Great Stories Make Us Ask the Hard Questions

Allyson SonneAllyson Sonne is a senior at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
She is currently working towards a bachelors degree in English with
concentration in writing and communications, as well as a masters degree
in Education. She is focused on becoming a middle school English teacher post graduation.

T.C. Boyle’s short story “Greasy Lake” (1979) is a fast-paced telling of a night in the lives of three boys: Jeff, Digby and the unidentified narrator. Looking for a dangerous thrill to feed their “bad boy” images, they head to Greasy Lake. The night quickly goes from wanting to be “bad” to a situation where even the most “wanna be bad boy” would want to trade his leather jacket and cigarettes for a suit and tie. Mistaking a strange man in a car for their friend, the boys honk and pester the car until the man gets out. The narrator gives a devastating blow to the man’s head with a tire iron. The “tough guy” character emerges again within the boys as they feel accomplished; they decide to see what they can get away with by the girl in the car.

As the story goes on and the night goes on, the boys’ positions are shattered by the realization of what was actually happening. Reading this I envisioned the boys resembling John Travolta and the T-Birds in the movie Grease. Although this image is clear-cut, I feel that Boyle made the characters universal at the same time. No matter where you are from, what you look like or how old you are, the characters and the situation can be identifiable with something in your life.

Of course, I’m sure not many have smashed someone with a tire iron, ran for their life, hid in a mucky lake, or stumbled upon a dead body and a couple of stray women. At least I hope not. The point is, somewhere, sometime we have all been in a situation that just didn’t turn out how we expected. Good or bad, regretful or lesson learned, there is a well-remembered turning point on the road to maturity in all of us.

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Alicia’s Story

"Reach Out" by dip on flickr

While studying for the ministry, David G. Sarles began substitute teaching in the New Haven public schools.  He began running also then, up and down East Rock, and has been running more or less since then. But his running pales in comparison to those inmates who circle prison yards thousands of times to compete in marathons.

When a young friend of mine got pregnant, she knew that in her situation as a single parent, she was not going to be able to provide for the child.  Massachusetts’ forward looking laws helped her determine to give up her new, yet to be born baby for adoption to a Massachusetts family.  The laws require the birth mother to stay with an in-state Massachusetts family different from the adopting family for the last few weeks of her pregnancy.  There was no cost to the birth mother.

Just before the birth, while living with her Massachusetts host family, my young friend wanted to find an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting to continue her dedication to remain dry.  She had wisely given up alcohol as soon as she became pregnant.  The meeting nearest her host family was at a Massachusetts prison, and included so-called hardened criminals.  It was, though, an open meeting, meaning the public was invited.  Not unlike a CLTL class, which is guided by a probation officer, judge and facilitator, the prison AA setting was supervised by prison staff and included a few outside AA facilitators and members like my friend.

When my dedicated young friend attended the meeting, she was ready for anything.  She had endured threatening city streets and had honed her survival skills.  She was not afraid.  As she entered, nine months pregnant and the sole woman, the inmates (all males) rose and one, “Tiny”, 300 some pounds, came to the door and took her hand.  He led her to a chair in the reception room.  He reassured her that she was safe with them.

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One of Those English Teachers

Three Cheers for Reading by vanhookc on Flickr

Zinovia Canale is the English Department Chair at Rogers High School, Newport RI, and has been teaching for thirty years.  She is currently enrolled in the Masters Program in English at the University of Rhode Island.

I’m one of those teachers with whom high school kids like to hang around. They like to tell me about their problems and they like to listen to my stories, especially when I share my human side of being a parent who yells at her kids to get up, to get off the “machines,” and to get their work done.  When they hear stories about my love for The Grateful Dead and the fact that I still go to concerts with my deadhead husband to catch Bob Weir and Phil Lesh they nod in approval.

I’ve also been able to amuse my students with my dance of the “chicken noodle soup,” appreciation of the art of the rap (writing one is more difficult than one imagines), and my enjoyment of Beyonce, and Rihanna. I’m great at picking up new dance steps and am always open to learning new moves. I have a good time listening to my students’ jokes, learning their language, and trying to understand the dilemmas of their world, especially those kids of the “down-trodden,” I say with trepidation.

In fact, forgive me for labeling a group as the “down-trodden” which sounds so snobbish and evokes such an attitude of superiority. Yet, to ignore the truths about the conditions with which some of these kids live is to ignore the truth about their hearts, minds, and souls and as an English teacher there is where I want to reach.  I can’t bring them into a more expansive world of literature if I do not meet them where they reside-emotionally, physically, and socially.

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Voices from the Table: Sheila

on the platform, reading by moriza

Allan McDougall is a graduate student from the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Allan is a staunch believer in language as social action, with a focus on reading and writing. Allan is currently writing his MA thesis on Changing Lives Through Literature, and writes about professional and academic issues on his blog:

This essay is the second in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.

The Dorchester Women’s Program classes are smaller, but, according to Judge Sydney Hanlon, a smaller group allows for a more intimate environment in which to discuss themes of violence, illness, responsibilities for children, and unthinkable tragedies (Trounstine and Waxler, 56). At the 2009 CLTL Annual Conference, Probation Officer Adita Vazquez would later share a similar sentiment:

In the CLTL classroom, I’m aware of what’s going on with each of these women, and I’m listening to what they tell us about those stories. And the same thing happens again and again: violence. The classroom is a special environment for them. We discuss are how they should handle it, what’s there to protect them, and how they see themselves.

At the same conference, Judge Hanlon stated that she once sat in a CLTL classroom with eight women, all mothers. At some point in each of their lives, all of these mothers had witnessed shootings, and all of them had life insurance policies on their children. “Hearing something like that changes a judge: you don’t see people the same way again.”
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Literary Discussion Helps Us Find the Words

"Communication" by assbach on flickrBeth Ayer is a second-year graduate student in the Professional Writing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She is the in-coming editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds.

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”  – C.S. Lewis

Literature’s involvement in our lives is more than that of a record. It is more like a portal to places we know but perhaps in our flurry of living forget how to access. It also helps us talk to each other about our world and about ourselves. I am new to CLTL and have yet to enter the classroom, but already it has been a welcome reminder of literature’s unique power and profound individual impact. People can come together around literature as around a fire; it connects common experience and ignites discussion.

Surely even a skeptic of the program would have to admit – good must come from this. But, some might ask, how is reading meaningful to our lives?

Meaning can be the result of things we do or things we build, of anything that requires notable effort, concentration, and patience. It often appears as a result of an object or action’s direct relation to us.

But often meaning is not simply found and must not only be sought after; it must be made. Literature is this way. Surely a book means something much different to its author than to its audience. The physical book itself may just as easily be seen wedged beneath a table leg as found firing synapses in a reader’s brain. So, for readers to detect meaning they must stand up to meet it — bringing past experiences, prejudices, fears, and future hopes along with them. Continue reading