Little Melvin is not the nickname of a student I teach. Little Melvin Williams is a man who sold hundreds of millions of dollars of heroin and cocaine in Baltimore and spent 26 1/2 years in prison. He claims to have witnessed approximately two hundred murders while in federal prison, and to have potentially had the ability to prevent about a third of them, but chose not to. Last night, 7 other teachers and I had the opportunity to hear Little Melvin tell us his story in person.
Little Melvin is best recognized by most Americans as the guy who played The Deacon on The Wire. But in Baltimore, he’s a living legend on the street. It doesn’t take long to notice that Little Melvin is a gifted storyteller, so it’s tough to separate myth from fact in what he says, but most of it is well documented. Little Melvin was a kid in Baltimore with genius-level intellect but with an interest in very little besides gambling. By the time he was 17, he had been basically kicked out of school, but had meanwhile built a larger than life reputation as a gambler in cards, dice, and billiards. He was so well known in town that the government put him up to try to talk down the rioters when King was assassinated. As Melvin tells it, rather than being appreciative of his success in calming some of the rioters, the government became fearful of his influence, and began looking for a way to take him down. Melvin claims that he wasn’t involved in any criminal activity at this point. Others disagree. In any case, they finally succeeded, but only with help from narcotics found on him, planted by a dirty cop–a fact attested to by an article in the Baltimore Sun. Driven by anger at the corruption of the government, he decided while he was imprisoned that he would become the monster they claimed he was, and we he got out, he became hugely involved in the drug trade, being the first person to import narcotics into the city by the truckload. Many years, many millions of dollars, and many thousands of pound of drugs later, he was caught again and put away for 22 more years. While in jail, Little Melvin said he eventually found God, learned to control his anger, and taught himself everything he could about everything–Spanish, French, math, and–especially–law.
Besides his crazy story, Little Melvin had a lot to tell us about the intricacies criminal law, the rules of the ghetto and the narcotics business, and the horrors of federal prison. Some of the things Little Melvin had to say about the federal prison in Terra Haute, IN, where he spent much of his sentence, were unreal. He talked about how he still wakes up at precisely 4:30am, every day, no matter when he lays down, because at Terra Haute, they open all the prison doors at 6am, and your life is on the line from that instant. He talked about people being incinerated in their cell by make-shift napalm. Little Melvin told us, in detail, what might be whispered in a new arrival’s ear when he’s raped at knifepoint his first night in prison, after some predator pulls strings to be assigned as his bunkmate. The place sounds as close to hell on Earth as anything I have ever heard.
He also told us about how the drug trade has changed since his day. Melvin claims that the drug trade is next to impossible to stop today because so much of our economy depends on its existence. He goes as far as to posit that the U.S. Government explicitly participates in the importation of narcotics to the country. And he says that kids today won’t even listen to him. All they want to hear about is the cars they hear he owned. When he tells them about the horrors of prison, they reply, “nuh-uh, won’t happen to me!” For all his wisdom, he was mostly at a loss for what to tell us about how to deal with the kids. One piece of advice he could give us was how crucial it is that kids don’t care what you say, they watch what you do, and that’s where all your credibility resides. I think that’s a lesson that every reflective teacher in the city can agree with. It’s pretty easy to see what kids are raised by people who live what they teach. And when you mess up as a teacher, the effects on student behavior are immediate.
When we asked about Little Melvin’s view of the future, he said that as a gambling man, he’s pretty pessimistic. He tries to do his part through a program he started called Correct Choices. He’s trying to start a rec center in a building he owns, but his efforts are being opposed by a group of citizens that hasn’t forgotten his dark days. But Melvin does what he can. However, in his view, kids have become more impulsive and fatalistic. The real thugs don’t even expect to live to 25. He thinks the best bet is to try to set them on the right path when they’re young, because when the kids get older, it’s almost impossible to turn them around.
Little Melvin spoke to us for about 4 hours straight, and if we detected any internal contradictions in his stories, we kept them to ourselves while he spoke. It’s pretty intimidating to correct a man who you would assume has been directly responsible for many dozens of deaths, and who also professes to be a master of Tae Kwon Do, Goju Ryu, Shotokan, and Kung Fu. Before he left, Little Melvin gave us his cell phone number and told us to call him anytime. Incredibly enough, the man takes every call he gets, through his earpiece, without even bothering to screen them. It happened several times throughout the meeting. The most humorous moment of the night happened when he took the empty box of crackers my roommate had brought, declaring, “these crackers are the truth!” I guess the man now finds joy in the simple pleasures in life. After he left, it took our group another 2 hours just to debrief on all we had heard.
Overall, it was fascinating to hear what Little Melvin had to say. He more or less epitomizes our most difficult students–extremely bright, disinterested, pissed off, abused, and betrayed. The sad part for me as a teacher is that most of the real troublemakers of that caliber in my classroom are gone now. I only have a small handful of gangbangers left, and those who still show up are there because they want a better lifestyle. I don’t know what we could have done differently for the ones who dropped out, and Little Melvin didn’t have any easy answers. And frankly, my feelings are mixed because I’m much more able to help my remaining students without them.
It was an interesting
night, to say the least!