From Inmate to Mentor, Through Power of Books

Reginald "Dwayne" Betts, 25, leads a meeting of the YoungMenRead book club in Bowie. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 2, 2006

The young black guys, in baseball caps and shorts, striped polos and slouchy pants, sit in a circle. They have "Letters to a Young Brother" by Hill Harper open on their laps, but the conversation has strayed from book talk to boy talk -- hip-hop, sports, school.

"When I asked, 'Why is everybody white, except the janitors are black?' the teacher sent me to the office," complains 12-year-old Kyle Turner of Columbia, and there are nods and murmurs of assent.

Teachers have it in for us.

"That's rare," counters group leader Reginald "Dwayne" Betts of Clinton. With cocoa skin and a head full of twists, he looks like one of the teenagers, but he's 25. "The thing I'm trying to get us to address is: Sometimes when we've got problems with teachers and people in our lives, sometimes the problem is not with them, it's with us."

He offers his life as parable.

"I had a teacher who honestly, legitimately didn't like me," Betts says. "But I legitimately, honestly was not a likable person."

The boys, ages 11 to 16, nod as they let his words settle around their heads.

In February, nearly a year after he got out of prison, Betts started the YoungMenRead book club at Karibu Books in Bowie because he loves to read. Because he wanted to create a place where it was cool for black boys to hang out, speak up and be smart -- a place he says he never had.

Betts was a 16-year-old honors student and class treasurer at Suitland High School when he carjacked somebody, was charged as an adult and spent more than eight years in prison. He wasn't that bad, he says. He just drifted a bad way, and there simply weren't enough safety nets to head him off -- not enough teachers or organizations, mentors or black men.

Betts knows how easily black boys can live hermetically sealed lives in which guns and drugs and dying are all viable options. And with everything in him, he wants to save them from that mistake, from everything he has been through.

Smart but Disruptive

Gloria Hill used to wait every day for her son's teacher from the talented and gifted program to call and say, "Dwayne is trying to take over my class." "This went on until fourth grade," Hill says, when one teacher started making him read whenever he was disruptive. She gave him "Gifted Hands," a biography of surgeon Ben Carson.

Reading kept him quiet, so from then on, teachers and his mother gave him books. On his own, he read cereal boxes and encyclopedia entries on sports heroes. Later it was spiritualist Richard Bach and essayist James Baldwin. Still, nothing fully settled him.

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