In the Long Shadow of Schooling
By Taylor Stoehr (profile)
I work in the Men's CLTL Program at the Dorchester District Court, where we have averaged twelve or fifteen graduates each semester for the last ten years. The great majority of our students are people of color, primarily African Americans, and our readings have been chosen with their experience in mind. The primary text is Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, which serves as the starting point for discussion of problems faced by the students themselves: poverty and racism, the struggle for social justice, family breakdown, and the weakening of community bonds and thinning of spiritual sustenance.
Short supplementary readings by other authors - black and white, American and foreign, contemporary and classic - clarify issues Douglass raises by putting them in a broader context, and a writing assignment helps us focus on their relevance today. For example, after reading how Douglass describes his childhood, and how Malcolm X, Bill Russell, Maxim Gorky, or Leo Tolstoy describe theirs, students are asked to state their own opinion of what is necessary for a "normal" childhood, and who has the responsibility to provide it. What was your childhood like? What kind of a father do you want to be? Those are the implied questions. We also ask how a man like Frederick Douglass or Malcolm X finds himself. "Where do people get their courage, self-esteem, and righteousness?"
At the beginning of each of our ten classes, all of us (including the staff of four or five) write for 10 to 15 minutes on a follow-up question, and then we break into small groups to discuss our answers. That's our routine every night, with an occasional full-class debriefing at the end of a session. Although we face many problems every semester, and are sometimes at a loss for solutions, by graduation time we're convinced that most of our probationers have changed their attitudes toward school, toward themselves as students, and toward their worthiness as citizens. Obviously, for all of us, the primary aim is to reduce recidivism, and the evidence so far is encouraging, but in what follows here, I want to address another kind of concern and outcome that arises in such a program.
It sounds nice to say "Changing Lives through Literature," but you could also call it being "Sentenced to School," as newspaper writers gleefully do in their feature stories. Is our program then just another round of schooling, sending probationers back where things first went wrong for so many of them, baffled and humiliated kids, now in adult bodies? The courts want to "teach them a lesson" just as school used to do, though with a heavier hand because mistakes have become offenses. Whatever alternative phrasing we may invent for it, these men are certainly being asked to submit to re-education, remediation, rehabilitation - another form of schooling that assumes there is something wrong with you. Given their typical histories and present crises, it's not surprising when probationers agree with this diagnosis and regard themselves as failures in both school and life itself.
But that doesn't mean they want to be reprocessed. The educational sorting and labeling system put its "rejected" stamp on most of them long ago, withholding the rewards that more docile pupils collect after investing twelve to twenty years in school. Although we might wish to solve their personal, social, and economic problems by trying once again to put them through the mill, like flawed products bumped off the conveyor belt, it's not going to happen.
If you ask Dorchester probationers, they'll tell you that more and better schooling is the only route to social change. Therefore, they are in favor of policies like affirmative action and scholarships for minorities, though most of them would prefer simple fairness and equal funding for rich and poor, no matter what race or ethnicity. But this is not a self-interested attitude because our students are convinced that it is too late for them. Despite their liking for the CLTL program, their belief in education has the same ring to it as the fantasy of winning the lottery.
"More and better schooling" is easy to say, but would increased funding for inner city schools change social roles and economic fates for more than a very few youngsters? Not while our educational policy remains obsessed with tests and grades. Any ranking system automatically guarantees that most students will fail to achieve the goal set for them all: the "perfect" score. Not everyone can get an "A." There will always be some who get a "B" or "C," and even without the class and ethnic bias endemic in curricula and pedagogy, still others will fall below the level of normal for completely arbitrary reasons, to be labeled ever after as incompetent or incorrigible. It's a self-validating system. High achievers on tests are handed on to be groomed for other kinds of success, while low achievers, to protect what's left of their pride, typically close down curiosity and initiative, whether by pretending to understand and care about their studies or by sullenly refusing to go through the motions, choosing to be an outcast rather than a loser.
It all ends up on your record. The report card may be a milder form of public ignominy than criminal conviction, but it often serves similar ends. The following story, told by Neville, a recent CLTL student, illustrates how the system works:
"I loved school, but I just felt like I couldn't learn for some reason! I had so many dreams as a little boy. I will never forget once when school was just about to let out, they passed out report cards in the Third Grade. And all the kids, my friends, were so happy about what they had gotten. And I couldn't wait to get home to show the family! When I opened it to see what I had, which were all Fs, my teachers saw me just cover my face and say NAW! They let the class out and came to me, and gave me a long talk about trying a little harder next time if it meant so much."
