Strength in the Ordinary


Tyler Ruffin is a first-year master’s student in the Professional Writing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is interested in rhetorical theory, cinema studies, social media, and has a passion for all things technology.


I recently re-watched Ordinary People for maybe the 20th time in my life. I’ve read the book, too, by Judith Guest. As a novel and a film, the story had one of the most profound effects on my life up to this point. It asks the simple question, “Why do bad things happen to people? You just do one wrong thing…” I’ll leave it to you to finish that last sentence.


The novel concerns an upper middle-class family, the Jarretts. The elder son of the family, Buck, is killed in a boating accident. Conrad, the younger of the two sons who survived the accident, is traumatized by survivor guilt. His mother, Beth, has become emotionally detached, while his father Calvin has a crisis of faith. As Conrad experiences an emotional breakdown and seeks help from his psychologist, Dr. Berger, his parents go about life in their altered states of mind. Beth attempts to keep up appearances despite her inner, silent hatred of Conrad, who only reminds her that Buck has died.


Beth is a stoic representation of the refusal to deal with the tragedies and hardships of life. Conrad, on the other hand, eventually embraces his distress. And despite his post-traumatic stress, he ultimately finds the strength to overcome what he has endured. That’s the message I get from Ordinary People: You have more strength than you think you do. It might take some digging, but all you have to do is look for it.


I would say that I’ve had a relatively tough life…in a privileged white boy sort of way, I guess. I don’t claim to have experienced starvation, homelessness, discrimination, crime, or physical violence, but I can say that I’ve not traveled a perfectly charmed road. I’ve lost a lot of things that I once highly valued, and I’m sure all of us know the feeling of having something or someone suddenly and prematurely yanked out of our lives.

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DNA Testing Frees Innocent Man after 35 Years

James Bain has spent the majority of his life in prison. He was just nineteen when he was wrongly convicted of rape and kidnapping. He was finally released on December 17th, 2009, and was honored this week by the Philadelphia Martin Luther King, Jr. Association for Non-Violence.


James Bain’s is one of many cases taken up by The Innocence Project, a national organization working to free wrongly convicted people from prison through use of DNA testing. The organization works for criminal justice reform; they not only work to free the innocently incarcerated, they hope to help fix what they see as serious defects in the criminal justice system.


According to The Innocence Project’s mission statement “249 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing, including 17 who served time on death row.”


While he has endured more than most of us can imagine, Bain remains positive in the video above from CNN, where he appears with one of his Innocence Project attorneys. “I’m not angry” Bain says.

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CLTL 101

The following is a synopsis of a web panel discussion that took place in New Bedford on September 17, 2009 and included Judge Bettina Borders, Professor Bob Waxler, probation officer Stella Ribeiro, defense lawyer Bob Schilling, Police Captain Joe Cordeiro, and Reverend Robert Lawrence. Many others participated in the discussion from around the country. Follow the link below to listen to the entire discussion and view the accompanying PowerPoint presentation.


CLTL Webinar September 17 2009

*Changing Lives, Changing Minds will return to the  normal weekly schedule on January 20.


The panelists discuss the essentials for how to start a CLTL branch in your district, book recommendations for both juvenile and adult programs, and the research (both quantitative and qualitative) that supports this 19 year old program.



Judge Bettina Borders got involved with Changing Lives Through Literature because she noticed that a lot of the kids in her courtroom “just didn’t have any tools available to them to affect change in their own lives… Things happened to these kids, not the other way around, at least that’s how they perceived it, and in a large part that’s true.”


She noticed that a lot of the kids “didn’t have any quiet in their lives.” They had no time for personal reflection; they were used to “intolerable noise, screaming in their houses and in their streets.” They had no place to observe things quietly.


To Judge Borders, that opportunity for observation, reflection, and imagination is a human right.  Access to other perspectives, possibilities, and realities is a must:


“We want our kids to be introduced and acclimated to and perhaps embrace and alternative reality from their own.” People connect through books and learn from each other, says Borders. Readers “experience beauty through description, and through their imaginations.” Reading and discussion provide program participants with a set of tools that, as Borders says, they have a right to.


What is Judge Borders’s key tip for getting a CLTL branch started? Make sure your judge is on board!


Professor Robert  Waxler puts the program in context and explains why he believes in it so strongly. He and Judge Robert Kane wanted to do something about the “turnstile justice” they saw in the court system. The program started with the idea that “literature is the most powerful tool we have” to “build a good human community.”


Professor Waxler also points out the “doubleness” he sees in the act of reading. Readers have the opportunity to “experience the narrative” and a view of life outside of themselves. At the same time, we “automatically become more self-reflective.” Reading is beneficial, but “not easy” says Waxler. It requires us to take an active role in the stories we read.


Probation Officer Stella Ribeiro calls CLTL “the most exciting part of my job.” Just imagine, she says, participants “sitting around the table  with a judge that has previously sentenced them, their probation officer who has to enforce their laws, the ‘po-po,’ and an attorney, and they are all equal, and everybody is valued, and whatever they have to say is equally important.”

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