Katie Newport is the current Editor of Changing Lives, Changing Minds, and is a graduate student in the Professional Writing Masters Program at Umass Dartmouth.
A few weeks ago, we posted a moving piece of writing by twenty-nine year old Robin Ledbetter. Since the day I opened Robin’s letter and read her story, and since it posted here, I’ve struggled to find a way to “follow-up” on the Changing Lives, Changing Minds blog. Why has it been a struggle? Well, because I felt – and still feel – especially touched by Robin’s story.
Judging by the responses we received after posting Robin’s story, I was not the only one.
This month, Changing Lives Through Literature will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. It was twenty years ago that UMass Dartmouth English Professor Robert Waxler and Judge Robert Kane approached Wayne St. Pierre, a New Bedford District Court Probation Officer, to get his opinion on a theory they had about introducing literature to offenders – the beginning of a program that is now one of the longest running in the Massachusetts Probation Service.
I first heard of CLTL during my first few months as a graduate student at Umass Dartmouth. Then, as merely an appreciator of CLTL and this blog, I assumed understood the program; it’s benefits and accomplishments. Reading Robin’s story, however, made me realize I was missing something that whole time. Sure, I understood the program, but I did not understand the perspective of people who need, and benefit from, the program.
Of course, as is common nature these days, after I heard from Robin, I Googled her name and read about her some more. When I did, I came upon details about that fateful night when a desperate and homeless fourteen-year-old Robin Ledbetter approached a cab driver with a friend and demanded money.
It was the night of my thirteenth birthday.
I tried to imagine what I was doing on that night in 1996. I can’t remember now, but I can only assume it was something that – at the time – I hoped would be unforgettable. It was, after all, the beginning of my teenage years. I’m sure my parents took me out to dinner somewhere. I’m sure I wore a new outfit and got a present or two. I’m sure I was blissfully unaware.
Now, I am aware that on that night, just a couple states away, a girl who was only one year older than me was in desperate need. So desperate, in fact, that she had to steal to survive.
I am twenty-eight years old, now – only one year younger than Robin. I wake up every day in my apartment, I walk my dog, go to school, and I work on my writing every day (something that Robin and I do have in common). Sometimes I go out to dinner with friends and every week I bartend for extra income. I am a long way from where I was when I was fourteen years old. Robin, on the other hand, wakes up every day behind bars – still at the mercy of a mistake she made when she was fourteen, still remembering every detail of that particular night in 1996 and trying to repent.
After I read about Robin, I began to understand not just the “what” of CLTL, but the “why” as well. Robin has found a release in her writing, she has found a way for her voice to be heard, and she has discovered a community of people who want to hear that voice – people who recognize talent, humility, and passion in her words.
Recently, I communicated via e-mail with Harriet Hendel. Harriet and her husband Stan have become like parents to Robin, and her advocates as well – being a part of Robin’s life has, says Harriet, changed theirs. Harriet tells me that Robin feels truly validated that we have recognized her writing, and that she is now the recipient of a PEN Prison Writing Award.
I think, in turn, Robin has become part of what validates the work that CLTL has been doing for twenty years. I look forward to continued communication with Robin and the Hendels, and I am grateful to have been a small part in this chapter of the CLTL story.