Our Return From OZ: or, “How can I ever thank you enough?”

(In which a two-page class exercise on using humor to diffuse stressful situations lends legitimacy to the showing of The Wizard of Oz to adult male prisoners in a medium-security walled facility….)

Last night, we completed a class exercise called “Popular Media and Its Uses in the Identification of Countervailing Humor Types.”  The countervailing humor types are constructive and destructive humor.  This particular use was in the form of a Blu-Ray disk.  And the specific medium used was an educational film for therapeutic purposes called The Wizard of Oz.

Prior to spinning the disk at 300 rpm, I distributed the above-mentioned exercise, containing 11 questions about how Dorothy & her companions use humor in dealing with the stressful situations they need to overcome.  I wasn’t sure how these men would take to answering questions while the lights were low and they were in the process of viewing a beloved movie that most of them haven’t seen since their childhoods.

But most complied, and some of their responses were spot-on, and even surprising.  One question reads:  “What do you consider to be the funniest spoken line in the film?  Does the line make you laugh out loud?  Is the humor constructive or destructive?”  One participant responded thus:  “The funniest line is when Dorothy says, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.’  It did not make me LOL.  The humor is destructive–shows her stupidity.”  This response made ME laugh out loud.  Stupid?  Dorothy?  Whaddaya DO with something like this?  The individual in question is from a country on the African continent, so the cultural gap may explain most of it.  But he reports that he’s lived here nearly twenty years, and he’s not even out of his 20s yet.  “Aw shucks, folks, I’m speechless!”  The following day, he tells me this was his first time seeing the movie.  That, in my view, explains it all.  We who have grown up with the film have emotionally invested in these characters.  What would we have thought of them if we were seeing the movie for the first time in our late 20s?  AND through the lens of a cultural gap?  Probably the same way as this young man.  We’d see Dorothy Gale as a stupid farm kid.  When I tell him, however, that Judy Garland was playing a character much younger than her actual age, that gives him pause.  “OK, now it all makes sense,” he says.  Finally.

To the question of How Uncle Henry uses humor when dealing with Miss Gulch at the farmhouse gate, one fellow writes: “She doesn’t find the humor amusing.  This is probably destructive, because the thrust of it is that she’s talking like a fool.”

The first question reads:  “Dorothy and her companions deal with considerable stress on their journey, yet manage to work in some coping humor along the way.  Name one scene where a character uses humor as a stress reliever.”  A student writes, “When it snows in the poppy field, the Lion awakens & says ‘Unusual weather we’re having.”  Another response: “When they meet the Lion and he’s bullying them, the Scarecrow cracks wise.”  Another:  “When the Lion has to lead the way into the Witch’s castle, he pretends to be all for it, but then asks the other two to ‘Talk me out of it!’  And then what I consider to be a strange response:  “The Wicked Witch of the West uses humor when she is stressed about the ruby slippers.  She laughs as she threatens Dorothy & her dog.”  WTF?   Another student responded, “When the Lion sings his song about his lack of courage, he calls himself ‘a sissy’ and ‘a mouse.’

About five minutes into the film, one prisoner in his 50s tells us: “This is the first time I’ve ever seen this.”  Incredulous, I ask, “How did you avoid it!”  He says, “I didn’t watch TV a lot!”  Tellingly, his was the loudest and most frequent laugh heard during the showing of the film.

The following day, my ILL clerk, who is a course participant, says: “Hey, I wanted to sincerely thank you for the film last night.  I haven’t seen that in ages.  It was good to see it again.  And I am impressed with Blu-Ray!  I have never seen such rich colors in a movie before!  That was somethin’ else!”

Praise, and for such a simple thing like showing a film, and introducing folks to new technology.  This job teaches me in many ways to never, never, ever take my freedom–and all concomitant blessings–for granted.

no place like it

Why we are prison Librarians

[…in which we begin what hopefully will become a regular series of vignettes serving to illustrate why we do what we do.  This 1st vignette is courtesy of the illustrious Velva Hampson, Senior Librarian, CSATF/SP Corcoran].



“I’m doing inmate book clubs, and they are a lot of work. Here’s one insight from level 2 GP that makes it all worth the effort.

When discussing Jeannette Walls’ father’s strengths and weaknesses as described in The Glass Castle, one inmate said: “He was there. Every time I talk to my kids on the phone, my son says: ‘You being here is more important than anything you thought you needed to do that got you incarcerated.’”

For the record, the fathers in the group were the ones who couldn’t be judgmental about the parents in that book, because they kept having to compare that to their example of being incarcerated for a large part of their children’s lives.”


