by Taylor Stoehr
Probationers come into the Changing Lives Through Literature program brooding on their personal experiences in court or jailhouse. Whatever their awareness of their own innocence or guilt, there are always some students who view the entire social order as rigged against them, though they rarely have more than newspaper headlines for arguments or their own lives as evidence. For these angry men – and perhaps even more for those who passively accept their fate – it can be a salutary shock to realize that the criminal justice system is not a cruel and unrelenting instrument of retribution, but an evolving institution open to criticism and change.
If we want to encourage a more balanced and reflective view of their situation as criminal offenders, one tactic is to try to demystify the system itself by presenting ourselves as its personal embodiment – a little group of real people who serve as teachers, probation officers, and judges in society’s impersonal institutions. For many of our students, this may be the first time in their lives that a teacher or other authority figure has entered into open-ended dialogue with them, outside the rules of role and format. I do not mean that authority relations have vanished in our classroom – a teacher is still a teacher, a judge still a judge – but these are not the faces we wear as we sit with the men in small groups, exchanging thoughts and feelings, sharing our own experiences of growing up, being schooled, dealing with what life demands.
In the Changing Lives classroom, teachers and probation officers inevitably remind students of all the admonishers out of their past, but it’s much more emphatic when we add a judge to the row of authorities. By virtue of his or her title and office, the judge certainly does represent the court, and some of the probationers in our group may have been tried and sentenced before this very judge! But in the CLTL classroom, a judge’s authority usually sits so lightly that students are not intimidated. In the Dorchester Men’s program, we were fortunate for many years to have the Honorable Thomas May sitting with us every class. His bearing was confident and respectful, and his role in our class was simply to be who he is.
The important thing is that the judge who participates in a Changing Lives program comes to class without his black robes, and is not towering over us from the bench, but sitting in the midst of everyone, on equal footing in discussions, and doing the homework like the rest of us. Reminders of his authority may hover round him like an aura – he’s often the only one in the room who isn’t called by his first name, for instance, but addressed simply as “Judge” – yet by and large it’s the actual man and not “his Honor” who presides. Students sit across from him in the small groups and look him in the eye, argue with him, listen and judge for themselves.
In our graduation ceremonies at the end of the semester, Judge May would invariably take the opportunity to tell us why he valued the program so much, explaining to the probationers and the entire courtroom that contact on a personal level with those who come before him to be judged – often as many as sixty a day – reminded him that he was dealing with human beings, not “cases.” Guilty or innocent, their lives are full of pain and suffering, mistakes they regret, anger and self-pity they yearn to be done with – just like the rest of us. As he pronounced these words from the bench, dressed in his black robes, Tom would bring the semester to a close with a sobering message about the nature of public justice, those who administer it, and those who come before it as offenders.
Tom May rarely spoke in the large general discussions we sometimes convene in the Dorchester Men’s group, but everyone had a chance to hear his voice in the small groups that were a regular part of our classes. Each man would have a few sessions with him, and he sat repeatedly with some of the younger ones, whose relations to authority are more likely to be prickly. To a twenty-year-old black probationer who has been in trouble half his life with white teachers and principals, white social workers, white police, and white judges – and some black ones too, of course – Tom May represented the entire social order and its power to decide his fate.
He could be a calming influence without robbing a young man of his pride. A young dude could ask him about his own experience in the streets, in the Marines, as a father, as a citizen angry at the politicians, as a judge worried about injustice. He could argue with him about Malcolm X or the jury system. Often the liveliest conversations would occur in these small groups, where the younger probationers are finding their tongues for the first time in a classroom. One could hear Tom’s even voice alternating with their excited speeches. This is a “safe emergency situation” in which a man on the defensive can feel his way to a new attitude toward imagined old enemies, whether in the hard world of the past or in today’s fearful, angry heart.
The core problem of the CLTL classroom is how to preserve a probationer’s individual autonomy in a high stakes encounter with authority and its representatives. A judge like Tom May, or a probation officer like John Christopher, may not be someone to sit next to when you haven’t done your homework, but their authority in our small groups depended less on the power they hold than on the standard they set for themselves. Tom and John could be seen writing the opening exercise in a blue book just like everyone else. Every man here was in charge of his own pride and self-discipline. It is possible to carry authority without brandishing it like a scepter or a club, and sitting across from one another week after week, in earnest conversation, strips away initial illusions and uncovers authentic grounds of respect in all of us. Each man acquires his own moral authority as we hammer out an ethical consensus regarding issues we all know something about, probationers as much as staff.
Although carefully chosen readings can focus group discussion on crucial personal-behavior issues for our students, I believe the essential factor in the Changing Lives approach to moral growth and self-respect lies in this public exercise of the ethical imagination, deliberating on problems of social, economic, and criminal justice with the actual authorities responsible for them, judges and probation officers who are revealed as striving and fallible human beings just like the rest of us.
Taylor Stoehr is a professor of literature in the College of Liberal Arts at UMass Boston and helped found the Dorcester, MA branch of CLTL in 1994.