Tackling the Classics

By Rachel Wicks

From what I understand, the vast majority, if not all, of the CLTL programs concern themselves mainly with using books as a mean of facilitating change. However, literature isn’t restricted merely to the pages that can be bound to the spine of a book.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, literature is defined as “written works that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance”, yet nowhere in that definition does it state the requirement that the literature must come in the form of a novel. Sure, when people think of literature in general, the image that typically comes to mind is a book, but literature can be plays, poems, songs, and so much more.

Therefore, I wonder, should CLTL meetings occasionally branch away from the classic literary novels they usually teach from and aim to involve other forms of literature?

There are certainly plays that are well established within the current literary canon, such as The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, Lysistrata, or anything by Shakespeare, so delving into the discussion opportunities that these plays provide would still fall neatly alongside the CLTL’s usual modus operandi of “sticking to the classics”.

Also, considering the fact that what helps make the CLTL sessions and reading assignments so powerfully effective is that readers can relate to the characters in their fictional scenarios, the characters in plays are no less relatable or emotionally exposed than Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, John Proctor in The Crucible, or Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities.

The same can even be said of the many examples of poems already within the standard literary canon. Although poetry can sometimes lack a main character and lean more towards description, poems are never without emotion, and connecting the reader to what they read is what allows for the CLTL to actually accomplish its mission, changing the lives of real people.

However, if the CLTL were to expand its reach into the current literary canon, this still brings up a deeply important, and often overlooked, question: Should the CLTL explore literature beyond the standard Western literary canon?

As Westerners, it is sometimes easy to forget that what we consider to be literary classics is essentially a list compiled and upheld by those with a strong preference and inclusion into Western society. However, looking back on the history of literature, much of what the world considers to the literary “firsts” are of Eastern origin. The first novel is considered to be The Tale of Genji, written by noblewomen Murasaki Skikibu in 11th century Japan, and two of the oldest poems in the world are Ramayana and Mahabharata, both of Indian origin.

Therefore, with so much of the Western canon already explored in most educational or literary circles, why not expand into the Eastern canon? It’s one thing to read the usual “great American novels” and gain an understanding of the ideologies that stem from those books, but diving into the Eastern canon can also help to expand one’s worldview. It can open one’s eyes to even more that this tiny planet provides while also emphasizing the idea that, despite differences found across oceans, perhaps there are some human fundamentals in literature that naturally create the emotive bonds that the CLTL encourages and depends upon.

Now doesn’t that sound like a way to change a life through literature?

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Books that Change Lives

By Billy Mitchell

Ant Jackson

Ant Jackson

I’ve always been under the impression that literature has the power to change the way we think. We always seem to hear people toss around the idea that some piece of art can change lives, yet I’ve always been skeptical of this notion. My way that I understood it, was that while experiencing a piece of art can work to change our lives, it works in conjunction with other factors; almost as a vehicle for the change as opposed to the motivator for change.

But as I think more on this subject, where does the power to change lives exist, if not in our own minds? If a piece of art causes us to think differently, isn’t it, in a sense, changing our life?

Let’s be clear with something. I’m not talking a massive, move-into-the-forest-and-live-off-the-land or suddenly take up an Eastern religion, change. I am not stating that reading a life-changing book means that we have to alter our lives in some large way. I’m talking about smaller—but pronounced—changes that take place in our minds; changes in how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we think about a certain situation or about morality or mortality. These characters’ interactions or these settings or situations that we read about slowly begin to take shape and create meaning within us, if we let them. While it may be too romantic or grandiose to come out and say: “This book changed my life,” it really isn’t that off-base. In fact, I don’t feel it is at all. Because small changes lead to big ones.

I had difficulty coming up with a concise list of books that have changed my life. Because, as I’ve been saying, these changes are not immense. They are small, sometimes miniscule shifts in consciousness. Without reflection, they can go unnoticed.

Without bringing my whole Kindle library into the picture, I’ve included two books that I can confidently say have changed the way I think. I’m sure I’m not alone in these choices.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.

Some pretty important people have claimed Kerouac’s rambling, methamphetamine- driven scroll has changed their lives. I first read On the Road in high school and I didn’t quite know what to think of it. I knew what I was reading was good (whatever that means) but I didn’t quite understand the magnitude of what was being said.

