Ray-Ray went to jail, then turned his life around

Posted: May 23, 2012

The real Ray-Ray was a true menace to society, a Billy-badass who never left his West Philadelphia home without a knife or a .22 pistol.

The world learned about Ray-Ray during a hearing in City Council this month when Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. spoke about the student in his Overbrook High School class whom everyone feared and some reluctantly followed.

The Daily News is withholding Ray-Ray’s true identity at his request because his teenage son is unaware of his father’s gangster past.

Ray-Ray grew up in the ‘70s when gangs controlled schools. He was one of several in the 54th and Berks Street gang in Wynnefield. He admits he hurt and robbed people and served several stints in prison, all of which he is “very much ashamed of.”

Education was not a priority for Ray-Ray, who would sign-in for class and walk out or put his head on the desk once the lesson started.

There might have been one chance to save him, in ninth grade. After walking past a typing class he became intrigued with the idea of going to college. His parents couldn’t afford it, but he shared his aspiration with a guidance counselor.

“I told [my guidance counselor] that I wanted to go to college. She said I could best serve my community if I learn a skill with my hands,” Ray-Ray said. “I was destroyed. I went home and cried. She said I could never do anything, but bang nails and wood.”

Ray-Ray got his high school diploma, but didn’t learn anything, he said, not even how to read.

Eventually, his gangster ways landed him in Holmesburg prison. That’s where he learned to read. It’s also where he was inspired to turn his life around by John Allen Jr., the late founder of the Freedom Theater who taught inmates acting while encouraging them to become better citizens, and poet Sonia Sanchez, who taught poetry and talked about the importance of family and community.

Ray-Ray, who’s now asuccessful electrical repairman, saw his own son bullied in school. They lived in Philly until the boy was jumped and badly beaten as he carried his books down a school hallway. Ray-Ray would not say what school his son went to, but added it was one of the city’s public schools. The attack prompted him to move to Lansdowne and he placed his 16-year old son in a private school outside of the city.

“I will never let him go to school in Philadelphia,” Ray-Ray said. “There is no pain in life like seeing your child beaten, crying and bruised. That’s worse than anything in my life.”

Contact Jan Ransom at 215-854-5218 or Ransomj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.

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