, set out cookies, chips, a stack of new $1 bills, and sank into her sofa to wait.
Marian Evette Williams, 59, lives in a one-story bungalow in Childs Park, near the empty corner lot where the neighborhood kids hang out. She knows them all by name, knows who lives where and what school they go to. She fusses at them: "Pick up that trash! Pull up your pants! Stop cussing! Don't give me no sass, now. I'm not playin'!"
She tells them about Jesus, and sometimes about her past.
They call her "Miss Evette" or "Grandmom."
And when report cards come out, they bring theirs to show her.
"They know I'll always have a little something for them, to reward them," Williams said.
She gets $194 a month in food stamps. And every time report cards have come out for the past four years, she has asked her daughter to drive her to Sam's Club, where she spends $50 — a week's worth of groceries — on Smarties and Double Bubble and Starlight mints, Famous Amos cookies, sacks of Cheetos and Doritos, boxes of Kool-Aid Jammers. And, sometimes, something hot, in case someone is hungry.
There's a dollar if they make honor roll. And a hug, of course, for everyone.
"As long as they behave."
• • •
The first knock came just after 3 p.m. Williams dashed to the door.
"C'mon in, baby. Hey, Miss Layla," she cooed. "Come show Grandmom what you got."
A small boy hid behind the older girl. "Who's back there?" Williams asked. "Is that you, Alijah?"
The boy peeked around the girl's leg and, without looking up, whispered, "Yeah."
"Don't 'yeah' me now," Williams said. "You look at me and say, 'Yes, Ma'am.' " The boy hung his head and stayed silent.
"I got this at the award ceremony," the girl said, reaching into her pocket. "It got a little damaged but … " The Certificate of Achievement was soggy from her walk home, but the words still stood out: Congratulations for Completing Seventh Grade.
"Oooh, Layla! Good for you, honey," Williams said, wrapping the girl in her arms. "You just keep doing the best you can. You know you can do anything you want with your life."
Williams swept her arm across the coffee table. "Now get yourself whatever you want," she said. "Candy, cookies, punch … anything. Oh, and I got hot peanuts on the stove. Boiled two bags this morning, plus some potatoes. You want some of those?"
The girl's eyes got big. "Yes, please, Ma'am."
"Now what about you? Where's your report card?" Williams asked, turning to the boy.
He had climbed onto her sofa and was kicking it with the heels of his sneakers.
"Alijah!" Williams yelled. "Get your feet off the couch!"
The boy, who just finished kindergarten, couldn't remember where he had put his report card.
He looked at the bags of candy, then at Williams. Without saying a word, he slunk out the door.
• • •
Williams' mother dropped out of high school but made sure her seven sons and only daughter got good grades. After Williams graduated, she worked for the Pinellas County school system, helping teenagers find jobs.
She had two sons, then a daughter. For a while, she was strict with them.
But drugs derailed her. She stole stuff and went to jail.
"The older kids who come around, I tell them about it, so they know what not to do," Williams said. "I tell them to talk to God. And if they work hard and stay in school, there's blessings coming."
Becoming a grandmom, she said, helped set her straight. For the past 15 years, she has helped look after her nine grandkids — and tried to make up for her mistakes. She cooks pots of soup for homeless people, brings them clothes and coats and blankets. She breaks up fights between mouthy girls, makes boys mow the empty lot on the corner.
"She has candy and sodas, and tells us all kinds of stuff," said Maia Kirkland, 11, who just finished sixth grade. "Like she told us to always listen to our teachers. But our real teachers are our parents."
• • •
All afternoon, they kept coming. Two of her grandkids, two kids from next door, four girls from a block over. Three brothers wearing striped polos.
"C'mon in, fellas. You been staying out of trouble?" Williams asked the brothers, all in elementary school. The oldest one grinned and handed her his report card. "All E's for conduct!" she squealed, giving him a high-five. "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
He hugged her, beaming in her pride.
"We've been coming here all year. She always gives us something good," said the middle brother, Ja'Veon Harris, 9. "And I knew this time she'd be happy with me 'cause I got a B in language arts instead of a C."
After more than a dozen kids had crowded into Williams' living room, after they had devoured one pot of peanuts and started on the second, another knock came. "Well, hello, baby. How you doing?" she asked a tall girl, who stepped inside.
Williams was about to close the door when she saw the small boy, crouched in the corner of her porch. He had been outside for at least an hour. He still hadn't found his report card.
"That's okay, honey. You bring it by later. Now come on and get yourself some candy," Williams said, hugging the kindergartener.
The boy stood silent.
"You want a drink, Alijah?" Williams asked him. "You want some hot peanuts?"
The boy looked up and finally made eye contact.
"Yeah," he said softly. "Sorry. Yes, Ma'am."
Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825. Follow @lanedegregory.