Lyndsay Dee

Lyndsay Dee

In its most stripped-down sense, On the Road is a novel about a character in the 1950’s who travels across the country. The plot revolves around Sal Paradise, his group of friends and a number of different characters that he meets in his travels in the United States and then in his final journey to Mexico City. Holding the story together is Dean Moriarty, Sal’s delinquent friend, a representation of the Road itself.

What always catches me while reading this book is the definition of “The Road.” During my first read, I thought of it as exactly what it is: a literal representation of a road, a means in which you travel from point A to point B. But “The Road” that is so important to Sal—who, of course, is a fictional representation of Kerouac himself—is really a physical manifestation of a symbol. The Road, “The Holy Road,” is the ability for us to change our way. The Road gives us the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. The road is a means of living, as opposed to merely existing.

I’m not really in the business of recommending books, but if I was, you bet I’d be recommending this one. It may not get you to stand up and hitchhike across the country…but then again, it just might.  

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.

In the movie, “Silver Linings Playbook,” a manic Bradley Cooper has this great scene where he has just finished reading A Farewell to Arms, and proceeds to throw the paperback out the window.

“I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys,” he screams at his parents, the father played by Robert Deniro. “Can’t somebody say, ‘Hey, let’s be positive. Let’s have a good ending to the story?’”

His mother then tells him that he owes them an apology for waking them up at four o’clock in the morning to talk about the ending of a book.

“Mom, I can’t apologize. I’m not gonna apologize for this. You know what I will do? I’ll apologize on behalf of Earnest Hemingway. Because that’s who’s to blame here.”

Eifion

Eifion

I won’t lie. I had a relatively similar reaction to the ending of this novel. Although it has been described as Hemingway’s “bleakest” novel in its depictions of the horrors of war and the soldiers that partake in it, the moments of brightness that come through are what create something memorable. That, as Hemingway says, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” This is the truly amazing sentiment.

I think this aspect of brightness in a novel that is mostly dark is best summed up in a dialogue between Frederic Henry, the protagonist and Catherine Barkley, his nurse and the woman he loves:

“And you’ll always love me, won’t you?”
“Yes.”
“And the rain won’t make any difference?”
“No.”

Les Miserables and the Criminal Justice System

By Joe Suhre

If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.

Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.

dockedship

dockedship

The modern courtroom

In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.

I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.

Verbal shorthand

I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.

Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”

Javert against drinking and driving

One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.

I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.

 “If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!”

The crucible of humanity

 I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.

The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.

If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.

Victor Hugo himself stated,

“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

 

Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.

The Writing Woman and Queenie the Bag Lady

By Wendy Robertson

Recent government proposals to build large super-prisons, involving the closure of smaller local prisons like Northallerton, have chilled my heart. We all have opinions about prisons, depending on whether our views are about justice, rehabilitation, revenge, or restitution. For some people, prisons can seem hidden, secret places. But others have more personal experiences with them that may involve working in prison or having an acquaintance, friend or family member serving time inside.

Some people here in the North East will be in this position – having a sister, mother, daughter or niece serving a sentence behind bars. I know this because, over several years, for two days a week, I was Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton just outside Durham City.

Inside this prison, I worked with women from County Durham, as well as women from all other parts of the country. Generally, they were ordinary people, women you might see any day in Bishop Auckland’s Newgate Street or Darlington’s Cornmill Shopping Centre.

In fact, I was once walking down Newgate Street  when a young woman wheeling a baby in a buggy with her mother by her side  swerved to a stop, saying, ‘Hi Wendy!’ She turned to her mother, saying ‘This is her I was telling you about from Low Newton – The Writing Woman.’

When I started being a ‘Writing Woman’, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. But what happened to me in prison was the most life-enhancing, the most life changing experience. Afterwards, I was a different person, a different writer.

My job was to help these women of all ages to find their voice through private, written words on the page. In my time at HMP Low Newton we published two substantial collected editions of women’s writing – editions that traveled the length of the country. We wrote poems, prose fragments, short stories, plays. We had two open-to-the-public performances inside the prison, of the women’s work. We ran a parallel Litfest Inside at the time of the Durham Litfest. One woman had her story broadcast on the BBC. We had our own Orange Prize Project… and so on.

