Formation of a Human Being


by: Charles Bolthrunis

I’m a 72 year-old guy with lots of grey hair. I imagine that most of my life is behind me. There have been many memorable moments in my life: my wedding, the birth of each of my children, graduations, deaths, the usual material that lives are made of. But there’s one simple event that most might consider quite ordinary that is still right up there among all those important moments. After almost 60 years I can see it as clearly as the day it happened. This memorable moment was my high school sophomore home room teacher approaching me one morning and making a suggestion. I’ve forgotten her name, but I can still picture her face and hear her words.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I was preparing for a future in engineering. I loved math and science; I hated English. I got A’s and B’s in the technical subjects and struggled – I mean STRUGGLED – to get C’s in English. I couldn’t stand grammar. I could never get the rules straight and diagramming sentences made no sense at all to me. I didn’t know the difference between an adverb and a preposition. Clauses and phrases had me totally baffled. It seemed all such a bore and so useless. Reading Beowulf, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Pope were unbearable. The classes seemed endless.

One morning this homeroom teacher came up to me and suggested that I sign up for honors English. I thought she was crazy. I knew she was crazy and I almost told her so. When I questioned her judgment, she explained that I had good grades in my other subjects and that she thought I would benefit from the class. Then she turned away with a sly grin on her face.

For some reason I trusted her and I signed up for honors English starting in my junior year. After about two classes, I was slightly bemused. No more sentence diagrams! No more memorizing the difference between adjectives and adverbs! No more learning rules for punctuating different types of clauses! We read stories and plays and novels. After four classes, I was sort of enjoying it. By the sixth class, I was sold. I was becoming an enthusiastic participant. Most of our classes were discussions of the literature we had read between classes. What was amazing was that there were no right or wrong answers. Every opinion had some value and the teacher actually listened to and considered what we had to say! We also learned to consider differing opinions and form our own opinions and taste. Then we polished our thoughts by writing them down. It was enjoyable to learn the rules of clear writing when you actually had something to say and wanted passionately to convince someone else.

I found that I actually did have something to say. I had opinions and I could defend them against differing opinions. I began to develop my own sense of taste and to be able to judge a good performance from a bad one. I’ll never forget the time I read a book review in the NY Times and judged that it was poorly written. I think I was sixteen at the time. I was tempted to doubt that a teenager could pass judgment on a Times writer. Yet I was sure I was right. The way he wrote violated what I had been taught about the structure and purpose of book reviews. More importantly, the article was unenlightening and difficult to read. For the first time I had made an independent judgment unsupported by a higher authority. This gave me enormous self-confidence. I could judge on my own the value of what someone else had written — even a piece published in the Times! This was a new world for me. It was a very different world from math and science where everything was simply right or wrong. In those subjects, there was no room for opinion. Value was measured only by whether the answer was correct. This was a much more subtle world of thought. It turned out to be my gateway to emotional maturity.

I went to a Shakespeare play and discovered that I actually enjoyed it. I found that after studying it in class, the words weren’t quite so strange and could understand what was going on on stage. What is more, I began to identify with the characters and their situations. I read War and Peace; not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I started to absorb grammar and punctuation, not by memorizing or drilling, but by simply reading good material and trying to put my thoughts down on paper clearly and in an interesting way.

In my high school freshman year, my father had become very ill with a heart ailment. He died just as I graduated from high school. As a matter of fact, he couldn’t come to my graduation because he was on his death-bed. For my passage into manhood, I was on my own. After all, what teenage male would ask his mother anything? Math and science weren’t much help either. I began to nurture my budding interest in literature and the arts. I got cheap single tickets to plays on and off Broadway like Shaw’s Saint Joan, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and Anouilh’s Becket. At the same time, I was reading and going to Shakespeare plays for enjoyment and enlightenment.

I saw Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 off Broadway. Just as I was reaching adulthood, I saw the conversion of Prince Hal from a dissipated wastrel to a responsible ruler because of the duty that was thrust upon him. I also saw the difficult choices that that raised and the pain suffered by his old drinking and wenching buddies. I discovered Hemingway, Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dostoyevsky. I was learning all the possibilities of what it means to be human. As my own personality was blossoming and I was confronting the complexities of adulthood, I was reading about those complexities and the enormous range of possible ways of dealing with them or not dealing with them — and the consequences of each. Literature taught me how to be human. It was an amazingly exhilarating time in my life and I look back on it with great fondness.

I now survey a life in which I made my living as an engineer. In engineering, my career went much further than it might have because of my ability to express myself clearly in words. I still believe that the most important engineering subject is English.

