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Navigating 'Island' Parenting: From Jail to Yale
Published on April 14, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Mutryce A Williams

“The message is that anything is possible, regardless of your circumstances--and I know the circumstances are awful. I don't have all the answers, but I do know something has to give and something has to change. And for the older folks, my generation and up, we've gotta put the boots back on. It's a struggle from the cradle to the grave but we've got to show the generations under us how it was done.” Charles S. Dutton

Navigating "Island" Parenting is a submission of insights, quotes, tips and parenting advice that I have gathered over the years as a source of inspiration and as tools to deal with the daily challenges of parenting. This week’s issue: “From Jail to Yale” The hope is that this submission would cause you to reflect on your parenting skills and also make the journey of parenting a bit easier or brighter.

From Jail to Yale

This was a lecture that I wished every parent had the opportunity to attend. This was a lecture for the young men, especially troubled and incarcerated young men. This was a lecture for everyone. There were so many messages. This inspiring lecture covered the possible, hope, success, determination, perseverance, redemption, and triumph.

Charles S. Dutton
Anything is possible! No one is beyond redemption! Believe in your children! Dream! Put your dreams into action! Work hard! It is not where you begin! It is where you end! Believe in yourself! There is always a way out! You can rise above your circumstances! You can make a difference! Help make a difference in the lives of others! A mother’s love is most powerful! These were just a few of the poignant messages that were peppered throughout Mr Charles S. Dutton’s captivating presentation.

The lecture, part of the University of the Virgin Islands’ 2014 Alfred O. Heath Distinguished Lecture Series, featured the speech titled “From Jail to Yale” by Emmy Award Winning and Tony nominated stage, film and television actor and director Charles S. Dutton. The actor is best known for his roles as "Fortune" in the film Rudy, "Dillon" in Alien 3, and the title role in the television sitcom Roc.

In his captivating, inspirational and informative talk, Dutton presented a self-effacing narrative of his life story. He discussed the struggles and triumphs he experienced in the Maryland prison system. He discussed his desire for higher education and his passion for acting. The 63-year-old actor also enthralled the audience by rendering a performance of scenes from some of the great playwrights’ works that he had done such as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

In his speech Dutton admonished young people, in particular young men. He told them not to get ensnared or caught up in the penal system. He told them that one’s record stays with him or her forever. One’s juvenile record is no exception. He recounted an incident when he was traveling from Canada, the immigration officer pulled up his record, and began listing the “priors” from his juvenile record. In addition, Dutton warned young people about the abuse of drugs, and highlighted marijuana and the effects that it may have on young minds. He reaffirmed that anything is possible.

Dutton, the son of a truck driver on the East side of Baltimore, Maryland, grew up to be a world renowned actor. He entered the juvenile detention system at the age of 12, and had continuous brushes with law from then onward. He told of a life changing incident when he was 17 years old, when he got into a fight with a young man, stabs were exchanged and by the end of the altercation the young man ended up dead. Dutton served several years behind bars, as he was charged and convicted with manslaughter. He said that it was self-defence. He informed that several months after being released from prison for the aforementioned offence, he was re-incarcerated. He served three years for possession of a deadly weapon. The actor said that while in prison he fought a prison officer. He received an additional sentence.

However, Dutton said that his life was transformed when he was sentenced to six days in solitary confinement. He noted that prisoners were allowed to take one book into solitary with them. Dutton said that by accident he took an anthology of black playwrights with him. This was his moment of enlightenment. He enjoyed the plays so much that he asked the warden if he could start a drama club in preparation for the annual Christmas play. The warden agreed on the condition that Dutton go back to school and get his GED. He did.

Dutton declared that he had found his calling as an actor. He said, from that day forward he was going to turn over a new leaf and stay out of trouble while in jail. Despite his best efforts, an inmate stabbed him in the back of the neck with an 11 inch ice pick. After healing, he was transferred to another facility. Dutton said that this was his saving grace. Had he stayed at that facility he would have had to retaliate. It was just the way things were done in jail.

After his transfer to the other facility, the prolific actor completed a two-year college program at Hagerstown Junior College (now Hagerstown Community College) in Hagerstown, Maryland. Upon his release, he enrolled as a drama major at Towson State University (now known as Towson University) in the Baltimore suburb of Towson, Maryland. Degree in hand, Dutton informed that he had no idea what his next step was going to be; all he knew was that he wanted to become an actor. He did not want to be on streets. He did not want to go back to jail.

