Watch Jamal Tate stand in front of a classroom of teenagers, wearing a smile as bright as his red tie, and youd never know how bleak his life was looking just a year and a half ago.
But when the 19-year-old urges them to avoid bad choices, he knows what hes talking about.
Tate went through a fast downward spiral in his teens, starting with charges of marijuana possession. A year later, he was looking into his mothers tear-filled eyes through a glass partition in jail.
Now, after getting help from the nonprofit Communities in Schools and advice from people he met along the way, he raves about attending Central Piedmont Community College. Hes also trying to pass along what hes learned by speaking to other kids.
He learned the hard way that you have to mind your influences. I think you learn more from your failures than your successes, he said.
When he was in his early teens, he moved from Las Vegas to Charlotte with his mother because shed gotten a job in the city. Facing an unfamiliar environment, he made some new friends and began experimenting with drugs, he said. In 2009, he was arrested, charged with marijuana possession and possession of drug paraphernalia. He spent the night in a jail cell.
He was skipping class a lot, hanging with the wrong crowd. A year after his first arrest, he spent Christmas and New Years in jail, charged with armed robbery and second-degree kidnapping.
But even getting socks and soap for Christmas wasnt enough motivation for him to make a change. He still hung out with gang members.
I was selling weed an hour after I got out of jail, he said.
His relationship with his mother was rocky, especially since his second charge got them evicted from their apartment. His mother always set a good example, he said, but here I was, this demon spawn.
We would fuss and argue, he said. It was horrible.
Erica Swinney, his mother, said after the move from Las Vegas her son seemed depressed and his grades began dropping drastically. He started coming home late or not at all. He stopped bringing his friends over because she didnt approve of them. Her mantra of good choices equal good consequences didnt seem to be getting through.
I tried punishment. I tried saying, If you dont come home, then youre not doing this or youre not doing that, she said. She also frequently sent him back to her family on the West Coast whenever he was on a break from school, which she thinks helped keep him out of worse trouble. But he was still headed in the wrong direction.
In January 2010, he and some friends were charged with breaking and entering and larceny, for which he spent two months in jail awaiting trial. He recalls when his mother came to visit him, and he sat behind the glass in his green jumpsuit.
I saw the tears in her eyes, and I felt like such a failure, he said. Theres nothing like seeing the look in your moms eyes when youre in jail.
I know I raised you better than this, she said she told him.
A ton of potential
Despite his choices, some things were working in Tates favor. Each time he was arrested, the charges were dismissed. And the dropout prevention program Communities in Schools began working with him, making sure that he had access to all his homework.
Jamal was a young man who you could just tell had a ton of potential, said Reggie Hester, the programs re-entry coordinator, based out of Jail North. I think he just did not know how to direct his energy and which direction to go in order to find himself.
In his last arrest, Tate had to do his time with older men. As Tate was leaving jail, one man in particular told him something he would never forget. Tate sat in an inmate transfer van, handcuffed next to a guy on his way to prison for the next eight years.
You have a chance to change your life, said the man, who Tate figured was in his 40s. Ive got three kids, and they think Im a horrible father ... I was just like you, and now look where Im at.
Tate said he resolved after that point to make something of his life.
Ive never been convicted. Ive been lucky to even get this far, he said. It all occurred because of negative choice after negative choice.
Despite his legal troubles, he managed to graduate from E. E. Waddell High School. He wasnt planning on going to college, and considered going into the military. But Joe Rothenberg, who had been working with him through CIS, insisted that he enroll in CPCC, especially since he had scored higher than anyone in his high school on the English portion of the colleges placement test.
Now, Tate is starting his second year at CPCC, where he has been pursuing a degree in biotechnology and pharmacology. He said hes enjoying school, hanging out with nerds and getting involved in clubs. He frequently calls his mother in excitement to tell her about whats going on at college. And hes found a passion for public speaking, so much so that hes considering changing his major to relational and organizational communications.
Hes even helped extend CIS into the realm of college, with a branch called Communities in Colleges.
Armah Shiancoe, a CPCC student recruiter and Tates mentor, has been spearheading the creation of Communities in Colleges. He said Tate has been working with him to make the program better for students making the transition from CIS into CPCC.
Part of the reason Tates been able to stay on the right path, Shiancoe believes, is because hes been staying in an environment that keeps him busy. Even in the summer, hes been taking classes and staying on campus to work until 6 p.m. every day even though he doesnt have to.
Tate, who has never known his father, said college has exposed him to what a successful man looks like: Its showed me what a man is supposed to be.
Last semester Tates grade point average reached 3.75.
Bill Anderson, a former director of CIS, saw Tate speaking at the organizations high school graduation and said he was blown away by his maturity.
This kid is knocking it out of the park at Central Piedmont, he said. Im not easily influenced. Im actually a little cynical, but this kids pretty extraordinary. Staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed.