The fact that Parnell Perry Jr. is known as a “great kid” in some circles would probably make the local police chuckle. They’ve known Perry as a drug dealer since he was in grade school. At 18, he had at least eight arrests.
His choice to sell drugs was never about fitting in or gaining status. Although, those were perks, he said with a hint of pride in his wide grin. Dealing was about surviving. To Perry, empty pockets were scarier than a ride in a cop car.
Growing up, Perry, his mom and his sister managed to scrape by on food stamps, a housing voucher and whatever money he and his older brother brought into the house. His mom hadn’t held a permanent full-time job in years, and his father died in a car crash when Perry was a toddler. “Most people are [selling drugs] to feed [their] family,” he said.
Perry was so used to trouble that he was numb when he got charged with a felony for drug possession when he was 17. He and some friends had been cruising around the West Side when a caravan of police cars approached. He was drunk and had eight baggies of crack cocaine in his pocket. Getting caught, he figured, would earn him a one-way ticket to the county lockup. “My friend was telling me, –˜Hurry up; swallow it.’ “
Police booked Perry for the drugs he couldn’t choke down fast enough, but the charges were inexplicably dropped at the preliminary hearing, he says.
Later that year, Perry said his daily routine of rolling out of bed, pulling an outfit together and hitting the corner to sell drugs grew stale. He and his grade-school friends, most of whom still stay around Austin, started having “that talk” about their futures. He can count on two hands the number of boys from his eighth-grade class who finished high school. “I look at them like, –˜What are you going to do with your life?'”
Perry started dropping in more regularly on classes at Prologue, an alternative high school tucked in a worn warehouse on the Near North Side, and he got a job at a local flower shop. “I had to push myself,” he said.
Each day he left the safe haven of school, returning to his neighborhood where half of all families earned less than $23,000 in 2008. It’s a point echoed throughout the halls of Prologue, where teen moms show off their babies and students anguish over money, their broken families and the random violence in their neighborhoods.
“All of our students come from that same poor, poverty background,” said Walter Perkins III, one of Perry’s teachers. Few have two parents. Most have been traumatized by violence. Some have even been wards of the state. “These kids are pushed from place to place. Snatched up and put in places that would intimidate an adult.”
Perry remained motivated, even after losing his job at the flower shop when it went under, and the high school credits at Prologue started adding up. “I started feeling like it was paying off,” he said.
Perkins, who has been teaching history classes at Prologue for nearly a decade, has instructed Perry for the past five years without disciplining him a single time. Perry, like many students at Prologue, walks a fine line between doing right and wrong. Perkins sees his job as pushing his students to “turn that corner.”
But it wasn’t the trouble that transformed Perry’s life. Rather, it was the annual college tour that Prologue takes each year. Perkins calls those trips “the deal maker.”
The school rents a coach bus and takes students–”some of whom have never left Chicago–”to universities such as Central Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Western Illinois. “They have to have a vision other than that street vision,” Perkins said. “You have to put alternatives out there –¦ to show them [hustling] isn’t your only option.”
This spring, Perry graduated from Prologue and got a summer job at the school. This fall, he’s headed to Central State University in Ohio to begin his freshman year.