We had lots of purposeful fun and rueful laughter. The women learned that ‘writing down’ was making sense of things. Writing down can give order to what might be a chaotic life. In those small workshops, we all learned a lot about ourselves. Some stories, well-formed and written down, stayed in the woman’s possession and – by their own decision – never saw the light of day because the content was too raw.

These positive experiences were only possible because of my collaboration with  teacher and Head of Learning and Skills, Avril Joy, (now a published writer herself), and the compassionate support of the then governor Mike Kirby, to whom my new novel Paulie’s Web is dedicated.

Paulie’s Web is a novel, not a documentary account. But its true nature was inspired by hundreds and hundreds of days working shoulder to shoulder with a whole range of women who defied the reductive stereotype one finds in some fiction and dramas – even in some documentaries where the researchers clearly find the story they’re already looking for.

Image

My novel is not a case study. It is a work of fiction that tells a special truth in distilling the tragedies, comedies and ironies of five women’s lives, not just behind bars, but out in society. These women meet each other in the white van on their way to their first prison. In addition to Paulie – rebel, ex teacher and emerging writer – there is Queenie, the old bag lady who sees giants and angels, Maritza who has disguised her life-long pain with an ultra-conventional life, and serious drug addict, Lilah, who has been the apple of her mother’s eye. Then there is the tragic Christine – the one with the real scars, inside and out.

In Paulie’s Web, there is the light and shade that I found in prison. Likewise there is the laughter, comradeship and tears. There is the bullying and night-time fear. There is the learning and self–revelation.

The stories of these five women merge as Paulie – free now after six years – goes looking for the women she first met in the white prison van. The truth of their lives unravels as, one by one, she finds them and what they have made of their lives ‘on the out’.

On the surface, this novel might seem to be a straightforward read. But as you read, you might recognize, as I did, that there, but for the grace of God, go your mother, your daughter, your sister or your friend, who have fallen seriously foul of normal expectations of how a woman should be, what a woman should do.

The women I met and worked with took responsibility for what they had done and served their time. In their writing, they looked inside themselves, made some sense of their experience and looked to the future. If Paulie’s Web expresses a fraction of this truth and alters to any degree the public perception of women who end up in prison, then Paulie has done her job, and the novel will fulfil my hope that fiction will reach places where stereotyped facts will never reach.

After relishing and surviving academic life, Wendy Robertson became a full time writer twenty years ago. She has written twenty novels – including the recently released “Paulie’s Web” – both historical and contemporary, many short stories and continues to write occasional articles on issues close to her heart. She was writer in residence at HMP Low Newton, encouraging a wide range of women to raise their self esteem and realize their potential through original writing. She lives among the rolling hills of South Durham, in a Victorian house that has played a role in more than one of her novels. Her blog can be found here. 

A Vow To Secrecy: The Rights Of Writers And Readers

By Mary Bell

Reading is definitely an escape from stress. It provides readers with an alternative world and imagination beyond recognition. It also provides information and different insights regarding recent and past issues that affect people of different statures. A relationship between readers and writers provide an ongoing cycle of demand and supply yet some are not aware of their rights as a producer and consumer.

Being a reader also has rights. Whether big or small, a bookworm can always be harassed into reading materials that he or she might not really want to entertain or acknowledge. Below is the list of rights of an avid reader. Knowing this might not only help them choose what to read, but also help them why and how to read. These may be obvious guidelines, but it will still help those who are still not aware of their rights.

1. The right to not read.
Like any other consumers, readers can choose what to and what not to read. You are not obliged to view materials that may be offensive or does notpertain to your field of interest.

2. The right to skip pages.
A reader may skip the pages of any book, magazine, leaflet, or handbook he/she buys. This exemplifies that the reader may not be entertained or satisfied with the contents of the page or the reader might have already read the contents of the pages already.

3. The right to not finish.
Whether it’s due to boredom or lack of interest, a reader may choose not to finish a certain reading material. He/she can always replace or put a book in the shelf if it does not satisfy his/her interest anymore.

