Avril J’s comment on my last post on the seriousness with which many Americans take their literature reminded me of an experience we shared ten years ago when I was writer in residence in a prison where she was teaching. We became interested in Changing Lives Through Literature American project lead by Professor Bob Waxler of the University of Massachusetts. There instead of prison, some offenders – armed robbers, thieves – were sentenced to a twelve week seminar on Modern Literature lead by Bob Waxler.
At that time I was reading substantial literature to and with the women in my care and delighting in the reactions and changes of view that that brought about. So we inaugurated our own small Changing Lives project from the inside. Of course this was different. Even if they did volunteer for my project my students had no option but to be there in prison.
In Boston prisoners up before certain judges participating in the scheme, were allowed to choose the Changing Lives project instead of a custodial sentence.
This groundbreaking initiative came about after a discussion between Professor Waxler and Judge Robert Kane (I think it was after a game of squash or tennis or something) when the Judge bewailed what the swinging door experience where he sentenced people again and again they came back through the swinging door of his courtroom. Bob Waxler said that the judge should sentence them to six months in his seminar room and maybe the door would swing less.
In the American way, this came about. If you are interested in the details of this and its qualitative success, read my article Erasing The Chasm between Bench and Dock which is on my website (link below). You could also look at their now very sophisticated Changing Lives Website (also link below)
To cut a (very) long story short on blustery, hail-ridded spring, Avril and I eventually went to Boston to visit the project and talk to Professor Waxler, Judge Kane and their colleagues about the realities of this idealistic project.
Three reverberating memories of this seminal visit are
- being cut down by vicious hail-ridden wind on the city’s crossroads
- coming into the glittering city at night,
- and having dinner – early, in the American way – with three judges and two probation officers where the table full of very good talk.
But the most important memory is sitting in the University of Massachusetts, at an almost Arthurian round table alongside eight of the Changing Lives Students, two of the Judges who had sentenced them and two of the Probation Officers responsible for them. The ringleader was the charismatic but laid back (even then I thought this an impossible combination…) Bob Waxler.
The table was round, the ethos was democratic. Everyone – not just the students – everyone had to have read the book and around this table no one had more authority or more right to be listened to than anyone else. They had read the Raymond Carver short story. What Do We Say When We Talk About Love?
The discussion, discreetly chaired by Bob Waxler, was fascinating. This was session twelve of a twelve session course. It was clear that a great deal had been learned by everyone around the table. No-one shouted over anyone else. Each person listened. The discussion was wide ranging and disciplined and lead by the students, who had read this story with an unmatched intensity and expressed unique insights and views which came from their own lives in their home districts.
And later, one by one, the participants told us how the experience of Bob Waxler’s course had changed their lives. The judges told us how their attitudes and understanding had been altered by their experience.
Thank you Avril, for reminding me of all this. The memory raised my spirit in a hard week when the venal media circus of the forthcoming election is grinding to a start.
I just had a thought. This would all make a fantastic film. It would out-poet Dead Poet's Society. Too idealistic for the modern age? We need some idealism.
(NB I didn’t have a picture of a round table so I included a picture of a house in the historic Back Bay in Boston – another part of our Boston adventure…)
To read my full article Erasing the Chasm Between Bench and Dock
To discover more detail of the Changing Lives Through Literature Project click on their website: