Jenni Baker is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She is the editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds and participates in the New Bedford/Fall River chapter of Changing Lives Through Literature.
This past autumn, Changing Lives Through Literature welcomed Harvard English professor Leah Price to the first meeting of the Fall 2008 New Bedford/Fall River group.
We are both grateful and excited to see the account of her visit, “Read a Book, Get Out of Jail,” published in this week’s edition of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Exposure in front of the Times’ vast readership will undoubtedly do much to spark increased interest in our program around the country.
In every Changing Lives Through Literature session, however, we welcome multiple perspectives on the same story. Following in this vein, I share with you my experience as a participant in the same session Price detailed in her article. These two pieces, taken as a whole, offer more of a complex look at Changing Lives Through Literature than any single assessment.
From my balcony office, I watch the new participants slowly file into the building, their eyes widened like explorers tentatively surveying a new territory. For many, today marks their first step inside a university.
As class time approaches, the probationers shuffle into the Dean’s Conference Room. From 9 to 5 it is the meeting place of the Dean of Arts and Sciences, important campus officials, and university professors. For the next two hours, however, the room is theirs.
Professor Robert Waxler begins the session by talking about the program, its goals, and the successes of past participants. The offenders are only half listening and glancing nervously at the probation officers and judges across the table. They look with curiosity at me and at the woman—Price—sitting at the far end of the table, scribbling comments onto a notepad.
Before launching into the reading and discussion, the probation officers and judges make it clear that CLTL isn’t a book club where participants come and participate at their convenience. As with standard probation, there are stipulations for successful completion of the program. Attendance is mandatory—probationers may only miss one session during the next three months. The men and women must read the assigned texts and participate in the discussions. Failure to comply with any of these rules means a return to traditional probation or—worse—a trip to jail.
Many probationers’ faces cloud with uncertainty at this reminder of their sentence. This session will be the first time that the majority of them have read literature since high school. The prospect of reading five novels in three months is, no doubt, a daunting endeavor.
To ease participants into the pattern of reading and discussion, Waxler starts every CLTL session with T.C. Boyle’s short story, “Greasy Lake.” The text is brief, easy to read, and recounts a tale not dissimilar to offenders’ own histories. Participants read silently for half an hour and, after a short break, Waxler launches the discussion.
The first session sets the stage for the types of conversations that will dominate the next five meetings. In this particular session, participants converse about the cars in the text and the legality (or not) of the drinking that takes place in the text. While these factual details reveal little about the characters and plot, this easy exchange between probationers, law enforcement officials, and facilitator breaks the tension of the first meeting and puts everyone on an equal playing field. This is a necessary step for all CLTL groups and one that paves the way for honest dialogue between participants in future sessions.
Participants quickly relate the similarities between story elements and their own troubled pasts, with some venturing away from the text to recount personal anecdotes. When this happens, Waxler encourages them to apply their experiences to the characters in question. Changing Lives Through Literature, after all, is not a counseling session or a trip to rehab. Its purpose is not to motivate offenders to confess their own troubled pasts aloud to a group. Instead, the program aims to create a psychologically safe place where participants can discuss their experiences through the characters and thereby realize things about themselves.
After clearing these hurdles, the participants dig into the marrow of the story. Are the characters in the book really bad? How do the quest for excitement and need for power contribute to the night’s events? At what point do the characters realize they’ve gone too far?
By the end of the session, the probationers’ initial nervousness has all but dissipated. Successfully reading and discussing T.C. Boyle’s story lights a spark of confidence and excitement in the offenders—one that invigorates them as they mentally prepare to read The Old Man and the Sea for the following meeting.
The first session is the beginning of an arc towards awareness and life change over the three months to follow. By the final session, the transformation is undeniable. Participants speak with more confidence and self-knowledge and report they enjoy reading the assigned texts and look forward to discussing them with their peers. Many cite plans to continue reading and a few make plans to complete GEDs and enroll in community college.
Regardless of their future plans, it is clear by the end of the program that participants value their time spent reading and conversing about literature. It is a positive experience for all involved—a ball and chain for no one.