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R. Dwayne Betts: Expanding Boundaries In Prison

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More than a decade after being sent to prison, R. Dwayne Betts gave the student commencement speech the University of Maryland, College Park. He's now a Soros Justice Media Fellow.
R. Dwayne Betts
More than a decade after being sent to prison, R. Dwayne Betts gave the student commencement speech the University of Maryland, College Park. He's now a Soros Justice Media Fellow.

As a smart-mouthed 11th-grader, I read more books than I could number.

Wake of the Wind, Things Fall Apart, The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, I even borrowed a book on existential philosophy from my 10th-grade history teacher. And yes, all those classics from my mom. But those books read in the solitude of my bedroom never translated into a passion for school.

For me the problem at school was that teachers never encouraged us to talk about literature as if it had anything to do with real life. We read Julius Caesar, but we never discussed what Brutus meant when he asked, "How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport?" And I have no memories of classrooms debating why Bigger killed Bessie in Richard Wright's Native Son.

I went to prison for carjacking when I was 16. Being confined suddenly made education less abstract. Survival depended on brains and brawn. And at 16 I was 5'5" and 120 pounds, so growing into manhood for me was all about knowing more.

I always felt like they could handcuff my wrists but not my mind.

Prison was the opposite of school. I met friends through conversations about books. When I first met Star, we were both in solitary confinement and he was screaming through the crack of his cell door about Eric Van Lustbader's White Ninja. Later he introduced me to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and we talked about whether fantasy had anything to say about the world we left behind.

I lost myself in books and could concentrate in spite of the noise from card games, the TV and a hundred men shouting. I did time with men with names like Trigger, Jose Born Star, Mike G. and Absolute. We talked about tying neckties and Tupac's relevance to urban America. Mike G. taught me how electricity could be harnessed through wire and a fingernail file, and we talked about what it meant to have the right to habeas corpus.

The banging back and forth of voices that believed in questioning the words in The Washington Post or the stories that aired in the nightly news filled my head. These were the exchanges that challenged me in a way that school never did. So I made my own curriculum based on my interests.

In prison the boundaries of my world expanded to include other minds and other cultures as I read Allende and Borges, Pablo Neruda and Franz Kafka. For six months I studied Spanish for five hours a day. I began to think in another language, and as I struggled to speak with men from El Salvador, Cuba and Bolivia, I learned to be less of a smart mouth.

Education became something that electrified and humbled me. I married books. Literature was what writers and thinkers used to explain to me the many worlds they inhabited, inside their heads and out, and I hungered for all the possibilities I found there.

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