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: allanmcdougall.wordpress.com.


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.”

Sheila and I also met at the Dorchester courthouse. Sheila is an amateur poet, described by her Probation Officer, Pam Pierce, as, “one of those girls who is so smart and so talented that you really just can’t understand why she is in trouble with the law.” Sheila contrasted her early experiences in the class with the transition she saw in other students:


There was a lot of closed-minded girls that were in the class . . . there was some girls, the things that we were reading, they words they used, you know, especially like the books about slavery, you know how they used the old-time words, you know. And how they would word it and the girls were like offended. But they learned and they changed and they became more open . . . in the class you could see that everyone became more open-minded.

Sheila is still close with one of the girls from the class, but also shared an interesting anecdote about a chance meeting on the subway:


But I do see a lot of them in passing and I do say hi and things like that. And one time I saw a girl on the train, and she was reading! And I have to tell Pam that, and I have to go up to her and tap her in order for her to put her head up. She had like a thick, thick book in her hand and she was reading.

Unlike Ken, Sheila discussed lasting bonds with her classmates, which is unsurprising considering the Dorchester women’s class is five times smaller than the men’s. Yet, more importantly, Sheila’s anecdote on the train shows that CLTL students form lasting bonds with books as well.

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7 thoughts on “Voices from the Table: Sheila

  1. I like the idea of the classroom environment impacting individuals. The combination of the personal influence of books with the social influence of the classroom is powerful. It is great to hear the individual responses from students.

  2. Yes, for me the interrelationship between what the students are reading and their own experience is what makes the CLTL classroom unique.

    Allan– it is fun for me to see the program I teach — Dorchester Women’s — from another’s perspective.

  3. A lot of what I’ve heard during my research on CLTL involves context. I think it’s just as important as the literary readings themselves. Here are elements I see related to the CLTL context (please add what you think I’ve missed): the legal process leading to the CLTL option, travel to a college/university campus, sitting in a college classroom/boardroom, discussing issues with professors as peers, discussing issues with probation officers as peers, discussing issues with judges as peers, writing assignments, discussing writing assignments, reading other writing assignments, receiving a published edition of writing assignments, graduating from the program. All of these aspects of the program go well beyond the printed pages of the books students read.

  4. Allan: I think everything you list here ( your comment above) is relevant, but the core of the CLTL program remains–and it is central I believe–i.e. the reading and the discussion of literary texts

  5. Pingback: Voices from the Table: Veronica « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing Lives Through Literature Blog

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