What Happens at a CLTL Meeting

by Rachel Wicks

This past Wednesday, I got the exciting privilege of being able to sit in on one of the CLTL program’s meeting. Ever since I received this internship, I’ve been curious as to what actually happens at these biweekly events, so when I learned that one of the branches of the program met at UMass Dartmouth, I knew I had to check it out.

Arriving an hour late due to my evening class, I was quickly ushered in and allowed to sit between the two men running that night’s meeting: Chuck Zalewski, a defense attorney from Fall River who has been with the program for over twenty years, and Wayne St. Pierre, a recently retired probation officer who continues to volunteer with the CLTL because of how strongly he believes the program can, as the program’s title says, change lives.

Both men were running Wednesday’s meeting because the usual facilitator, Dr. Robert Waxler, was unfortunately in the hospital. We wish him a speedy recovery and our thoughts are with him always.

The first thing I noticed at the meeting, however, was that it was by no means a classroom setting. When I had first heard that the program was based off of literary discussions, I immediately imagined the experiences I had had in my own college career, in which the professor would verbally poke and prod a classroom of twenty tired students, hoping that not only would someone eventually raise their hand but that maybe they had actually read too.

This was not the case at the CLTL meeting.

Although not every attendee had finished the book completely, the meeting was positively bustling with discussion. People were contributing because they wanted to, to the point where different voices were overlapping each other and laughter rung out in the small conference room.

Never in my life had I imagined that a discussion about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea could be so riveting.

Interestingly enough, what also caught my attention about the meeting was that the questions posed by the moderators were not simply questions about the exact content of the book. Sure, parts of the discussion were based on the main character’s thoughts and actions, but often times Zalewski or St. Pierre would ask a question that extended beyond what was written on the page and depended entirely on reader interpretation.

For example, the attendees were asked:

  • Did the main character go too far?
  • Does his determination spell out a sort of death wish?
  • Could his mind have been changed at any point?
  • What will happen after the end of this book?

That last question stood out in particular to me because it reflects one of Dr. Waxler’s beliefs about literature. Waxler says that a good story is like an iceberg, with perhaps 10% above the water while the other 90% remains below the surface. Anyone can read through a book and see the easily visible 10%, but the CLTL meetings encourage people to dive deep into each story and explore the other 90%, asking themselves questions that have no right or wrong answers but that are still based off the characterization and symbolism in the story.

The attendees also seemed to have little problem with this more thorough and in-depth exploration of literature, since they had fascinating theories to contribute and would often pick up on topics to discuss that the facilitators hadn’t even gotten around to mentioning yet.

Imaginably, it is through this process of uncovering the hidden 90% of each novel that allows for the CLTL program to be so successful. Started in 1991, the program was built off of the very idea there was a certain power within literature that could positively affect the way people think, feel, and relate to the world. This small inkling of an idea began just with Dr. Waxler and St. Pierre, and after convincing a judge to give their plan a shot, the CLTL has now grown to be the multi-faceted program it is today, truly living up to its name by changing people’s lives through the power of stories.

As Zalewski stated near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, “We’re learning as much from you as you are from us.”

For the next meeting, the new reading assignment is Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley, in which the process of digging into that 90% continues.

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John R. Manson — Carl Robinson Award

Changing Lives Through Literature was awarded the John R. Manson — Carl Robinson award last week. The award is presented to those who have made a significant contribution to the field of criminal justice within New England.

The award joins a long list of accomplishments for the program including an Exemplary Education Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a New England Higher Education Excellence Award from the New England Higher Education Board, and articles in The New York Times, Parade Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times.

The program’s greatest accomplishment is the thousands of men and women whose lives have been positively impacted in the two decades since the program’s inception. Having been provided with the tools necessary to succeed, graduates of the program have gone on to continue their education and find new jobs.

In addition to recognizing the program’s success and the hard work of all those involved, this award brings awareness to the potential literature has to offer–not only for criminal offenders, but for society on a whole.