Which puts me in mind of part of a much earlier post on Bill Cosby’s book Come On, People! On the Path From Victims to Victors:

“As long as fathers keep going to jail, kids will turn to the streets,” Abdul concludes. “Why? Because the father’s not there to watch TV with his kids, the father’s not there to listen to rap music with his kids, the father’s not there to teach the kids why the ‘N-word’ is degrading and hateful and hurtful. Kids miss that male guidance. Nothing can replace that.”

And a Child Shall Lead Them

Now Miguel sits up and raises his hand. All of 23 years old, Miguel grew up in Boston’s south end knowing poverty, racism, crime, a one-parent family, and street life. Since coming to prison, Miguel has turned himself around, parlaying his thug existence for a Boston University degree.  But right now, Abdul has lit a fire under him and he cannot sit still.

“I’ve been listening to people here, especially the OG’s, and I gotta say something to them. Here you sit, your second and third prison terms, a lot of you. Exactly who is raising your children? You talk about how important it is to be there for them, but you’re talking about it while you sit in jail.”

Gregg says, “Hold up, young brother. You don’t know all the facts. Don’t go judging what you don’t know.”

Miguel continues. “You’re here, not there– right or wrong?”

“That’s not the whole story,” Gregg shouts back.

“Right or wrong?”

Gregg sighs and turns his head.

“Kids need that male guidance, “Miguel continues. “They need limits, discipline. They need you at their bedside for that hug and good-night kiss, they need you for answers when life gets too hard, they need you to keep them from running to the streets. They don’t need your jailhouse letters, or copies of your program certificates, or promises over the phone. They need a father, and they need him there, not here. I never knew my father. I know what I’m talking about. I ran to the street because there was no man in my way to say ‘No.’ Now ‘cause my father wasn’t there, here I am sittin’ in jail with you.”

“You were the one who chose the street over your mother and family,” Gregg says. “Nobody shoved you out the door; you went willingly. Shoulder some of that blame, little man. You didn’t suddenly just wake up in a cell not knowing how you got here. You chose this.”

“Definitely. All my friends were doin’ it, so I wanted it, too. But if Pops had been around, maybe I wouldn’t have followed the crowd so easily. You only know what you see. When everyone’s doing it, how can you know it’s wrong?”

Come On, Convicts: On the Cosby Path From Prisoners to Citizens


“Auntie Em! Auntie Em! It’s Twister™!”

“Sheep are very dim; once they get an idea in their heads, there’s no shiftin’ it.”   — Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Flying Sheep” skit.


My poor interlibrary loan clerk.  This was the man who, one solar day before the humor-as-therapy program begins, comes to my office:

HE:   “Sign me up for that thing you’re doin.’  Whaddaya call it?  ‘Happy Time’?”

“‘Happy Time’?  It’s ‘Skill-Building Techniques for Stress Reduction.’  How’d you get ‘Happy Time’ out of that?”

“I couldn’t remember all that.  All I know is we’re supposed to laugh a lot.”

So I sign him up for ‘Happy Time,’ so he can laugh a lot.

A few weeks into our program, I ask this same ILL clerk if he’s completed his ‘Observing Your Personal Humor Style’ assignment for the week.  This assignment asks inmates to be aware of countervailing humor types (constructive & destructive) while watching TV, listening to the radio, hearing funny comments or observing practical jokes in the Unit or the Yard, as well as funny things they say, do, or think.  They are to keep a tally of each time they witness or participate in either constructive or destructive humor.

“I’m still doing it.  I hear a lot of negative humor all around me is what I’m learning.  There’s so much, I’ll have to use another page!”

“Just write in the space, ‘Too many to list.'”

“Oh!  We can do that?”

“That’s what I’M doing.  Especially with my thought life.  Lots of destructive humor swirling around in there.”

“OK, good, thank you.  That makes it a lot easier.”

“So, how’re you enjoying the course so far?”

“I like it!  I like when you showed the cartoons.  I laughed at almost every one of those.”

“Happy Time.”

“You’re not gonna let me forget that, thanks!  I like that you can laugh and learn new stuff at the same time.  Just don’t expect me to do Twister™.  I was talkin’ with some of the guys.  They’re gonna push back on that one.”

It is here that we must pause our narrative, and interject some much-needed-or-the-rest-of-this-won’t-stand-a-chance-of-making-the-slightest-bit-of-sense back story. 

In the previous class I mention that, when we finally do a Laughter Yoga session, we’ll need to remove the tables & chairs to make space for laughter exercises.  I also mention that, when I participated in a laughter yoga session at Walpole Pubic Library, at the end of it all we lay on mats and practice deep, relaxing breaths as a cool-down from all the belly laughter.  But In this man’s twisted mind, upon hearing the word mats and then the word exercises his thoughts twist to Twister™.