This memory dramatizes in a single tableau what happens to many students more gradually over years in school. However well meaning teachers may be, routine drill, testing, and grading inevitably kills the spirit and blames the victim. When Neville's teachers convinced him that his failure was his own fault, the result was not that he tried harder, but that he gave up trying altogether.
"I would say I'm a weak person, and only because I really never learned how to read or write like others, which has kept my self-esteem down for many of years! And I really don't know how to spell. I believe if I was strong like others that really don't do anything with the smarts they have - Me, I feel like I was let out somewhere along the line."
Of course, the grown man in front of the judge will have done something much more reprehensible than the boy crying at his desk, probably breaking his own moral code as well as society's. He knows it and is usually ready to acknowledge his guilt, though often in the same confused and despairing way an eight-year-old boy admits he deserves the row of "F's" on his report card. Be that as it may, once judged and sentenced, the schoolboy/probationer goes through life with the black mark on his record. With "F," it's hard to get a good job, with "Felony" it's hard to get any job.
Back in school for the ten weeks in our program and now faced with probation officers as well as teachers, a "weak person" like Neville won't risk being made a fool again if he can help it. Are we hoping to reverse his downward spiral? If so, what can we offer him that doesn't threaten his autonomy and self-respect, by once more taking his fate out of his own hands?
CLTL confronts students with ambiguity as well as indignity: Is the program actually part of their punishment, disguised as rehabilitation? For men who may not have finished high school, and perhaps never read through an entire book, the prospect of ten weeks of Literature can be daunting. Maybe six months on probation would be easier. Ironically, quite a few of these men are proud of their street smarts and can hold their own in any contest that depends on a quick mind and a glib tongue. They come into our classroom with an attitude, relying on their wits to convince us that they are doing their homework when they are shirking it, while others drift to the back and pretend to be asleep. This is the way life has gone for many of them - dodging and bluffing, evasiveness alternating with bravado.
How can we get such seasoned cynics to give Frederick Douglass a chance? No one ever learns anything important through coercion, as they have proved over and over again already. Old-fashioned schooling is not the answer. But because their resistance typically began in school, it may be that our probationers do need to work through a new set of attitudes toward education, not for the sake of catching up with their former classmates, but to find ways of regaining respect, while dealing with the anger, humiliation, and self-pity that have been the chief results of their schooling up to the present. Their initial resistance is not a bad start; indeed, it is probably essential to this process.
Keep in mind that these are not hardened men, like TV mobsters. They've been recruited to our program because their probation officers think they're ready to turn a corner, frightened by prison or by sudden moral vertigo. A few are still cocky, more are simply numb; but smiling or deadpan, probationers come to CLTL deeply shaken by their encounter with judgment and punishment. As one man wrote recently,
"Being in jail is like being dead with your eyes open. Just like if you're dead at a grave - people come to visit you, bring you gifts, cry after visiting, and on the street maybe twice a week your name will come up and they'll reminisce over you and spill some liquor for you - but don't they do that for the deceased too?"
If there is ever a time when a man can admit that he needs to change, it is after he has hit bottom. In his own moment of trial and despair, Frederick Douglass put it this way:
"Behold a man transformed into a brute!....God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, get clear, I'll try it...I have only one life to lose...It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming."
What Frederick Douglass did was to resist punishment, the whipping that a professional slave-breaker set out to inflict on him, and this led to a renewed sense of manhood, and ultimately to his freedom. This is a complicated lesson for men who have never been under the lash but whose manhood and freedom are certainly in jeopardy.
Whether or not it's your own fault, the feeling of despair is pretty much the same for all of us. The night we arrive at this passage, relatively late in the semester, we ask our students, "Why do some people cling to their anger, pride, or self-pity, while others are able to find something new to believe in?" It takes eight weeks to get to this point, when our students are ready to talk about what it means to hit bottom, at the end of your strength, spiritless, beaten. By this time they have gotten to know Frederick Douglass well, watching him grow up, learning to read on the sly from white boys in the street, standing on the auction block, and discovering what it is to be a slave. His story stirs the imagination, and his crisis of spirit moves them because it echoes their own sorrows and defeat, and renews their courage.