4. The right to reread.
Obviously, readers have the right to read a book over and over again. May it be for research or just pure entertainment, the bookworm has the right to read his/her books any number of times he/she wants.

5. The right to escapism
The reader has the right to turn the book into an escape from reality. Whatever topic it may be, he/she is privileged to venture into another world through the pages of a book.

6. The right to read anywhere.
Readers need not to worry about the place they read their favorite books, as long as they are not offending anyone.

7. The right to browse.
Readers have the right to browse through a book before purchasing it. This enables them to get a preview of what content the book holds and may help them in being interested about a certain topic.

8. The right to read out loud.
A person is entitled to read out loud unless an area or institution prohibits noise. Try reading out loud in your room, kitchen, bathroom or wherever you want. It helps to bring out the emotions of the material you are reading.

9. The right to write about what you read.
Book lovers are entitled to be writers too. They can write anything about the books they are reading as well as give reviews and insights on its content.

On a writer’s point of view, creating a masterpiece takes a lot of time and effort. They are usually criticized on how they write the storylines and what content they put into their hard bounded memoirs. If you are interested in becoming a writer, you should know your rights and should not be afraid to emphasize them while doing your work. Below are the rights of writers and journalists. May these lines be helpful to you and your work.

1. The right to be reflective.                                                                                                                                                                                                        Every writer has the right to reflect on what he/she is experiencing at the time. Whether it is a happy or painful experience, writers have the right to stop and reflect on the issues they are interested in writing about.

2. The right to choose a personally important topic.
A writer is has every right to write about an issue that affects him or her mostly. Giving insights on a certain topic, writers may express their feelings and insights whether it is favorable or not to a certain issue.

3. The right to go “off topic.”
Writers may choose to explore other topics that may still be related to the issue they are writing about. This gives new ideas and insights to the readers as well as aspiring bloggers and writers.

4. The right to personalize the writing process.
Every writer has the right to be recognized for his/her writing style. Remember, no two writers have the same style in writing. If so, that would be plagiarism.

5. The right to write badly.
Being an imperfect being, writers are also allowed to commit mistakes. That’s why they have a draft of their works so that they can edit it before publishing.

6. The right to “see” others write.
A writer has the right to observe other writers. This is essential for their work and may help them finish a book or article that they are currently working on.

7. The right to be assessed well.
Writers have the right to choose their review panel in order to have a feeling of fairness.

8. The right to go beyond formula.
Writers have the right to go beyond the traditional style of writing in order to create interesting and unique topics and storylines that capture the eyes and hearts of readers.

9. The right to find your own voice.
Writers have the right to find their own unique writing style in order to catch reader’s attention. Nothing prohibits a writer from becoming unique and creating his/her own voice.

These are but just simple and obvious privileges of writers and readers. We should be aware of every right and make sure to apply them whenever we feel violated and offended.

 

Mary Bell  is a law and business blogger. She is a freelance lawyer and a full time mother of two wonderful kids. You may likely find her writing about related subjects and/or writing for companies like BailBondsDirect.com that has been in the bail bond industry since 1999. She has recently blogged about Bail Bonds.

Zeiterion’s Court Program Shows Power of Art to Change

By Bettina Borders and Estella Rebeiro

One day several years ago, Katherine Knowles, the director of the Zeiterion, approached the Juvenile Court to offer the possibility for court-involved youth to attend Zeiterion performances. Ms. Knowles envisioned the Z as a valuable community resource and wanted to extend it’s reach to include everyone. In her mind, this also meant the kids most folks want to forget.

There are many words used to describe these kids, trouble makers, delinquents, “druggies,” problem kids, misguided, etc. Ms. Knowles thought that perhaps some of them could find something at the Z to facilitate “turning them around.” It sounded good to the court. Why not try it. By and large these were kids with little opportunity to attend the Z on their own resources. Thus through the vision of Ms. Knowles and the generosity of her board, an ostensibly unlikely partnership began. Under the supervision of probation, young people from our court, and often their families, began to attend the varied theatrical performances offered by the Z.

There were several permutations to this partnership, which is part of two alternative sentencing initiatives supervised by probation and the court. At one point Ms. Knowles identified an anonymous donor who wanted to have the kids attend the theater in style. A limousine appeared at the courthouse, picked the kids up and drove them around various scenic areas of the city before dropping them, and their parents, at the Z. Later they were picked up and returned to the courthouse.

