When Kyle Gathers takes the stage to address his classmates and instructors at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology on Saturday, he will be defying the odds, as he has done many times before.
“I’m not supposed to be here,” he said in a recent interview at the South End vocational college. “I’m supposed to be dead. I’m supposed to be in prison.”
Gathers, 31, who will be the student speaker at the institute’s commencement, began dealing drugs in his teens and has spent nearly half his life behind bars.
The Boston native wants to spend the rest of his years making sure his 10-year-old son and other young men from his community don’t emulate his earlier choices, as his younger brother and other men from his neighborhood have done. His message and background make him a distinctive choice for a student commencement speaker, a role often reserved for young people with a singular focus on their studies and unblemished pasts.
“I had that influence to [lead] kids to go into a negative path,” he said. “And today I have that influence to have these kids go into a positive path.”
That path has been littered with trouble. At 16, Gathers shot and wounded two other teenagers. He spent the next five years incarcerated, he said. Later, he was convicted for possession of cocaine and spent three years in prison.
Then, at 24, he was convicted of extortion and spent another six years locked up, spending about two years in solitary confinement.
In Gathers’s view, he did what was necessary to survive.
He grew up in the Grove Hall section of Dorchester, near Intervale Street, an area known for drugs, gangs, and violence. For much of his childhood, he said, his parents were marginal figures in his life, each involved in their own personal struggles, while Gathers’ grandmother took on the responsibilities of both parents.
When he was 13, his 12-year-old sister was shot while she was right beside him, he said. She survived.
His brother Jameil Williams — who had followed Gathers into life on the streets — was shot years later in Randolph and did not survive.
Gathers believes spending so much of his life in the relative safety of prison may have kept him alive, he said.
When he was a child, there were few men in his life who offered models of good behavior, ambition, or success, Gathers said. As he grew up, he took the easy path into crime. He had always been a good student, he said, and he found that his intelligence and charisma helped to win admirers and loyalty. But those qualities could not shield him from the consequences of his actions.
When he was released from prison last summer, he was ready to make a change. He had already begun studying while behind bars. With help from a program called College Bound Dorchester, he enrolled in the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning program at the Benjamin Franklin Institute, a 109-year-old college dedicated to teaching job skills to young people from the city.
“If I can do a year in prison, I can do a year in school,” he told himself. “And when school’s out, at least I’ll make a wage that I can live with at the end of the week. I can live off an $800 check.”
The HVAC certificate Gathers will receive Saturday will enable him to get a decent job and help support his son, he said, while he continues his studies at the institute to get his associate’s degree.
Kevin Bell, an HVAC instructor at the institute, said Gathers has been a model student. “He had a direction — or, I should say, a focus. He was not in my class to fool around,” Bell said. “Believe me, I have students that mommy told them to get off the couch, or somebody else pushed them into this, and they’re kind of just killing time. But Kyle was not here to kill time.”
Bell called Gathers “a calming influence” on classmates and said he helped keep them attentive to the task at hand. Gathers’s poise and his gift at expressing himself helped lead to his selection as the class speaker out of about 120 students receiving degrees or certificates on Saturday, he said.
Calvin Conyers, the institute’s director of admissions, said that with Gathers’s intelligence, ambition, and hard-won clarity on what matters to him, “The sky’s the limit.”
Gathers aims to use his second chance to lift up not only himself but his community. He’s thinking about how his son and his nieces and nephews will remember him when he’s gone, he said, and the temptations of his old life no longer hold any appeal.
“I still get some that try to pull me back, but they can’t,” he said. “My mind’s made up.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.