R. Dwayne Betts seemed headed for a bleak future. Twelve years ago, the promising high school junior from Suitland and a friend carjacked a man at gunpoint in Northern Virginia. Betts, who had figured he would be the first in his family to go to college, went to prison instead, sentenced at age 16 to nine years behind bars.
This evening, Betts will pick up his bachelor's degree in English from the University of Maryland, College Park and address his fellow graduates. It's just the latest milestone in a phoenix-like recovery from the mistakes of his youth. He's already deep into graduate study at an elite North Carolina college, and his prison memoir, A Question of Freedom, is to be published in August, with a book of poetry, Shahid Learns to Pray, to follow next year.
Now 28, married and the father of an 18-month-old son, he's hoping the future takes him to a different kind of institution - he'd like to write and teach at a university once he gets his master of fine arts degree from Warren Wilson College in Asheville. Meanwhile, he's teaching poetry classes with the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop and advocating for juvenile justice and prison reform by working for the Campaign for Youth Justice.
"I've got to be more than just a kid that went to the penitentiary," he said in an interview at the Odenton apartment complex where he lives with his family. "As a writer, I want to do something lasting."
Impressed by his story and his eloquence, university administrators chose Betts from a pool of student applicants to address the graduates, their families and friends just before tonight's main commencement speaker, Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta.
His message to his fellow graduates, he said, is that "we need to go out into the future remembering the past and remembering that a lot of what we needed to get to the point where we are now, we had before we came to the institution. ... A lot of other people don't have those things. And we need to be cognizant of the fact that college education is a gift. It's something to believe in, but it's also something to use in the world."
College nearly eluded Betts. He'd never had any run-ins with the law before - he was a good student in high school, but had begun cutting class and smoking marijuana. The carjacking was the first time he'd ever held a gun, he said. But he said he was torn between being a smart kid and being part of the much rougher life going on around him.
"It was just one of those tragedies," he recalled. "I think you can walk out in the morning and become a totally different person without even realizing it. ... It's another world out there where these kids have got other options, that their realm of possibilities include things that are dangerous and criminal - and likely."
He survived incarceration by burying himself in reading and writing.
"I scrambled up money cleaning toilets to pay for books," he said. "I didn't know the books would lead me to getting A's in college [or] would lead me to writing a book. I just did it because books helped me not to go crazy inside the cell."
It was a choice pushed on him by people who saw promise in him even at his lowest point.
One of those people was Alice Holman, who ran the GED program at Fairfax County, Va.'s jail, where he was initially held, he said. She had him writing essays and keeping a daily journal. "In a very real way, she formed me by giving me the opportunity to write all the time," he said. He began writing poetry later, while in solitary confinement after he was accused of assaulting prison guards when he was first incarcerated.
Another helping hand came from Yao Glover, co-owner of the since-closed Karibu Books chain in the Washington area, who met Betts shortly after he was released from prison in 2005 and hired him despite his past. It was a dream job for an aspiring writer, Betts said, since it allowed him to meet noted authors and poets. It also introduced him to his future wife, Terese, who came into the store looking for books for a class. She graduated from Towson University on Wednesday.
"I think most of us make it based on the support systems that build themselves around us," Betts said. "I didn't even build that support system."
Those who've mentored Betts say he's imbued with remarkable drive and a thirst to learn.
Professor Michael Collier, a former Maryland poet laureate who teaches creative writing at College Park, met Betts at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont that Collier runs every summer.
"It seems as if the gods sent Dwayne to us at Maryland to remind us of what we are capable [of] when we follow our passion for something like writing," Collier wrote in an e-mail, "and when we work hard and remain humble to the mystery of the forces of fate."