From selling drugs to teaching 4th graders: A Philly redemption story


By Kristen A. Graham, Staff Writer

Even as a kid, Trice was smart, but the things going on in his life outside the classroom complicated his education. He had trouble concentrating. He was transferred from school to school because of behavior problems.

“I had a bad rap,” he said on a break from orientation last week, juggling a backpack and a fat binder stuffed with paperwork. “I was always disruptive.”

His father was sentenced to life in prison when Trice was a baby. A younger brother died when Trice was in third grade. That same year, his mother lost custody of Trice. He still remembers the words officials used: “unfit parent,” “drug addict.” His grandmother, always a steady presence in his life, stepped in, but he was already adrift.

By the time he was a sophomore at Roxborough High, Trice was so deep into street life that he rarely showed up for class.

Getting locked up was a wake-up call, but the real epiphany came soon after, when two things happened in short order: Trice’s best friend, the person he sold drugs with, was shot and killed. And he read a letter his younger brother wrote about him, saying how much he respected and looked up to Quamiir.

“I got really sensitive to the fact that I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to lead me in the right direction,” Trice said. “I can only imagine what he thought of me.”

A judge sent Trice to St. Gabriel’s Hall, a residential program in Montgomery County for troubled students from the Philadelphia area. There, he buckled down, became a student.

He had mentors and learned about forgiving himself. The flashes of brilliance buried earlier began showing through, and Trice graduated in 2011 as salutatorian and class speaker. He wasn’t sure about college, but a summer program at Community College of Philadelphia showed him that he could do it.

Years before, an uncle called Trice “math whiz,” and he used to have dreams that he was a professor on a leafy campus someplace. And once, out of nowhere, he said, when a woman who lived on the block where he dealt drugs asked Trice what he wanted to do with his life, he blurted out: Go to college.

It took three years to complete his associate’s degree, but Trice excelled, and after CCP, he headed to Howard University in Washington. (The university’s $43,000 annual price tag was daunting, but he found a way, spending his school breaks selling dinners his family helped him make at a family friend’s social club.) He declared a major in elementary education — by that point, things had clicked, and he knew his main goal was not a paycheck.

“I got this mind-set: If I don’t find a way to contribute to my community, what’s the point of studying hard, of working hard?” Trice said. People continued to take notice. He earned strong grades, became a campus leader. He represented Howard’s School of Education in the community and became a mentor himself. He traveled to Cuba to study schools there.

And then, last fall, he met Obama at a town-hall meeting at North Carolina A&T State University. Trice’s past, the president said, was not a burden but a beacon.

“He said he was inspired by my story,” Trice said. “He reminded me that I would be a great teacher.”

Jennifer Krout