At another time, the youth participating in an alternative sentencing program, Changing Lives Through Literature, read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and later attended the play, courtesy of the Z. There have been plays, musicals, storytelling, dance, theater and magic performances these youth have had the opportunity to see. But the question remains: What has it meant?

For most of these youth and their families, this is an extraordinary experience. First, they are having a wonderful experience together, one that most of us take for granted. The probation officers who accompany these youth have watched while the demeanor of these kids transforms as the evening unfolds. They are indistinguishable from the rest of the audience; polite, engaged, attentive, well behaved, well dressed, inquisitive, mesmerized by the magical extravaganzas they are watching. They are out of their “comfort zone” and yet “belong” in this new environment. It is wonderful to hear about as the probation officers report back to the court.

But the transformation does not end there. The youth are asked to write about their experiences or discuss them in groups. Each youth is excited, energized and articulate when dissecting the play or gushing over the virtuosity of dancers or musicians. Many “thank yous” by letter and by mouth are sent by the youths. Another lesson learned. These are experiences we want for all of the youth in our community and Ms. Knowles and the Board of the Z must be commended for making them accessible to those teens least likely to find their way to the beautiful Z.

Art, we know, can transform people, all people. Ms. Knowles and her board have set a high standard for accessibility to art. One that can be replicated in many other areas of our community, particularly for youth. Our youth have much to learn from its leaders and the places frequented by them. Our court certainly appreciates the efforts made by the Z to include these youth. As Ms. Knowles says at the beginning of a performance: “Let the magic begin.” Perhaps she is on to something.

 

Honorable Bettina Borders is first justice of Bristol County Juvenile Court in New Bedford. Estella Rebeiro is senior probation officer. This op-ed was originally posted in the South Coast Today.

How Fiction Helps Us Empathize

By Aniya Wells

All the arts have their own unique virtues and strengths: the tactility of sculpture, the grace of dance, the vividness of cinema, the interactivity of gaming. None of these can be entirely replicated when a concept is adapted from one medium to another, no matter how skilled the adaptation.

With all the proliferation of new high-tech art forms since the Industrial Revolution, what is it in prose fiction that has not been bested or replaced? I would argue that it is the psychological depth of understanding, the interior experience of another, dissimilar person’s life.

It’s interesting to note that if anything, this faculty of fiction only deepened with the dawn of the modern era – just as phonographs and kinetoscopes and other newfangled devices that would change our media landscape were appearing, Henry James and others were drilling ever deeper into the human psyche with more novelistic sophistication. This tendency only increased to its logical limit: stream of consciousness. A temporary rebuke followed in the form of an avant garde who rejected the notion of literary character as we had known it, most prominently Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, but also certain American postmodernists.

But the fact remains that we read to experience being someone else. Allow me to suggest that this is another, more optimistic view of what is sometimes pejoratively called “escapism.” To be sure, it is a dubious proposition that we are morally enlarged by putting ourselves in the rather dapper shoes of, say, James Bond. But nevertheless, even in the tritest cases, reading remains an out-of-body experience, a stepping-stone to a more selfless or expansive awareness.

In many cases, this can take an overtly salutary political dimension. How many young consciences have been informed by the inclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird on syllabuses across the country, opened just a little to a bigger idea of justice? True, many other mainstays of high school literature classes are more groaningly didactic than that lovely book, assigned in hopes of much the same effect, but this hardly need be the case for reading to be edifying.

There is a sort of spiritual stretching that takes place when we take seriously the lives of others. We see it in those whose provincial prejudices are stretched by real-life friendships with those outside their in-group. We see it too in the sensitivity of the avid reader, hungry for the experience of new perspectives.

This is not to say that the well-read are automatically more moral; to be sure, there are many impeccably educated villains in this world. Moreover, the purpose of fiction is not ultimately to edify but to be beautiful and entertaining. Plato understood this and was suspicious of poets for this reason. It’s important to keep our awareness of this line between aesthetics and morality. But I would maintain that they more often go together in the end, that to enter into the mind of another is to be given a glimpse of something larger.

