David Norman shed the last of his dark past for an even brighter future when the former Harlem drug dealer walked across the Columbia University stage and received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy. During the ceremony, the 67 year old sat in the front row and cried tears of joy, reflecting on his arduous life up until graduation day.
“It was a great feeling,” Norman said to the New York Daily News “I’m just now starting to come down from my little high. I had to wash my clothes yesterday. That brought me back down.”
Norman’s drug and alcohol addiction began early. He had his first drink before 11, and by the time he was 15 years old he was using heroin. Norman’s high school career lasted 24 hours before he started selling drugs in Harlem to support his habit.
His 35 year addiction included a rap sheet full of robbery and drug trafficking. Norman said he was arrested so many times, he’s lost count. However it was his six year jail stint for manslaughter after fatally stabbing a man during a street fight that was Norman’s turing point.
“I had a moment of clarity in which I was able to recognize everything I had done at that point was fairly counter-productive and I needed to engage in some new activities and some new behaviors,” Norman said.
While in prison he found joy in books, learned Hebrew, and ran a program that taught life skills to inmates approaching release. When it came time for Norman to walk out of prison, he secured a job in Mount Vernon Hospital helping substance abusers access the help they need.
That job led to work at Columbia University which put him on course to receiving his degree. Norman was 40 years old when he took his first class– nearly 20 years old then other students–but he said the age difference wasn’t a hinderance.
Norman now works as a research assistant at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and his spare time still pays it forward by volunteering with ex- convicts with the Coming Home Program.
Norman says he plans to write a book chronicling his life, with a working title of “You Don’t Have to Wait as Long as I Did.”