DeForest L. Talbert entered the alternative education program at T.C. Williams High School the way a lot of students do -- full of resentment.
He was raised by a single mother in a public housing complex in north Old Town Alexandria. He spent much of his freshman year skipping class and talking back to teachers. He was bright, athletic and good-looking -- and he knew it, recalled Carolyn Lewis, principal of the Secondary Training and Education Program, which supports students who aren't doing as well as they could.
"He was really in trouble in the streets," Lewis said.
Talbert was supposed to try the program for a year -- and stayed for three, thriving. By senior year, he was a star running back on the football team, known to teammates and fans as "Touchdown Talbert." He became a mentor to children from low-income families at a nearby preschool. Then he went to West Virginia State College on a military scholarship and joined the Army National Guard, dividing his time between service and school.
On Tuesday, Talbert, 22, was killed in Baladruc, Iraq, when a bomb exploded near his vehicle during a routine patrol with other members of the Guard's 1st Battalion, 150th Armor Regiment, based in Dunbar, W.Va. Department of Defense officials said yesterday that the incident is under investigation.
Years after he left Alexandria, teachers, police officers and children on the streets still marveled at the transformation of "Dee," as he was called, from a tough-talking, troubled teenager to football star, responsible father and Army sergeant.
"Here's this kid who went through so many hurdles growing up in the inner city," said Jill Lingle, a George Washington Middle School resource police officer who knows Talbert's family. "Even the younger boys I know at the school would talk about him. They'd say, 'Did you see what Dee did?' Everyone knew he'd gone on to college. He was definitely a role model for these young kids growing up in the same way."
Friends, former teachers and mentors have crowded the Alexandria home of his mother, Gloria Nesbitt, this week to offer condolences and support.
Talbert's girlfriend, Frances Hamilett, 22, said she had spent much of Monday at the home she shared with him in Charleston, W.Va., trading instant messages with him over the Internet. As always, he asked about their son, Deontae, who turned 3 last week.
"We were having regular conversation," she said. "He didn't want to go on patrol. He kept saying he loved us and we would see him in August. I think he felt something might happen. He kept saying, 'Don't get off the computer.' It was like he knew something was going to happen."
On Wednesday, two Army officers arrived at Hamilett's home and told her Talbert was dead. She said she fell to her knees crying.
They were talking about marriage, she said, but no wedding date was set. They had had a hard time in recent years, both emotionally and financially. They were college freshmen when Hamilett became pregnant, and they feared that one or both of them might have to drop out of school. Hamilett wants to be a social worker; Talbert was studying communications.
"It was a struggle, but we overcame it," Hamilett said. "While I was in class, he would watch our son, and we went back and forth like that."
Deployed in February, Talbert kept in frequent touch with his family, complaining of Iraq's intense heat and promising his son that he would be home to watch the next Dallas Cowboys game. Hamilett said Talbert was not particularly patriotic or political but had enrolled in the Army so they could stay in school and he could provide for Deontae.
"He wanted to make sure he had money for our son," Hamilett said. "The reason he signed up was to have money to pay for school. It was a job. I don't think he ever thought he was going to war."
During the last year, T.C. Williams students sent Talbert letters and care packages, and Talbert wrote them back thanking them for their thoughts -- and for making him the envy of his fellow soldiers.
"He said he was the only one who got a lot of mail because we always wrote to him," Lewis said.
Lewis said Talbert never forgot his friends in Alexandria and reached out to them often through the computer and telephone. His messages, she said, were filled with humor and gratitude.
"We are a smaller learning community rather than a mainstream school," Lewis said. "We were his family."
Lewis said she received an e-mail from Talbert on Tuesday and regrets deeply that she didn't save it.
"Just want you to know that I'm fine," it said. "It's still hot."