Terrell Jackson: Surviving shootings but not high school

The menacing voice came from the early evening darkness.

“Take off your jackets!”

Terrell Jackson, 12, could see two men pointing guns at the Capitol Heights porch where he was hanging out with some buddies, all of them wearing the hot fashion accessory of the time, satin football jackets.

Terrell would never allow anyone to take his Seattle Seahawks jacket. He threw himself on the ground, crawling toward the front door. Shots exploded and a spray of buckshot tore into his back. He was in pain, but he was still alive, in his jacket, the blue satin now shredded by pellet holes.

The story of Terrell’s shooting spread quickly among his Dreamer classmates — the 59 students who’d been promised a college education by wealthy businessmen Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen. A few days later Terrell went to see a friend, George Swiney, showing him the wound on his back and the pellet holes in the jacket.

George once had seen a man stab another with a meat hook. He had seen a group of teenagers beat up a homeless man. He was accustomed to the sounds of gunfire. But Terrell was his first friend to become a victim.

“Glad you’re okay,” Swiney told him before they stopped talking and lost themselves in video games.

At Hyattsville Middle, Terrell Jackson’s pellet-riddled Seahawks jacket was almost like a badge of honor. Riley Eaton, one of his teachers, remembers suggesting that Terrell change his crowd. “No, I’m Superman,’ ” Eaton recalls Terrell saying. “They tried to shoot me. I’m invincible.”

Tracy Proctor, hired to mentor the Dreamers, tried to keep Terrell on track, going so far as to go to Terrell’s house in the mornings to roust him from bed and drive him to school. Proctor told Pollin and Cohen about Terrell’s shooting and his poor grades. Pollin, owner of the Washington Bullets, suggested taking Terrell to see Wes Unseld, the team’s general manager at the time. Perhaps Unseld’s status as a basketball god would help turn Terrell around.

“You’ve got to hang in there,” Unseld growled at Terrell, according to Proctor. “You’ve got to do what it takes to get through school.” Unseld promised Terrell a ballboy job at his basketball fantasy camp if his grades improved. Unseld kept his word the following summer.

A year later, Terrell was shot again, this time in the leg and arm, outside the Seat Pleasant recreation center as he ran from a fight that erupted on the basketball court. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but it was another reminder of the dangers the Dreamers faced.

By the time he reached high school, Terrell towered over most students. Eventually, he grew to be 6-foot-5. On the basketball court, he was a star player. In the classroom, he struggled. And at home he clashed with his mother, who threw him out because, he says, she thought he was selling drugs.

During his senior year, his mother suffered a stroke and his girlfriend became pregnant, prompting him to drop out. He’d survived two shootings but not high school. That summer, as some of his classmates were getting ready for college, Terrell Jackson became a father. Although he eventually got his GED, he never played basketball in college or in the NBA, as he’d once aspired to do. Today, he works as a waiter.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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