by Tam Lin Neville
A few years ago I visited a Changing Lives Through Literature Juvenile class in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The kids were only 14 – 16 years old but when PO Stella Rebiero asked how many in the class had lost someone to violence, every hand went up. In other programs, I found a similar history of violence, with students wearing “R.I.P.” T-shirts bearing dates that told the story of a young person whose life was cut short prematurely. In the women’s class that I teach, composed mainly of African-American single mothers, many talked of the necessity of keeping up funeral insurance for their sons.
With the help of Yale Magrass’ post on Dec.6th, “All Quiet on the Prison Front,” I want to look at the implications of the wounds these adolescents carry as they pertain to our program. Magrass says that there is an inherent contradiction in rehab programs, especially where men and boys are concerned. Ostensibly, the purpose of rehab is to help a client adjust to our society and return to it as an active, productive member. But Magrass asks a question that is seldom raised: “Is this a society to which we should adjust?”
He doesn’t think so:
A militarist state must raise boys, ready and able to commit violence, ideally enthusiastically, providing it is directed against peoples whom their rulers deem enemies….Rulers, who need cannon fodder, do not want an education system that makes all students independent creative thinkers….The No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools turn over their student rosters to military recruiters. A school is deemed successful if it sends its products to the army as well as to college.
In our classrooms and discussion groups, we, as CLTL judges, facilitators, and POs, work to build a society that counteracts this culture of violence. Is such a world possible?
CLTL co-founder Bob Waxler, among others, would answer “Yes.” In his work at the Fall River Alternative School, he meets with a group of high-risk teenagers. Waxler believes in discussion where the “site of desire” is as “powerful, interesting, and seductive” as that of the gang leader on the street. In the classroom, he speaks of great stories that are “just as thrilling as the voice of that gang leader.”
The program in New Bedford, mentioned earlier, is exploring different approaches to this question. Led by facilitator Susan Jennings, PO Stella Rebiero, and Judge Bettina Borders, it is the oldest continuously running juvenile group in Massachusetts, dating from 2002. In the past year they have run two boys classes, graduating 12 students in all.
Facilitator Susan Jennings, now Director of Sustainability at UMass Dartmouth, would like to tie the CLTL class in with the green movement. This is no easy task – ecology doesn’t rank high on the list of her students’ priorities. Still, work has been done with at-risk teenagers in urban settings headed by a black environmentalist/social activist, Van Jones, a leader of the Bioneer movement. The New Bedford program is also considering is the possibility of starting a parents group for the juveniles in drug court. PO Rebiero encourages anyone who has experience with this kind of group to post a comment down below.
Michael Habib, an attorney who facilitates the juvenile class in Fall River, Massachusetts (which has been running since 2005), reports that, while they weren’t able to find enough juveniles to make a class this fall, he has every expectation of starting one in the new year. In previous classes, he has had special success with A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, which follows a twelve-year old boy’s involvement in Sierra Leone’s civil war.
While there are no easy answers to Magrass’ question whether ours is a society worth adjusting to, these juvenile programs are inherently concerned with the future and move us closer to a better society — in Waxler’s class, through the sympathetic power of the imagination, in the New Bedford program, through potential experiments in environmental politics, and in Attorney Habib’s class, rallying students around a text they clearly identify with. Programs like these do their own part in bringing closer a peaceful society where each person has room to grow in ways that are beneficial to all.
Tam Lin Neville is the author of the full-length book of poems, Journey Cake (BkMk Press, l998). Her poems and reviews have appeared in Harvard Review, Mademoiselle, American Poetry Review, Ironwood, and Threepenny Review. She is an editor of Off The Grid Press and works for Changing Lives Through Literature, an organization that teaches individuals on probation.