1966 Twister GameME:   “Twister™?  What the hell are you talking about?”

HE:   “You said we had to play Twister™.”

“Never.  Mother of God!”

“You told us last class.”

“Look, I created this program.  Like I’m gonna have adult male prisoners playing Twister™ with each other.”

“Everyone else think so, too.  They think you’re gonna make us play Twister™.”

“If they think that, it’s because of you!”

This past Friday, I mention to my course assistant that the ILL clerk refuses to understand that I never referred to, joked about, or even thought of Twister,™ “The Game That Ties You Up In Knots,” by Milton Bradley.

ME:   “He’ll go to his grave believing that!”

ASSISTANT:   “He’s a bug.”  (Usage note:  In New England, “He’s a bug” means “He is certifiably and dangerously insane”).

“He’s also the one who keeps advocating for us to screen The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Hey, at least that has a twister in it.”oz twister<laughs>  “THAT’S what he’s up to!  He’s talking about twisters to make you show the film!  Whadda they call that?  Subliminal! He’s manipulating you!”


Nah.  He’s just a bug. 

BTW — Here in New England, they call it ‘Twist-ah.’  Of course they do. 

They also raise children, some of whom end up in jail believing that their rnG3Y6Librarian could even conceive of seeking written approval to supervise games of Twist-ah™ in an adult-male prison.

Humor-as-Therapy, indeed.



“I feel no comPUNction telling you this”

This happened tonight in our humor-as-therapy class.  This is a long set-u114837-op for a short pun, so take a long, deep breath….
Using PowerPoint, I show the class an image of a life preserver with the words SENSE OF HUMOR photo-shopped on.  I asked a student about the significance of this, & he said: “Because humor can save your life — AND it tastes good, too!” referring of course to a Life Saver.



Since I had a few Wint-O-Greens with me, I said “You mean these?”  The inmate saw that the mint was wrapped in clear plastic, and expressed surprise.   He looked across the room at a known punster and said “Thank God!  I thought he was taking a condom out of his pocket!”

The punster said “Don’t be silly — Why would he be eating condiments?”

This from the same guy who, a few weeks ago in the same class, when challenged to make a pun out of the paper clip he had, hands me the clip before he leaves & says “I would’ve returned this sooner, but you were going at quite a clip.”  Before I could reply, he said “But that’s OK, because you were fasten-ating.”
I’ve stopped wondering why I am the way I am.    

“Stop getting caught up in you:” Or: USING MY ENABLED MIND

Final class night. We began the cycle on March 13. It’s been a long course.

Distributed several handouts, one in particular–the quote from the novel The Exorcist— generated a great deal of discussion on how prisoners view themselves and how they might deal with those they do not get along with. The answer, so said the men, is in breaking the cycle of violence and being willing to help your enemy if they ask for your help. Two students spoke on how important communication is in these situations, and how prisoners tend to overlook effective ways of talking out interpersonal conflict.

One student spoke about how he felt that Tolkien was gearing The Hobbit toward courage, and how when you’re faced with ‘fight-or-flight’ it is sometimes the courage to walk away that takes control. Another man felt that the courage to walk way was a conscious decision one had to make, rather than relying on instinct or habit.

Another man said he has stopped second-guessing himself over the character of his associates, and now will only befriend others who are on the same change-based path. He finished by saying “For me to backslide is to commit suicide.” I reminded him that backsliding will always be a concern, because we who need to change are in a daily struggle with our old nature. The backsliding does not define one who struggles for a better life– the struggle to do better defines him. For some in your association, it’s not that they cannot mature, it’s that they refuse to mature. He who acknowledges his immaturity and still struggles forward on the right path is the man you need to walk alongside.

The PPT generated discussion about transferring into society and dealing with bigotry and prejudice against an ex-felon. When job interviews were mentioned, one man said “I’m going to produce every certificate I’ve earned during my time inside to point out the positive changes I’ve attempted to make.” He said he may not receive the trust from fellow employees or supervisors at first, but that trust is earned and “if I stick with it, the trust will come.”

The class also spoke on the anti-corrective attitudes of officers and other administrators. Some treat prisoners as untrustworthy because they refuse to see them as people. This is how some men will be seen when they try to find a job. The class agreed that dealing with that attitude while incarcerated is preparing them to handle it on the outside. One man used the balancing scales analogy: today the scale is balanced and all is well. Tomorrow, something happens to throw off that balance and the imbalance points to a problem. “Some in society paint ex-felons with the same brush-stroke: if one ex-felon is given a chance and screws up, then to them ALL ex-felons are screw-ups and not worth their time.”