 

Aniya Wells is a freelance blogger whose primary focus is writing about online degree programs. She also enjoys investigating trends in other niches, notably technology, traditional higher education, health, and small business. Aniya welcomes reader questions and comments at aniyawells@gmail.com.

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.

Little Trifles Like Law and Order

Winter Elliott is an Associate Professor of English at Brenau University, an institution composed of an historic women’s college and a coeducational undergraduate college.  She teaches courses in composition and British lit, and enjoys the saucier side of literature — murder, mayhem, monsters, and the war between the sexes.


At first it seems like a clear cut case of right and wrong:  a husband is murdered in his sleep, strangled to death by a rope around his neck.  His wife, who appears all “done up” to the man who discovers the victim, pleats her apron and laughs crazily.  Her alibi, if it can be called that, is so asinine as to be ludicrous:  she didn’t wake up from a sound sleep while the deed was done, and in modern parlance, some other dude did it!


While the facts of the murder seem obvious, two decent, otherwise law-abiding housewives eventually decide to hide the evidence of the wife’s motive – and whether or not justice will be done is left unclear.  This murder mystery is the subject of Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles, which she renamed “A Jury of Her Peers,” when she published it a year later as a short story.  In some ways, the title of the short story better indicates Glaspell’s point.  Even the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 did not immediately give women the universal right to serve on juries.


Thus, Glaspell implies that the two housewives in the play or short story are more truly the “peers” of the murderer, Minnie Wright, than would be an all-male jury.   Consequently, as Mrs. Wright’s peers, the two women, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, uncover evidence of Minnie’s long-term abuse and decide to hide the strangled canary that both represents Minnie herself and provides evidence of her motive – she strangled her husband as both she and her pet had been, figuratively and literally, strangled by him.


A one-act play, simple in terms of plot, characterization, and symbolism, Trifles is a frequent inclusion in college literature anthologies and on syllabi of writing about literature courses.  In this context, my students encounter the ethical dilemma suggested by the play.  As students at a women’s college, one might expect, as one of my students herself put it, that all or most of the young women would immediately side with Minnie Wright and her female supporters in the play.  This is not the case.  Students who read Trifles for the first time usually position themselves alongside the male representatives of “law and order” in the play, the sheriff and country attorney.  Like these men, students first encountering the play don’t really care why Minnie Wright killed her husband; they perceive only a crime that must be punished – regardless of the status of either the victim or the murderer.

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Mickey B Makes History in Northern Ireland

Press photo for Mickey B

Ruth Fleming is a marketing intern at the Educational Shakespeare Company.

 

Belfast-based film charity, the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC) have produced the first ever feature film to be made by and with prisoners in a maximum-security prison anywhere in the world.

 

Over the course of two years they worked alongside non-conforming life-sentenced prisoners in Northern Ireland’s Maghaberry Prison to produce the film Mickey B, a ground-breaking and award-winning modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

 

Prisoners and prison staff were involved at practically every level – from writing, staging and acting through to the production of the film. The sheer magnitude of this project is not to be underestimated, for as Sam, who played Duncan in the film, said “what was being proposed was to make a feature film with murderers playing murderers in a maximum security, category A jail.”

 

In Mickey B, the storyline of Macbeth has been cleverly reworked and adapted to resonate with contemporary society and with the culture of imprisonment in particular. The central themes of Shakespeare’s bleak tragedy – of greed and violence, betrayal and revenge, guilt and madness – have all been preserved and brought vividly to life in Burnam jail, a fictional private prison, where the prisoners control the wings and violence and drug-dealing are the order of the day.

 

The film has been controversial since the get go. People raised the issue of victims’ rights, believing that allowing these men to participate in a feature film was being unfair to their victims. A tabloid national paper ran the story under the heading “Cons Make Sicko Movie.” Even the prison authorities believed it would be impossible to make a film with the ‘baddest boys in the jail.’

 

However, taking part in the production of Mickey B has had a major positive impact on the participants. As well as gaining, for many, their first ever qualification in Active Citizenship , prisoners’ regime status improved for the better, their security classifications dropped, less prisoners committed chargeable offences (during filming) and the number of prisoners attending education for the first time increased.

 

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