Reading and talking over these pages, a few short chapters each week, might not seem like a great achievement to an outsider, hardly the basis for such a grandiose claim as "Changing Lives through Literature." It's not how many pages we turn, however, but whether they can serve as a framework for understanding and compassion, Douglass's example encouraging readers to confront their own crisis and despair. You might say that his Narrative provides the musical score for a chorus to which each man adds his own voice. This is what culture is all about. In any case, by the eighth week of the semester, our class has developed the mutual trust students need to tell one another their own stories of hitting bottom, in response to Douglass's desperate tale.
I am jumping ahead of myself here, from the first to the eighth week of the semester, in order to make it clear what part literature plays in the trajectory of our class. At the beginning, probationers are suspicious of the book we put in their hands. A few of them will have heard interesting things about Frederick Douglass, but all are wary of assignments and homework, no matter what fanfare introduces it. The book might win them over if they came to it on their own, but opening night, there's always someone to complain, "We have to read all this?", and you can see other faces brighten rebelliously. Eight weeks later, that same person will be inspired by Douglass to tell his own story of hitting bottom because he no longer thinks of himself as a schoolboy called on to recite. If he can use Douglass as a mirror for his own life crisis, then literature may have a part in changing his future. But before that can happen, the student must have already taken charge of his own learning experience, just as Douglass taught himself to read and write. It is of no use whatever to force a man to read a book because his own weakness and strength are pictured there. He must discover that for himself, just as he must find his own courage to change. The challenge of our course is to give students a book that they can make truly theirs, and keep it from becoming just another instrument of indoctrination.
On the first night of each new semester, almost all the questions about CLTL have to do with the amount of work it will entail, the exact nature of the reward, and the precise provisions of the "contract," which is, to them, like the terms of a sentence. Puzzled by our motives and reluctant to commit themselves, many of the men openly resist what they expect to be another round of schooling, not only complaining about the homework but also asking just what we mean by "changing lives," and why we're there. What's in it for the teachers? Once they ask those questions, they are beginning to understand that this class will be very different from what they're used to. It is not a question they ever thought to ask in high school.
We give them mixed signals. They can see for themselves the familiar schoolroom chairs, blackboards, and blue books used everywhere for student writing. We explain the rules of attendance, homework, class exercises. We hand out copies of Frederick Douglass's Narrative. But then we tell them that there will be no tests, corrections, or grades. Is it school or isn't it? Our mixed signals remind students why they have always hated school, and invite them to reconsider their attitudes toward some of its practices, long regarded as meaningless drudgery rather than a challenge to the mind. Our goal is to create a "safe emergency situation" with many of the typical alarm-bells still ringing - homework, writing in class, recitation - but no fire and no police cars racing to the scene. Each student moves at his own pace, without the threat of failure.
We do want to reconstitute enough of the system to call forth memories like Neville's of how things originally went wrong, while at the same time altering the demands and changing the stakes so that students find they can do some of the things the school said they couldn't do. Once the pressure is diminished and anxiety reduced, ordinary human powers reassert themselves. Our aim is to allow a man to think better of himself, open his mind to a brighter yet realistic vision of his world and his future. Among other things, this means freeing students from the illusion that success in school is the only route to respectability. We aren't trying to get people back on the educational track but to let them judge for themselves what it would mean to go back to school, or more importantly, to open their minds to literature without the prod of assignments and tests.
I don't mean to suggest that the change is magical or miraculous. A simple shift in attitude is what we hope for - something that cannot be coerced but must come from a probationer's own insight. To demonstrate, let me quote Neville, so humiliated in Third Grade, writing now after completing our program:
"The most important thing that I've learned is that I really can learn. All these years I've been thinking that I could not read or write. Here, look at me now! Reading and writing and spelling. And I know some of the things are going to be misspelled, but what really matters is that I keep trying my best."
