From gang member to high school leader

October 10, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Along Park Heights Avenue, amid graffiti-covered storefronts and abandoned houses, Teddy Page watches the crack vials and money change hands and shakes his head. He knows all the dealers and their stories: He grew up with them and once hung out in a gang with them.

Around the corner, Teddy, a muscular, soft-spoken young man with a sullen face and the beginnings of a beard, points to a waist-high brick wall. It's called "Death Row," a favorite spot for executions -- and the place where he saw his first one four years ago.

Here, in his lower Park Heights neighborhood, Teddy Page spots landmarks of violence and loss and waste at every turn. Here, again and again, he has seen rec-league teammates and schoolyard playmates of his childhood shot to death or arrested or crippled in their teens.

Yet, three years ago, he could think of no better place to be.

As an eighth-grader, he chose street corners over classrooms -- and missed 150 of 180 school days. He hung out with the "Dog Pound" gang, got a .38-caliber handgun, loved the adrenalin rush only a good fight gave him and saw a future dealing drugs on the street.

"I look at these boys out here now," he says, "and I know it could be me, because I didn't think there was any other way, really. . . . I had no future. I didn't care about myself. I didn't care about anything."

But then, just as most of the people in Demetrius "Teddy" Page's life figured he'd become a statistic, he began an astonishing journey from gang member and chronic truant to model student and class leader.

Today, the 18-year-old senior at Forest Park High beams when he talks of making the honor roll. He pores over college catalogs and studies for entrance exams. He clings to a dream of becoming an FBI agent and raising a family in a neighborhood with well-kept lawns, no boarded-up buildings and no need for guns.

At a school where academic success sometimes brings taunts and threats, in a neighborhood where high school dropouts outnumber graduates, in a city where about half of those who start high school never finish, Teddy Page overcame incredible odds.

How did he rebound, after tasting failure and abandoning hope of any legitimate success?

The question brings a long silence. Then he looks to the dealers, his eyes downcast beneath the Chicago White Sox cap shading his face, and speaks of dreams and absent friends, of his mother and the others who refused to give up on him long after he had given up on himself.

And, he says, time is precious now, too precious to spend on street corners.

He's never seen his father, but assumes the role of man of the house. He cares for his mother, who has a disabling back injury. He makes sure the rent gets paid, the laundry gets done, the meals get cooked. He looks after four little brothers and sisters and works part-time jobs to help pay the bills.

"Somehow," Teddy says, "I just managed to keep my head above water because I realize now that I have had -- and have -- dreams, and I know if you have dreams, really, you can rise above your circumstances."

The dreams took hold, slowly, tentatively. He had failed sixth grade and for the next two years cut school, walked hallways or stirred up trouble -- did almost anything but study -- at Greenspring Middle School. Then, in eighth grade, he hurled a bowl of corn at an administrator on lunch duty, just for kicks, and was invited to leave.

He missed almost the entire year. Still, he advanced to ninth grade at Forest Park High on a "social promotion" -- a polite term for one school dumping its problems on another school.

Yet at Forest Park, he excelled in class, made the wrestling team, was elected Mr. Sophomore, then Mr. Junior and helped run The Young Gentlemen's Society, a group for young black teens where the talk often turns to violence, drugs, poverty and defying odds.

Fatherly guidance

At Forest Park, Teddy sits in a nearly bare basement room where the man who became a surrogate father taught him how to dream.

Clinton Miles saw something in Teddy that so many others had overlooked -- a fiercely competitive spirit, a voraciously curious mind and, lurking beneath the tough veneer and gangsta rap lyrics, a kid terrified that he would never make it out of a ravaged neighborhood.

Since then, Mr. Miles, a former high school guidance counselor, has served as mentor, friend and advocate for Teddy as part of a city dropout-prevention program called Futures. They hang out in school, go bowling and, on Sundays, pray at Central Church of Christ in West Baltimore.

At any given time, Mr. Miles, a gentle man who rarely raises his voice, counsels 50 kids in Futures at Forest Park. But, he says, few turnarounds have proved as dramatic or as heartening as Teddy's.

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