For three years, Terry McDonald injected heroin most mornings – then went to work teaching art at Charlotte elementary schools.
The drug helped him focus, he said.
He never used the powerful narcotic at school, he says, until last year.
It was June 4, 2007. He felt jittery and sick, as he sat alone in his classroom.
He locked his door, tied a sock around his arm, then injected himself.
Moments later, an assistant principal walked in.
McDonald was arrested and jailed.
On Tuesday, the 51-year-old former teacher pleaded guilty to possession of heroin, and was placed on two years' probation and ordered to continue drug treatment.
“I let those children down,” McDonald said Tuesday after his sentencing. “They depended on me. … I've ruined my life.”
McDonald spoke to the Observer because he wants to apologize. To the community, to parents and mostly to his young students.
He also wants people to know how easy it is to get hooked on drugs and fool the world – and how hard the habit is to break.
“I made a big mistake – many big mistakes … I regret the damage I've caused the kids, their parents and teachers,” McDonald says.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools spokeswoman Nora Carr recalls the day McDonald was busted at school.
“I was shocked, saddened and horrified. Thank goodness students weren't present at the time. It's still horrifying that this could occur at a school,” she said Tuesday.
“Classrooms and schools should be sanctuaries for children.”
McDonald is clean now, he says, after more than a year's treatment. The only outward sign of his troubles are the bulging blackish veins in his arms, stained by the “black tar” heroin he used.
He grew up in Charlotte in the early 1960s. As a teen, he went to Sunday School at Park Road Baptist Church, attending a class taught by Charlotte lawyer Parks Helms.
McDonald first snorted heroin when he moved to New York in the mid-1980s, an aspiring artist reveling in Manhattan's lower eastside arts community.
He became addicted and continued his drug use over the next two decades – while teaching junior high in East Harlem, attending grad school in Los Angeles, and while teaching high school near Washington, D.C.
McDonald thought he could control his addiction, he says. He'd manage to stop using during summers and holidays when he came home to visit.
He returned to Charlotte and took a job in 2004 teaching art at Bruns Avenue and McAlpine elementary schools. He passed the schools' drug test because was clean at the time, he says. But he soon started again.
He found it easy to buy heroin. He met dealers in parking lots, middle-class neighborhoods, and once behind a church. Toward the end, he was spending $25 a day.
McDonald needed a fix before school and after. He'd suffer withdrawal – cramps, cold sweats, fatigue – if he didn't get one.
He believes his addiction hurt his teaching: “I could have been a more effective teacher,” he says.
“I was walking around spiritually and emotionally dead – like a zombie,” McDonald says. “But I could slog through a job and fake my life. I could function physically and mentally, as long as I had heroin in me.”
McDonald tried to get off drugs by himself. For eight months in 2006, he went to a clinic for methadone, a drug that relieves the craving for heroin. But he always slipped back.
The day he was caught, McDonald remembers gazing into the hallways at Bruns Elementary, as authorities questioned him.
“As I looked at those children … I knew I'd never see them again. I felt such shame, and regret and remorse.
“I wondered what this would do to those kids, knowing we had great times together and they looked up to me.”
McDonald's former Sunday School teacher, Parks Helms, took on his case.
“Terry's addiction has cost him dearly,” Helms, a Mecklenburg Commissioner, says. “Even with his drug addiction, and the circumstances he finds himself in today, Terry remains a man with much potential …
“There are thousands of Terry McDonalds in our community – they are good people suffering from alcoholism, substance abuse and addiction.”
In letters seeking Helms' help, McDonald wrote: “I'm so sorry that my disease resulted in such bad decisions.
“I apologize and ask for your forgiveness and your prayers as I face this sickness honestly and resolve to get well and stay well.”