As a child growing up in LeDroit Park, and even long after, Lawrence Berry never dreamed he would someday go to law school; he was 30 years old before he was graduated from college.
But last month "Mr. Berry," as he was referred to by some younger classmates, graduated at age 47 from Howard University Law School as his wife and four of his six children cheered him on.
It was no easy triumph, Berry said, although he had little trouble keeping up with the younger law students.
"I had to learn to stay up longer and started taking casebooks into the bathroom with me," he says. "After awhile I started talking like a lawyer, and the legal terms became a part of me."
Despite beginning his academic career so late, Berry had a thirst for knowledge from an early age, he said.
"I read a lot when I was young and when I read philosophy, it set me on fire," Berry said.
The oldest of nine children of a day laborer and a domestic worker, Berry joined the Air Force soon after graduating from Armstrong High School at 18. After three years he exited as an airman second class and enrolled at Howard University, but he married after his freshman year and dropped out to take a Postal Service job.
Ten years later, Berry tried again, this time enrolling at D.C. Teachers College, where he graduated in 1972. He taught mathematics at Lincoln Junior High School for seven years, during which he earned a master's degree in special education at Howard.
Berry credits his mother with keeping him out of trouble and inspiring him to educate himself. He said he remembers her telling him that he was the man of the family after his father died when he was 14.
"I was a timid youngster because my mother put the fear of God--and of her--in me," he said.
"Education is power," he added. "I am grateful to have had the opportunity, and I would do it all over again."
When not attending classes, he worked part time as a security guard, as a night insert worker at the Washington Times and had two morning newspaper routes.
"This family ate a lot of hot dogs and beans while I was in school," he said, laughing.
The living room of the Berrys' Northeast house is cluttered with law textbooks, and the walls are decorated with numerous awards and certificates that the children have received from school.
"If kids see you succeeding, they'll try to succeed; all they need is encouragement and guidance," said Berry, whose six children range in age from 10 to 23.
A strict disciplinarian when it comes to studying, he allows his children only an hour of television a day. But the 6 o'clock news is mandatory viewing for everyone at dinner time because, he explained, he believes it is equally important for them to be well-educated and politically conscious.
Berry said he is looking for summer work to start repaying some of his school loans and expects to take the D.C. Bar examination next year. His wife Peggy is attending Catholic University Law School. Berry said he has not dismissed the possibility of a husband-wife law team.
Berry's youngest daughter, Bibi, 9, also has announced plans to join the fold someday.
"I think law school is exciting," she said, "and I want to follow in my mother's and father's footsteps."