by Wayne St. Pierre
Those of us who change lives with literature operate on the premise that reading and sharing stories can open the gateways of self-reflection and healing. As a participant in Changing Lives Through Literature for 17 years and a facilitator of a spinoff program for the past 18 months, I have dozens of stories of my own. I will offer two and invite others to grace us with their stories about telling stories.
About 18 months ago I used this notion to create a musical version of Changing Lives Through Literature, called Inspiring Stories. I go into drug/alcohol rehabilitation facilities and the local prison with my program, armed with my guitar and harmonica and copies of lyrics to my songs. After performing a song, we have a discussion, much like we do with a short story in CLTL. Music is just a hook.
In CLTL sessions, I participate alongside one or two probation officers, judges, attorneys, guests, a professor. In my Inspiring Stories program, I am alone with the class. Further, while the CLTL groups I attend have 8 to 12 students, my Inspiring Stories groups usually range from 25 to 40 people. Another difference is that I am on their turf. Usually, at the University, it is the participants who are off balance. The first time I was in a room alone with 40 inmates at the prison, however, I recognized how they felt. Teachers and performers both know an audience smells and reacts to fear.
On that first night at the prison, I had passed out lyrics about a young man, who had been raised in dysfunction. He had used commercial fishing to get away from the noise of his life on land. While passing out copies of the lyric, I asked if there were any commercial fishermen in the room. Several nodded or raised their hands to acknowledge spending time at sea.
During the discussion part, I asked a man who had raised his hand, but had not yet spoken, if he could relate to the geographic cure being talked about. He said, “Look, I was late from fishing and you were the PO who violated me on my probation. I am now serving a two-year jail sentence, because I was late from fishing and didn’t report to you. I don’t want to talk about fishing.” The room was silent for about three seconds and then erupted in a thunder of deep belly laughs. The date was December 20, 2007, just five days before Christmas. With all those men who were to spend the holidays in jail, I couldn’t bring myself to darken the moment. Though the man was two years late and I had had a warrant for his arrest the whole time, I let the group laugh and took the brunt, as it were, myself. It was magical to see all those men, dressed in their prison issued “tans,” having a good laugh right before the holidays