By the time D. Watkins was in his early 20s, he had filled a shoe box with obituaries.

Kids he had grown up with in East Baltimore. Classmates, neighbors, guys from the corners. His uncle.

And, eventually, his older brother.

The brief paragraphs and grainy photos testified to lives cut short, lives touched by the drug trade: users, dealers, those caught in the crossfire. Watkins had 120 thin brochures from funerals, enough to fill a Nike box. They were the only printed records of the lives of people he cared about.

Watkins decided it was time for a change.

He quit what he wryly calls “the family business” — selling drugs — and enrolled in the University of Baltimore. Although he had graduated from Dunbar High School, he had read only three books in his adult life.

Now, less than a decade later, Watkins has read hundreds of books and is writing his own. He has received a bachelor’s degree, a master’s in education from the Johns Hopkins University and, last week, his second master’s degree, from the University of Baltimore’s creative writing and publishing arts program.

Along the way, Watkins, 32, has discovered that he is a writer. His unflinching portraits of the lives of poor, black Baltimoreans have gained him national recognition, a literary agent and talk of a book deal.

“I feel like I was blessed with a second, third, fourth, fifth chance at life,” said Watkins. “My journey, my mission is to speak for people like me, people who don’t have a voice.”

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