Steered straight: Teens should know what DeWayne Harris knows

When he was seventeen years old, people told Gary DeWayne Harris they didn't expect to see him reach twenty-one. He was running with the wrong crowd, selling drugs, headed for trouble. Harris figured he had the street smarts to make a go of it, but his choices cut short his education, landed him in prison twice, and made his subsequent search for meaningful employment a cosmic battle. All he ended up with was what he calls "a doctoral degree in misery and pain" reaped from chasing the false glory of the thug life.

Harris is a 46-year-old forklift operator now. He's spent ten years of his life in some phase or another of the criminal justice system -- and seen enough fellow doctoral candidates that he decided to write a kind of handbook for teens to help them avoid the same slippery road. Hence his self-published book, What Teens Must Know! Real Talk Vol. I: The Seven Principles of Money (available in paperback or Kindle from amazon).

"This is information I wish I'd had myself," Harris says. "I wanted to show more of a real-life portrayal of what teens go through, as opposed to the sugar-coated version."

The final chapter of his book, the first in a projected series, does offer some sensible advice about managing money and saving for the future. But the work isn't as tame as that subject matter suggests. Before we get to the financial tips, readers first encounter quite a bit of tough and candid talk about drugs and alcohol, prison life, and how to handle conflicts and peer pressure in a manner that doesn't hand your sorry ass over to the state.

Harris shares some of his own experiences behind bars and watching cocaine dealers rise and fall; other, anonymous contributors add accounts of prison rape, being pregnant and incarcerated, dealing meth to violent nitwits ("I hadn't yet noticed the AK-47 assault rifle with the banana clip he was holding behind his back until he forced his way through the front door"), and other not-so-great situations.

Real Talk Vol. I has some of the typical drawbacks of a self-published screed, including slapdash editing and erratic punctuation. But it also has the virtues of a grass-roots work, a kind of knowing woefulness and righteous indignation about lives wasted on drugs and prison. Most of all, it has a clarity of purpose that many slicker efforts lack. It's not so much a "Scared Straight" version as one that hopes to steer young people to better alternatives by offering the straight dope, as it were.

"I see some of my nephews and nieces, and young people don't really understand what they're up against," Harris says. "Teens are really struggling now. They're going through a lot we didn't go through. There are still some role models out there, but they're not as visible as they used to be."

Harris's plan to distribute his book has, so far, been largely confined to handing them out to teens he comes across: "Whenever I can afford to, I give some away. I don't have a lot of money to promote it."

But that hasn't stopped him from planning the next few volumes. "I have enough material for four or five books," he says, "so I decided to commence a series. I'm just trying to gain momentum." From our archives: "Will juvenile lifers get a second chance?"