Although it's true that part of our safe emergency situation includes practice in reading and writing and spelling, these are not meant to bring students up to speed in literacy skills. That's not what really matters. The hard work it cost Neville to meet our assignments had its most important outcome in his recovered self-esteem, not his spelling. Our method is to engage students over their ideas rather than their ability to articulate them. Everything Neville wrote was typed up and responded to by the instructors - his thoughts not corrected but met halfway with our thoughts, in an ongoing dialogue. This personal exchange is important to each man, and they pour over the typed pages at the beginning of every class. But it's a more public forum where the crucial change really comes for most of them, in our intense conversations about the issues raised by our readings each week, the back and forth that goes on in small groups, where each man has a voice in the creation of a public world of ideas and opinions.
Such conversations are the real core of CLTL, but exactly how they will come alive is not predictable. In practice, our small groups sometimes wander off the week's reading or slide away from the questions posed for writing. No one tries to turn the discussion back to the homework or worries about sticking to the subject, as in school with its lesson plans and material to be covered. Digression is often the most direct path to what is really important to each speaker. What students need to talk about comes spontaneously when serious listeners, sharing their concerns, are gathered round.
The troubles and follies leading up to arrest, trial, and punishment have left our probationers with plenty to brood on, but letting go of anger and resentment at what life has dealt them requires someone outside their immediate families to talk seriously with. In many cases they no longer trust their friends, and it is only in a room full of strangers that they can speak openly. Here they have no image to maintain because everyone has undergone the same harrowing experiences. No one has to pretend he is better than he is. No one has to mention his war stories or display his scars.
Using each other as listeners and witnesses, our students explore just how much of this painful experience they are ready to talk about, surprised to find so many others whose lives have been even harder. Staff members also do the reading and writing, to claim our stake in group discussion and allow us to take a role that's not merely facilitative. Each of us - including instructors, probation officers, and, in some semesters, a judge - is ready to tell his story and hear what others think, to fit his piece into the larger picture. If things go right, everyone in the circle takes responsibility for the conversation, and a feeling of membership develops in which the personal can merge with the public. Among other things, this group dynamic helps us steer clear of the confessional style of therapy programs, which no doubt has its uses but is not part of our method. We avoid putting individuals on the spot and rely instead on the give-and-take of consensus building, which fosters mutual trust and shared ethics, the preconditions of belonging to a public world.
A truly democratic classroom can provide a forum for the basic cultural work every society must do for itself, the proving grounds of literacy, taste, and practical ethics, none of which is simply inherited from the culture one is raised in but must be continually created and re-negotiated in public discourse, wherever groups come together to air their attitudes and beliefs.
The primary arena for such cultural work was once the church or the town meeting, the marketplace or the theater. Today, for better or worse, the modern classroom has become one of the few public settings where ideas are taken seriously. Here, if anywhere, standards of conduct can be scrutinized and assessed, in literature, history, and philosophy.
Except for our classroom, these men have almost no place in their lives where they can join a public gathering to talk seriously about values, consider them in the light of common experience, and work toward a viable ethics founded on primary community feeling. Such public conversation is missing in contemporary society and not just among the men whose lives on the street have led them to the courthouse or jailhouse. Even so, the lack of practice of witnessing direct and honest public speech has not killed the impulse, once the right conditions are provided. Ten years experience in our program has shown us that, even on the first night when everyone is full of anxiety and distrust, all that is necessary to revive serious speech is awareness of our common plight, well-lit boundaries, a brief period of quiet meditation and writing, and a small circle of other faces ready to listen.
All students have the right to success in this kind of classroom - not just an opportunity to learn, but active exercise of language, taste, and ethics, finding their own individual powers and ideals in relation to a growing sense of how others speak and judge and evaluate. Failure means being left out of the most important function of civic life - deliberating and legitimating standards of behavior. I leave it to the reader to decide how successfully the American classroom performs these crucial cultural functions for the average citizen.
In our Dorchester program, we rely on the community formed during the semester - being part of a group discovering its virtues and strengths. This social awareness is a source of support and public validation. The goal is not to realize or prove oneself as this or that kind of person, but rather to create a group identity that goes beyond labels like Black or White or Brown, Offender or Victim, Success or Failure. The students profit most of all from the simple act of coming together to talk about their own plight as citizens judged lacking in the virtues that give society its coherence and stability. Struggling to understand what the world offers, demands, owes, or withholds from them, and sharing their opinions with respect for other voices and views, they can learn to take themselves seriously in a new way. If they do, their lives will have changed.