Voices from the Table: Veronica

"Progressive Bedtime Reading" by Sean Dreilinger on flickr

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 final in a series of three posts written by Allan McDougall based on interviews he conducted with CLTL program participants.

The West Roxbury courthouse women’s CLTL program is specialized for women suffering from mental illness, drug addiction or both. Veronica, a single mother, was more reserved than my previous interview subjects, Ken and Sheila. Yet Veronica’s shyness is nothing compared to her crippling inability to communicate before taking CLTL. Veronica told me, “I would never talk to nobody before; I never got along with nobody.” She continued:


In front of the class everyone would get a chance to talk about their problems. I have never opened up to people like I did with Adita, the people in my class, and Leigh, the teacher. I got to learn a lot and become closer with people. Now I’m very open.

The opportunity to share her thoughts and feelings in a reading/writing group environment changed Veronica’s ability to communicate with others. But she also told me about some other positive benefits of CLTL, specifically benefits for her daughter:


I never used to read before, now I read, I have a library card for the first time ever. I write more, read more, talk more. Reading keeps you out of trouble. I even read more to my daughter now. She loves animal books!

Volunteers like Adita Velasquez, Veronica’s probation officer, and Leigh, the Boston English professor who facilitates Veronica’s course, used a structured program of reading and writing to effect the positive changes for students in the West Roxbury program. But, as Veronica puts it, “we’re finished but we’re still not finished.” Each year, Leigh collects and publishes the best writings from the CLTL group. As in the men’s Dorchester programs, this is the first time Veronica has ever seen her writing in print.

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How does CLTL Change Lives? An Interview with Dr. Robert P. Waxler

Kids reading in Brooke's classroom

Brooke Joseph is a graduate student in education at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She has a bachelor’s degree in Humanities and Social Sciences with a concentration in Sociology and Elementary Education.

In a recent interview with Professor Robert P. Waxler, co-founder of the Changing Lives through Literature (CLTL) program, I focused on finding out how CLTL changes lives.  Three themes emerged from this interview: Putting Yourself in the Story, Becoming Friends with Characters, and Breaking Down Stereotypes.

Putting Yourself in the Story

Reading and writing can change people’s lives by helping individuals to focus and increase their awareness through self-reflection.  Waxler explained that when you are reading a good piece of literature, you often put yourself in the story and empathize with characters.  Even though during the CLTL sessions everyone is reading the same story, each individual will read the story in a different manner.  Therefore, when the story is discussed, the characters are seen from opposing angles and people “begin to understand that stories, like our lives, are richly textured possibilities.”

Although stories do not offer definitive solutions to people, they do “raise profound questions about our lives.  And as long as we continue to ask important questions, we are doing something worthwhile with our lives.” Waxler says reading the right stories helps us to “pursue our identity as if we are on a journey through life;” by “expanding our perceptions, offering new experiences and deepening our thinking, stories move us and they make us self-reflective. They offer us questions, and then the stories give us the opportunity to pursue answers to those questions.”

Becoming Friends with Characters

Dr. Waxler also gave an example of how a particular character can change people’s lives. When people are reading they allow the characters to become a part of their lives; characters in the stories “become our friends.  Their voices are embedded in our hearts.”  For example, take Santiago from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea novel. Even though Santiago does not catch a fish for weeks, he continues to wake up every morning to “fight the good fight; his endurance is admirable.”

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My Stories, My Identities: Reflections on Experiences as a Reader of Robert Cormier’s Novels

courtesy of Random House: https://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=5740courtesy of Random House: https://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=5740courtesy of Random House: https://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=5740

Robert LeBlanc is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at the University of Rhode Island. His dissertation research focuses on notions of publicness and subjectivity in Christian leftist texts. He has taught writing and literature courses at the college level.

I suppose I became an active reader at a fairly young age, and I remember looking out for interesting books at school or at the local public library. During my first few years as a reader, my interests were normal ones for a young boy in the 1980s: dinosaurs, baseball, cars. I would read or leaf through a few children’s reference books about cars or the American Revolution or the Red Sox, and then after a few weeks it was onto another topic to read about.

At a certain point this habit of reading took a turn toward stories. I began to realize that I liked some stories for themselves, independently of what topics and settings were featured in their pages. If the story was told with a certain rawness or intensity, if the words really leapt off the page and begged me to read on toward the conclusion, then I could enjoy reading a story just for its own sake.

In the fifth grade, I began to devour a wide range of young adult novels and short stories. I was enjoying—in a secondhand, readerly way—the experiences that different narratives brought to life, and I also started to develop a real appreciation for writers with a daring style. Some writers avoided the typical plots and worn-out phrases and went right for those moments of odd insight that would bring me back to certain passages again and again.

Even after I had raced through certain books, I would turn back to my favorite descriptions and stylistic flourishes within their chapters to marvel at the way the words reached out across the gap of communication to strike me with an almost physical force.

Readers who grew up as part of my generation will remember that the young adult market was at a saturation point in the late 80s and early 90s. Many classic YA novels that had defined the genre in the 60s and 70s were still in print or at least sitting on the classroom bookshelves, and new writers were churning out novels at a rapid pace.

I began to drift toward the novels of a particularly daring writer, one whose works (according to my teachers) even challenged their labeling as young adult fiction in their increasing experimentation with postmodernist form and controversial content. This writer, Robert Cormier, also fascinated me because I learned that he was born in my hometown: Leominster, Massachusetts.

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"Speak Out" by Brendan Bieles on flickr Erin Royston Battat is a Lecturer in the History & Literature program at Harvard University.  She taught the CLTL women’s class in Dorchester in Spring 2009.

When reading literature, we expect change to happen.  Change is what drives the plot.  Literary terms we learn in high school teach us to look for change, and to appreciate its aesthetic value: a “dynamic” character, the “turning point,” an “epiphany.”  As teachers, however, only rarely do we witness a student’s dramatic intellectual or spiritual awakening in our classroom, before our very eyes.

Instead, we must trust that the seeds we plant today will bear fruit sometime in the future, coaxed and nurtured by other teachers, different texts, and new experiences.  Accustomed to seeing teaching this way, I was awestruck by the profound transformations experienced by several of my students in the Changing Lives class in Dorchester last spring.

One student came to the first class consumed by fear and anxiety, deeply ashamed of her poor literacy skills.  “When I first came to class I was nervous, and scared to read out loud,” she remembers.  “After the first class, I said, ‘I am not going back’…I cried and I cried.”  This student did come back, however, and she had the courage to ask for help. In doing so, she provided the first bit of gel that would bind the students into a community.

In her simple way, she describes this process of writing and community-building: “I felt shy when I read my poem out loud, but people laughed and I liked it.  I liked listening to the other women.  Sometimes I learned something from them.”

A dramatic moment on the last day of class—a moment that seems more the stuff of literature than real life—testifies to this student’s growth.  We were visited by the Chancellor of the University, whose imposing figure is surpassed only by his booming voice and larger-than-life personality.  He filled the room.  All of us held our collective breath as this woman, who refused to read aloud from the syllabus two months before, read an original poem to the highest ranking official at UMASS Boston.

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