Although I made my living as an engineer, I did not live as an engineer. My inner life has been much, much richer than that. I’ve spent many years studying philosophy and theology and I’ve kept my passion for good theater, art, and literature. I attribute any ability I have to empathize with other people to my early formation in good literature and art. i find it difficult to fully express how literature and the arts has expanded my personal horizons and how they have enriched my emotional and intellectual life. I can promise that literature and the arts will blow your mind — and your heart — if you only plunge in with an earnest effort. The effort will get easier and you will be rewarded beyond measure.

By the way, I recently read a new translation of Beowulf and listened to a recording of the translator reading it aloud. It was thoroughly enjoyable.

Charles Bolthrunis works as a consultant for a chemical engineering firm. He has a background in philosophy and theology as well as engineering, and has influenced the current editor of this blog in more ways than she can describe. He can be reached for comment here.

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The High Cost of Low-Level Offenders

By: Annie Bolthrunis, editor

After my last post regarding CLTL-type programs from people in treatment for addiction, I had a conversation with my father. He was curious about the number of people who are incarcerated for drug charges alone. The numbers are somewhat unclear, and after looking at various sources, the latest numbers indicate that about 55% of people sentenced to serve time are sentenced because of drug-related offenses. The percentage of people incarcerated is much lower, but still staggering – according to stopthedrugwar.org, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related offenses was about 24% of the prison population in 2004, with every indication that that number will rise, rather than fall.

According to StoptheDrugWar.org, “Of the nearly 2.2 million people behind bars last year, 50.5% were serving time for violent crime. That means that more than 1.1 million people were imprisoned for nonviolent offenses, mainly property and drug crimes.”

When I see statistics like this, what immediately comes to mind is, how much is this costing America? Most prisoners are Federally-run (although I’ve heard about privately-owned prisons being erected in states like Texas), and are therefore funded by tax-payers. It seems to me that more people should be upset about this, what with all the talk about tax rates circulating during this election cycle. Why do candidates like Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum support the drug war, when it’s costing the American people money? Couldn’t we cut taxes by eliminating mandatory prison terms and “three-strikes” laws in the cases of non-violent offenses?

It is strikingly clear that this is one of the purposes of Changing Lives. Of course, the main purpose is to empower people who have had their power taken away, to educate people who may not have had opportunities due to economic or social problems, and to provide support for people who need it most. However; the average cost of housing and feeding a single prisoner in the United States per year is about $25,000. Multiply that by 1.1 million prisoners serving time for non-violent offenses – $27,500,000,000 – and that doesn’t include paying guards, maintaining and up keeping facilities, and lawyers’ fees. Tw-Seven Billion Dollars, just to feed and house people who never hurt another person or animal.

The cost per day in Massachusetts to keep a person on parole or on probation is $3 to $8. The average cost per day in MA to keep an inmate in prison is $603 – far above the national average. It seems that courts would be tripping over themselves to initiate more programs like Changing Lives Through Literature in order to quell prison overcrowding and to alleviate some of the enormous cost of keeping inmates in prison.

Obviously, there are people who commit crimes who should be locked up – people who assault others, who traffic drugs, who rape and murder – those people should be locked up, and some of them should never be let out. But there are nonviolent crimes, such as prostitution and minor drug possession, that are directly related to lower education and lower socio economic status. These people don’t hurt anyone, and in many cases they may feel like they have no other choice. It seems like they’d be better served – and we’d be better served – educating these people, enlightening them, raising their self esteem, and getting them to a place where they can be contributing members of society. In locking them up we may lose them forever, either to their own despondency or to a life of more heinous crimes using tricks they may pick up while locked up with more violent offenders.

Although Changing Lives Through Literature cannot solve all of the country’s problems with prisons and offenders, it can certainly help. By empowering people who are downtrodden, Changing Lives is helping to shape citizens out of criminals. By giving courts an option besides jail, Changing Lives is helping the struggle with prison overcrowding, which helps not only taxpayers but the people who are in prison – or may end up there. By reaching out to offenders, Changing Lives is showing there are people out there who are willing to take the time to help people who are used to having to do everything themselves.

It’s become clear that our criminal justice system is flawed in many ways. I’m not a criminal justice major, nor do I have much experience with the court and court system, and I’ve never been to prison. I cannot describe these problems from first hand knowledge. I can, however, look at the facts and the figures and see that a program like Changing Lives Through Literature is aptly named – and should be similarly supported and promoted.