Longform

His Brilliant Career

Page 3 of 6

It's a typical weekday morning for Perriman and, typically, he's in a hurry. He guns his mammoth Lincoln Navigator through the small side streets of Liberty City as he makes his way to Charles R. Drew Middle School, where he's scheduled to talk to the students about his brother's murder. Tangela Sears, Perriman's personal assistant, briefs Perriman on his itinerary. "You're going to discuss the importance of education, sports, gun violence, and growing up in the Scott projects," she says, reading off a list in a manila folder.

Perriman reaches over to flip through the folder. Under his breath he repeats the items on the list, audibly emphasizing the words "gun violence." In the back seat sits Barbara Miller, Garyn Perriman's former fiancee. Miller hasn't been able to eat anything but soup since the shooting, causing her weight to plummet. (She's dropped four dress sizes in less than a month.) Perriman thought it would be a good idea to keep her company.

Perriman is an attractive man. At five-ten he's not particularly tall for a football player, but his body is lean and powerfully built. He is wearing a cocoa-color Italian suit, one of 25 suits he had custom-tailored for him last year. His shoes are alligator skin. His scalp and face are shaved clean, except for a pencil line of black mustache. On his wrist is a diamond-studded watch, on his finger a large diamond ring. He oozes status.

"Brett, what's up!" shouts a student the moment Perriman pulls up to the school. When he actually enters the building, the chorus of "Yo, Brett!" grows deafening. He strides down the main hall, looking each student in the eye, reaching his hands out to the little boys who know him from his football camps. "Hey, Brett!" calls out a student who happens to be Perriman's nephew. "You still pulling all A's?" Perriman asks. School staffers join the throng. "Brett!" cries a young woman. She wraps her arms around his chest.

"You're a teacher?" Perriman looks incredulous. "Now I know I'm getting old. I remember you when you were a student at Northwestern."

He is steered into the faculty lounge, which doubles as a small closed-circuit television studio. Two students are set to interview him, but not before pictures are snapped with several teachers. Once the interview begins, Perriman sticks neatly to the outline, dispensing homilies about his brother's death, the senselessness of gun violence, and how he can identify with the students because of his own upbringing in the neighborhood. Principal Ronnie Hunter beams.

"They hear me preach it all the time, but it's like I'm a parent," Hunter explains. "It's great to have someone come in who is known in the community as a role model to tell them the same message. They listen better."

The interview over, Perriman is shuttled to a classroom full of drowsy students and told to speak for half an hour. He tells the students about how he flunked seventh grade because of bad conduct, and how that motivated him to improve academically. As poor black children, they have strikes against them, he says. He insists those strikes can be overcome.

Perriman is not the most vibrant orator in the world; his speech is clear and smooth, but he tends to drift from one message to another. Still, he shows a particular talent for connecting with his audience. His concern comes across as genuine. "You are not a troublemaker," he informs one boy, who asks about overcoming a bad reputation. "You are not a head case. You can do it. Everything that has happened in the past is in the past. Y'all special. Anytime you need to talk to me, anytime, anywhere, you can reach me. I will talk to you. I will help you out."

This statement is basically true. Sears says that Perriman may receive 50 calls a week from organizations or individuals looking for him to make an appearance or help out financially. "Brett wants to do so many things that if I wasn't here, he'd try to respond to all of them, which can't be done," she says. "As it is he's got 50 things going on at once."

Sears hooked up with Perriman about a year ago. She holds a full-time position with the Department of Children and Families, aiding foster parents. Her duties for Perriman, for which she is paid, are at least another full-time job. She schedules his appearances, works with the media, and plots the bigger picture with him, deciding which community problems they will address. Two years ago Sears lost a brother to AIDS, which motivated her leap into activism. "We both believe it is part of the grieving process to go out in the community and attack the issues," she notes.

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Robert Andrew Powell