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.
Another student was unable to even start her first homework assignment. After years of substance abuse, her mind was rusty, burnt, seemingly incapable of creative expression. She spoke only of her struggle to stay sober; it seemed that nothing else could penetrate her consciousness. Yet this student came to every class an hour early to get help with her homework, forcing her mind to consider stories and characters outside of herself.
Over the course of the semester, as the winter turned to spring, her mind seemed also to thaw, slowly, subtly. In her analysis of “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, she wrote of a mother “engulfed with guilt about what she did and did not do” for her daughter, and connected this story to her own childhood, and its “days of struggling.” These carefully chosen words indicate the stirrings of emotional and intellectual life that seemed dormant on that first day of class.
Finally, a woman in her mid-twenties came to class with a great weight on her shoulders. Her mother’s drug addiction had destroyed everything in its path, and she was left to pick up the pieces. Several years before, she was faced with an impossible decision: whether to continue her college education, or to take legal custody of her younger brothers and sisters. To her, there was no choice.
I watched this student’s face as the judge told her own story about dealing with an unstable parent. There was a look of astonishment tinged with a dawning hope: Even a judge can suffer a terrible childhood? Maybe I, too, can make something of myself? By the end of the semester, this student had enrolled in community college, confident that even though her mother failed her, she was not doomed to repeat the past.
I feel deeply grateful to have witnessed these transformations. They testify to the power of literature, and to the importance of storytelling in the building of community. These changes, however, are hard to measure; they don’t translate easily into statistical evidence, or proof that Changing Lives reduces recidivism. It seems somehow fitting that like literature itself, Changing Lives works in subtle, ambiguous, and deeply personal ways.