With the encouragement of his theatre teacher he auditioned at the Yale School of Drama. He was informed that he was put on an alternate list. He fumed with anger. He decided that he would not give up. He began relentlessly calling the admissions office to see if there were any changes to his admissions status. The actor said that he eventually got confirmation. He was admitted. This was a life changing event.

He informed that he later discovered that he had been admitted all along. The school board, who knew of his criminal record, wanted to know how badly he wanted in; as they were not too sure “who or what” they were getting. His persistence had paid off. Dutton earned a master's degree in acting from the Yale School of Drama. He went on to become a prolific stage, film, and television actor and a director. Most importantly he went on to become an inspirational speaker and an advocate for young people, and the arts.

From Jail to Yale – A Reflection

Prior to attending the lecture, all I knew of Mr Dutton was that he was a captivating, prolific and dramatic actor. He is one of the best in the business if you asked me. I knew nothing of his journey from “Jail to Yale.” I really wanted to go to the talk so that I could see “Roc,” as his show was one of my favourites. I am certain many people did too, as it was standing room only in the auditorium. Provisions were even made for the lecture to be streamed on a television in an adjoining classroom. I walked away from the lecture captivated and truly inspired. I walked away reaffirmed. As a mother of two young sons, I walked away knowing indeed that “anything really is possible.”

In his talk Dutton mentioned his mother and her unwavering love for him. He recalled her visiting him after he was stabbed in the neck while in jail. He recalled her joking with him about taking out a life insurance policy on him, asking if he thought he was going to live this time. She joked that she needed to know as she had plans for the money. I saw warmth as he reminisced. There was a glow when he said that despite what he had done, and all the trouble that he had caused, his mother was always there for him, believing in him. This sustained him. As a mother, this stood out.

Additionally, after listening to Charles S. Dutton talk about his mother’s unswerving love for him, I walked away persuaded that my role as mother was most omnipotent. As parents we tend to doubt ourselves. We question whether we are parenting correctly, whether we have the right tools to mold our children into upstanding citizens or whether we have the weapons in our arsenal to combat the ills that are lurking around the corner. We even question at times whether our efforts are worth it. No need to question, they are worth it.

As parents we only want what is best for our children. Parenting isn’t easy. There is no magic formula or spell, however I think that once there is enormous love and a firm belief in your child, and once you foster or create an environment where that child can believe in him or herself and his or her abilities anything is possible.

Moreover, another poignant lesson that I took away from Charles S. Dutton’s talk was that no one, absolutely no one is beyond redemption. Dutton was one, who may have been described as a hardened or seasoned criminal. From the age of twelve he was in and out of juvenile facilities or reform schools, he eventually graduated to the adult penal system. He was someone who society dismissed. Look at what he has accomplished. He went from Jail to Yale. Look at where he is today. Anything is possible.

Belief Quotes

At an early age, my mother gave me the feeling that anything is possible, and I believe that! Howard Shultz

With self-discipline, most anything is possible. Theodore Roosevelt

Believe and act as if it were impossible to fail. Charles F. Kettering

The only thing that stands between a man and what he wants from life is often merely the will to try it and the faith to believe that it is possible. David Viscott

“What the mind can conceive and believe, and the heart desire, you can achieve.” Norman Vincent Peale

“Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every time you state what you want or believe, you're the first to hear it. It's a message to both you and others about what you think is possible. Don't put a ceiling on yourself. Oprah Winfrey

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.” Jim Valvano

I believe the choice to be excellent begins with aligning your thoughts and words with the intention to require more from yourself. Oprah Winfrey

Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn't have it in the beginning. Mahatma Gandhi

Believe in your dreams and they may come true; believe in yourself and they will come true. Author Unknown

Mutryce A. Williams, a native of St Kitts and Nevis is the mother of 4-year-old Daniel and 3-year-old Nicholas. She not only values the many facets of West Indian parenting but also thinks that there is vast room for improvement. A former educator and a child/youth advocate, Mutryce firmly believes that children should not only be seen but heard.. She may be contacted at
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