The Power of a Single Session

by Jenni Baker 

New Bedford / Fall River groupMuch has been said about the difference that Changing Lives Through Literature makes in the lives of criminal offenders who attend the program. Studies on individuals who successfully complete the program reveal that their chances of committing another crime are less than half than that of offenders sentenced to traditional probation.
 

What’s not so easily measurable, however, is the impact of CLTL on the lives of the facilitators, probation officers, judges, and other visitors who attend the sessions. In the absence of statistics, personal accounts of one’s experiences with the program are the only measure our organization has to analyze the powerful sway that extends beyond the probationers. In what I hope will be a trend among CLTL participants, I offer up as testimony my own preconceptions of and experience with the New Bedford/Fall River, Massachusetts CLTL program beginning in Spring 2008.

 

I initially became involved with Changing Lives Through Literature through a project in a grants writing course. I was curious about the meetings and decided to attend one session to get a better grasp of the organization. My enthusiasm towards attending the meeting slightly waned, however, as I watched the participants slowly file into the nearby conference room on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. Dressed in baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts, many of the participants were men and women I’d be afraid to pass alone on a dark street. They looked hardened and tough—certainly not the types to enjoy reading and discussing The Old Man and the Sea. I instantly questioned what I was getting myself into and doubted the quality and complexity of discussion that could arise amongst such a group.

 

I saw the facilitator make his way towards the conference room and slinked in beside him minutes before the session started. As the only young female in the room, I expected to meet many suspicious glances from the other participants. A few curiously looked my way as I found a chair –largely, I suspect, because I was a new face from the first session–but as I sidled up to the seminar table, I quickly became just another participant.

 

The men and women whom I’d expected to stare at the table in uncomfortable silence energetically chatted about the book before the session officially started and the enthusiasm grew once we formally began. Everyone around the table had an opinion about old Santiago and, at times during the discussion, I weathered a cacophony of several voices vying to be heard at the same time. Under the facilitator’s moderation, each participant had an opportunity to share his or her thoughts while the others listened on respectfully.
 

Not only did the group express more enthusiasm over literature than I’d seen in my college English courses, they openly connected their personal experiences to those of the characters in profound and occasionally heartbreaking ways. Many likened Santiago’s pursuit of the marlin to following their own goals and dreams; others discussed how their peers and communities have judged their own actions as foolish. I have to think that Hemingway and all authors hope for this corporeal reaction—and not the distant, cerebral analyses that often take place in college classrooms—to their literature.
 

jenniIn one session, I could see the magic of the program at work through the insights and realizations offered by the participants. I was most astonished, however, to notice the two-hour discussion had changed me as well. I became more engaged in this discussion than in any of my past literature classes, as I quit thumbing through my text to find quotes and examples and, instead, opened up my ears to the thoughts of those around me. Though I’d never been a big Hemingway fan, the new perspectives and real world insight into Santiago’s story offered by the other participants made me see the work in a new light and assert a personal connection to the character. I realized that I, too, had often pursued dreams deemed foolish by others and endured experiences that allowed me to test myself and my limits. 
 

That first session was enough to convince me that Changing Lives Through Literature lives up to its name for all of the participants around the table—not just the probationers it targets. I continue to attend the sessions today–in part because I enjoy participating in a program that has a positive impact on probationers, but also because I value the often-upheaving force it exerts on my own conceptions of self and the world. 
 

I leave you with two questions: 

To those among you who haven’t yet attended a CLTL meeting, what preconceptions or questions do you have about what goes on in the group sessions? Many CLTL participants follow this site and would be happy to put in their two cents.

For those of you already “changed” by CLTL, what do you remember about your first encounter with the program and what surprised you the most? I’d love to hear your personal experiences and reactions.

 


Jenni Baker is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and participates in the New Bedford/Fall River chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature.

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6 thoughts on “The Power of a Single Session

  1. Jenni–
    I loved reading this. I didn’t know about this program, but I need to learn more. Univ. of Illinois English Department has a program that sends books to prisons, but this sounds much more powerful. It puts us academics in our place!
    Sounds like you’re doing well.
    Libbie

  2. Yes, I remember the very first session we had back in 1991 at UMass Dartmouth. We all read the short story “Greasy Lake,” and we were all very anxious when we got started, uncertain what was going to happen. By the end of the night, as we left the seminar room, we were all shaking hands with each other, laughing, and looking forward to the next session.

  3. I was with Bob on that first day in 1991. The predominate emotion for me, was fear. We had chosen 10 men with really long records. We had a room full of violent thiefs, with substance abuse problems. Unlike the characters in “Greasy Lake”, they were “bad guys”. I was fearful of how they would behave. Would they respect our Facilitator? How would they handle being in a room with a Judge with no court officers to protect him? I had a lagitimate fear for my own safety. It was a roller coaster of emotion, as by the end, we left shaking hands, and we all knew we had stumbled on something special. We never looked back and the rest,as they say, is history. I never experienced fear of a session again, but still remember the uncertainty of that first night.

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