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Summer 2002

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Out of the dark,
into the light

by Barbara A. Melville

     Clean-cut and soft-spoken, Gardner Cummings ’02 doesn’t look like a drug dealer. But at the end of his junior year, the business major from Southampton, Mass., was convicted of dealing cocaine. His sentence was three years to life, and he did time in city, county, and state prisons before completing a tough “boot camp” program that earned his early parole. By then he had learned things he never wanted to know and had come to prize values he once took for granted. “Gardner became a person who knows his own mind,” says David Karp, Skidmore sociology professor. “He got his act together.”
     To make amends to the campus community—one of the conditions of his Skidmore readmission last fall—Cummings produced and screened a video he called The Gardner Curve: A Skidmore Student’s Memories of Drug Crime and Doing Time. The video juxtaposes sunny scenes of campus with shots of grim jail-cell interiors whose iron bars, stark metal toilets, and bare wooden bunks completely silenced the viewers in Davis Auditorium. In the video, Cummings simply faces the camera and tells his story, starting with how, as a lonely freshman, he fell in with friends who could easily kill a bottle of liquor on a weeknight. A high-school marijuana user, he drifted into selling cocaine while at Skidmore, pulling in $1,200 to $1,500 a week. “It’s almost impossible to stop doing drugs,” he admits ruefully, “if you don’t get stopped.” He did get stopped, in May 2000, after he sold cocaine to an undercover cop in Saratoga Springs.
     Cummings’s voice is calm and his manner objective, but there is no mistaking the poignancy when he describes his first call home from the city jail: “Mom, I’m in trouble…I’m in not-coming-home trouble.” Or the despair of moments like a postarraignment trip to the county jail when—handcuffed, fingerprinted, and locked into a ten-by-six-foot cement cell—he realized, “I was helpless to change anything. It was too late. There was no way out of here.”
     In December, he was sent to a maximum-security prison, where “you’re in with robbers and murderers and rapists, and you don’t know who did what,” he says. “We were on line to go to lunch one day when a guy stabbed another guy in the neck with a shank he made from a metal chair leg. When officers grabbed him, he dropped the shank and it landed right next to my foot.”
     Fortunately, Cummings was eligible for the New York State Shock Incarceration Program. The six-month “boot camp” featured daily calisthenics, rigorous discipline, and community service in upstate New York towns—“cleaning roadways, fighting forest fires, splitting wood, and clearing brush from trails,” he recalls. The tough regimen put things sharply into perspective for Cummings—and changed his life. “I had taken everything for granted. But on the graduation picture of our platoon, the others wrote messages to me like ‘You’re really smart. When you get out of here, don’t waste that.’”
     He didn’t intend to. In June 2001, Cummings successfully made his case for readmission before a college hearing board, with Skidmore professor Richard Hihn, his piano teacher since freshman year, as advisor. Says Hihn, “Gardner is not a criminal person. He did something wrong and he paid for it. I absolutely felt he should be readmitted. No question.”
     Because he had applied for a leave of absence after his arrest, says Cummings, his case never came before the college’s Integrity Board and he was never suspended or expelled. “Some believe that offenders are not worthy to be allowed back into the community, that ‘an example must be made,’ ” says Thomas “Pat” Oles, dean of student affairs. “But students make mistakes—some little, others substantial. It’s important that we keep in mind not only what they’ve done, but where we want them to end up.”
     Hearing-board member Karp, an advocate and scholar of restorative justice, argued for Cummings’s readmission, on condition that he make amends, particularly by educating the college community about the dangers and consequences of drug use. Cummings promptly agreed and set to work on the video. “These experiences had a profound effect on my life,” he says. “I wanted to share them because I think my story can help others make the right choices.” Besides the video, available to the college for orientation and health-education programs, Cummings gave an in-person presentation last fall about a prison program based on Buddhist meditation, a practice he and his father share. “Colleges everywhere are struggling to find a way to address the campus culture of drugs and alcohol,” says Karp. “Gardner’s story is a good example.”
     He’s not exactly home free. Even as he took part in Commencement in May, Cummings was still on parole, and will be for the remainder of his three-year sentence. But he’s well on his way to a fresh start, heading off in August for an M.B.A. program at Clarkson University. “Some people don’t want to go to grad school right away after graduation,” says Cummings, “but I’ve got that momentum.”

In past Scopes, Barbara Melville has profiled artists, activists, teachers, and students of every stripe.

 


© 2002 Skidmore College