Bob Schilling is a defense lawyer and former assistant district attorney who lives in New Bedford. His practice is now in the New Bedford District Court and in the Juvenile Court handling delinquencies and ‘youthful offender’ cases. He has a daughter in New York City and a son at UMass Amherst.
A former colleague (an assistant district attorney) recently asked me if I was still involved with Judge Kane’s “bleeding heart book club.” We both laughed. In a more serious vein, he went on to ask whether I thought he might enjoy it, because he is approaching retirement and may have some time to – and it sounds like a cliché but really isn’t – “give back to the community.”
I first heard of Changing Lives Through Literature from Judge Robert Kane, a brilliant, experienced, tough judge in the Superior Court; I heard him gently query convicted felons about whether they had ever taken any interest in the written world of learning, imagination and entertainment.
He spoke to these hard men of the life of the mind and encouraged exploration of the world of letters. He offered them the possibility of this program. Some, who think toughness and compassion are mutually exclusive, would roll their eyes.
Three years ago, when I retired from service to the Commonwealth, I had the occasion to do a good deal of work in the New Bedford Juvenile Court as a defense attorney. Lo and behold, I heard again of CLTL through Stella Ribeiro, a dedicated probation officer who I worked with in the “Second Chance Drug Court.” I told her that I would love to participate, finally, in the program.
I had another motivation as well, especially for working with young people. It seems to me that kids today are bombarded with media screens before they ever get the chance to experience the wonderful pacific texture of the printed page, or the interior world of imagination. There are TV screens of course, but cell phones and computers are every bit as ubiquitous. I am staggered by the number of kids that I talk to that can’t remember the last time they read anything that wasn’t rendered in pixels.
With Stella, Susan Jennings (a wonderfully creative professor from UMass Dartmouth, and a mean baker) and a dedicated young teacher at the New Bedford Vocational High School named Kelly Haggerty DeSouza, I am now with my seventh or eighth CLTL group. I am having a terrific time!
All of the juveniles who have passed through are court-referred and, superficially, very challenging. But the small groups have had extraordinary success in opening dialogue about all that life can throw at children born into the most difficult circumstances. Amazingly, virtually every kid says he “hates to read” at the outset and is happy he or she took the course by the time they graduate.
Thanks to Stella and Susan and another regular participant, Frank, for this opportunity to spend time with kids who didn’t have the same advantages we all did.