Bert Stern has taught in the Dorchester Program for nine years. He is a writer, editor, and poet, a retired English professor and retired chief editor of Hilton Publishing. He and his wife, Tam Neville, co-edit Off the Grid Press, which publishes poetry books by writers over 60.
In Changing Lives Through Literature, the difference between success and failure ought to be perfectly clear. By definition, success means changing your life, certainly not one of life’s easier tasks. Or, in slightly more practical terms, it means students who, having opened themselves wider to possibility and tasted the fruits of open communication, are ready to go out into the world with new hope and self-esteem and to live their own lives more efficaciously – insofar as that is possible in the world given to them.
In the Dorchester Men’s program, an important theme is manhood lost and manhood found, as mirrored in the weekly readings, the writing, and the discussion. Early on we discover parallels between the readings and our own lives, and so the characters we read about become exemplary or cautionary, or, simply, another angle of understanding. This is the process by which our students, and we ourselves, move toward success or failure.
By these standards, academic “success” is not about getting straight A’s, but is about recognizing and doing what we can to heal our own and one another’s wounds. There are moments, at least, when we practice the blessing of acting, no longer out of isolated ego, but out of the community we create, however tentatively and briefly, in the short life of the class.
We all know, at least tacitly, that what we have here is a rare chance to enter discourse on virtue and values. Such an opportunity to reflect, and to experience community and trust, doesn’t come readily in the streets. If some of our graduates who must return there want to sustain the values they’ve learned in the class, they may have to create them from scratch – which, incidentally, is also what our readings from Frederick Douglass and others illustrate.
In practical terms, the quest for change is much messier than I’ve described because it’s complicated by the actual day-to-day problem of the situations that our students fall into or create.
Read about some of the successes and failures Bert witnessed by checking out the full essay on the Changing Lives Through Literature website.
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