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From Inmate to Mentor, Through Power of Books

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.

Betts's parents separated when he was a toddler, and he grew up with his mother, a resource specialist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. They lived in a Suitland neighborhood of apartments that he says was nice but never truly middle class. "Not everybody had a car," he says. "I knew people who sold drugs."

Hill says Betts was her world. But she had to work, and he was home alone a lot. She didn't date, so he had few adult men in his life. In eighth grade, Betts was suspended four times for being a smart mouth. "What are you worried about?" Betts asked his mother after he was suspended a fifth time for setting off a stink bomb. "Malcolm X had to go to prison to become the man he was meant to be."

Hill says her son thought he could talk his way out of anything.

In ninth grade, Betts entered the gifted program at Suitland High School and did just enough to maintain his 3.0 grade-point average, telling himself, I could always get A's if I wanted.

Instead he was getting high with neighborhood friends after classes. They played ball, cracked jokes, smoked weed. "I lived in a couple of different worlds," Betts says -- his books and his boys. "I wasn't comfortable in my space."

Betts had never been in trouble with police, "but I wasn't fully law-abiding, either." He'd never stolen a car, but he'd ridden in stolen cars. He was an honors student who hung out with guys who made nearly all F's. One friend was shot to death because of a drug rivalry. Betts thought some of his friends might go to prison. "I aspired to college even though I didn't act like it," he says.

Betts says he didn't turn bad suddenly, didn't make some Bigger Thomas, "Native Son," black-boy-got-the-inner-city-blues lurch toward violence and nihilism. No, he just veered off, and nobody caught him. "I guess I didn't set off any alarms in anybody's head," he says.

"We really didn't know that side of him that was slipping away," says Evelyn Carter, Betts's high school literature teacher. "He was too smart, too sharp, too articulate."

Early in his junior year, a favorite teacher went on maternity leave, and then another teacher declined to let him compete on the school's It's Academic team, citing Betts's bad attitude. He spent long days in a reefer cloud and cut his afternoon classes.

In December of that year, he and a friend drove a neighborhood junkie's stolen car to Springfield Mall. They found a man asleep in a car. Betts pointed a borrowed pistol at the window. They took the man's wallet and drove off with his car. The next day, Betts and his friend tried to buy $300 worth of clothes at the Pentagon City mall with the man's stolen credit card. A clerk called security. Police caught them near the Pentagon.

Betts cried after his first court appearance. He was going to miss Christmas. At 16, he was charged as an adult with carjacking, use of a firearm during a felony and attempted robbery. He was the first of his neighborhood friends to go to prison.

For years, he struggled to make sense of how he got where he was, moving between denial and acceptance. Carjacking was simply "in my realm of possible things to do," he says. "It's not like we had this plethora of options, not like I could have gone boating."

"Basically," Betts says, "I did it because I wanted to and because I could and because I didn't think it would define me for the rest of my life."

Serving Time

In his first two years in prison, Betts spent nearly a year in isolation for twice assaulting a guard. He saw a guy who'd been beaten to death. He saw people get stabbed. He was scared all the time.

"There was the very real fear of violence," he says. He stayed alert and watched what people did.

After a while, an initial fear of rape was replaced by a more subtle fear, informed by the slow creep of time. He worried about turning into somebody he didn't want to be. Would he stab somebody who threatened him or flirted with him? He got so used to seeing violence that he wondered whether he'd wind up too hard to ever really go home.

He turned again to books. He read everything he could get his hands on, fantasy and philosophy. He wrote his mother every week. He started writing essays.

For the first time, he decided he could be whomever he wanted. "There is no more fear of failure after you've been to prison," he says.

He made friends -- a skateboarder and a 45-year-old white former Marine who called him "the antithesis" because he worked in the law library -- and always had a book. He had his first serious conversation with a black man older than 35. He got a reputation for being smart, which brought him a measure of respect -- which gave him a space. He taught himself Spanish by studying five hours a day, six days a week.

"I didn't want to sit around and waste eight years," Betts says. He read poetry books and tried his hand at it. "I guess I got good," he says, smiling.

I come from a bullet in an unfired .45, tofu scrambled with garlic and purple onion slices, and every day

the small muscles in my finger threatened to pull

a trigger, slight and curved like my woman's eyelashes

-- Dwayne Betts

The Book Club

In March 2005, Betts was released from prison with little idea of what he wanted to do. He'd completed high school in prison, so he applied to Prince George's Community College.

A few months later, he met Yao Glover, co-owner of Karibu Books. Within seconds, it was clear to Glover that "the way he was dialoguing with literature was different."

Glover told Betts that he should work for him and followed up with a call. In June 2005, Betts was hired as an assistant manager at Karibu in Bowie. "I got three felonies, and this guy is letting me make $3,000 deposits," Betts marvels.

That August, he started community college and made straight A's. In his second semester, he was accepted into the honors academy, which comes with automatic admission and partial scholarships to the University of Maryland and American University, and a full scholarship to Howard University. He got straight A's that semester, too.

He became a manager at Karibu in January. He got the idea for a book club for black boys and started telling everyone who came in the store. For the first meeting, he bought 20 books, copies of "Bronx Masquerade" by Nikki Grimes and "The Legend of Buddy Bush" by Sheila P. Moses. Eight boys showed up. Since then, attendance has varied from four to 20 youths, and titles have included "Life in Prison" by Crips co-founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams, who was later executed, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fences" by August Wilson.

"Young people don't read because they don't see other people they can associate with being cool reading," Betts says. "I've got a space where we can come together."

At the last book club meeting of the summer, Jibril Sinclair, 12, of the Bronx, N.Y., is eager to talk about "Letters to a Young Brother." He visits his grandfather in Northwest Washington every summer and heard about the book club from his tutor. "The idea that young African American men read a book and share their thoughts about it is so very, very positive," says his grandfather, Carl A. Grimes.

Tell me something you related to in the book, Betts says.

"The fact that [Hill Harper] grew up with a single parent, and I'm only growing up with my mom," Jibril says.

Ellington Barron, 13, of Bowie likes the fact that Harper was named after his grandfather. "My mom, she really liked Duke Ellington," he says. "I really want to get into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts."

This is the kind of space Dwayne Betts wanted but never had. He has mentors now: He has interned at the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and he has studied with former poet laureate Rita Dove. He quit the bookstore to focus full time on maintaining his grades and figuring out his next school. Glover counsels him to center himself and stay patient.

Betts is trying to make up time. It takes focus and resources and people to help you develop character, he says -- to grow into "who you want to be in the world."

And, Betts says, it takes a space, where it's really okay, cool even, for black boys to read. He offers his own life as parable.

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