Another student said “Take the focus off your conviction when job-hunting, and instead focus on the qualifications of those with whom you are competing for the job. You may not get the job, but it’s probably because the guy who did was better-qualified. Also realize that when 12 apply for the same job and you don’t get it, that means there are 10 other people who are heading back home, too, just like you. Stop getting caught up in you.”

We then turned to the remaining 28 slides of the PPT presentation — and actually got through all of them. Seven handouts, 28 slides, and constant discussion, all in two hours. It was the most productive final class night in eight years of running the program.

Finally, certificates of completion were distributed. Everyone was grateful for the three extra copies that they could use to send home. Many men mentioned over the course of the two months that they had family who were proud of their ABLE MINDS participation. Some even had family members following the reading in The Hobbit using their own copies of the novel.

‘Victor’ and I received many compliments, smiles and thank-you’s to end the night. Productive group.

PEER REVIEW: Or “No pressure, I’ll just quietly vomit in the corner over here….”

Tonight we hosted our department Manager for Library services, and a newly-hired Librarian from the Treatment Center. Our manager has attended my ABLE MINDS classes, but wanted to have the new hire sit in on a class as he will be required to teach them at his facility once he’s settled in.

Everyone except Julio was in excellent form (during the break, he told me he was fighting a cold).

Students submitted their ‘Achilles’ Heel’ assignments, then were given an ‘Achilles’ Heel: Release Day’ assignment which is due next week.

Tonight I stuck with the PowerPoint, and managed to cover 10 slides. This is the penultimate class, and we still have 28 slides to cover. But the point of the course is not to complete the presentation but to use it to generate discussion and insight. This group has taken to that concept since the first night.

During class discussion:
Sly talked about leaving his old neighborhood and starting afresh.
David said his transfer from NYC was necessary to break awat from peer pressure.
Luke said that when he’s released soon, he must apply this advice, otherwise he’ll fall into the same criminal habits “and all this ABLE MINDS sh*t’ll fly out the window.” I asked him his age; he told us 39 (surprising, as I thought he was 10 years younger based on the attitude about life that he has demonstrated).
Guy mentioned his first-degree life sentence, and how it is possible to face the fact of not going home but still be determined to become a better person.

Discussion ensued about what, exactly, to do AFTER you’ve decided to change your ways. Some said it was at this time that you learned who your true friends are. Ian said he needed to have ‘insight’ into himself first, to realize that it was his behavior and not those around him that was the source of his trouble.

Talk then turned to the concept of shame and its uses as a positive motivator. Some admitted that they felt shame over leaving their children and families in the lurch. Others feel shame when thinking of their crime. Still others voiced shame over getting released and not being able to use their freedom to stay free.

Ian mentioned how even though he was an insignificant creature, Bilbo managed to find reasonable, peaceful, and clever solutions to predicaments he faced on his journey, and how those solutions ultimately framed and defined his new character. Bill then invoked the “I must be patient with me” handout which was distributed a few weeks back. The text of the handout I obtained from the emotions Anonymous web site. I re-read this handout to the class from my lesson plan.

The question was posed: “Have you ever felt like the effort to try to turn your life around has been a waste of your time?” Alec answered Yes, but then explained that he counters those negative feelings with his hourly focus, which are family, freedom, and a changed nature.

One PPT slide asked: “Was the decision to change a frightening one for you?” The library services manager shared that she recalls the day she decided to change herself, and feeling confused about “what happens now? What am I supposed to do?” Most men felt that the word ‘frightening’ was too strong; they substituted ‘challenged.’

At the end of class, after the guests had gone, one student said to me: “We sounded like a well-rounded and wise group of men tonight! I think we all displayed the value of ABLE MINDS to your visitors.”

I think they did, too.

“There is more in you of good then you know, child of the kindly West” or, BILBO’S DEMASCUS ROAD

An anecdote from our ABLE MINDS class this evening: Slide 18 of our Hobbit PPT presentation asks: “When did your ‘moment of truth’ occur, when you finally realized that you needed to change your life?”

One man said it happened to him while housed in a prison segregation unit, where all he had to occupy himself was his own thoughts, and reading material for escapism.

Another man spoke about the emotional barriers he built while in isolation time. He recognized and accepted new priorities, while separating himself from “friends” who deserted him in time of need.

Another man asked me when my epiphany occurred. I said it was during a time of loneliness and desolation after moving away from family & friends to come to New England.

One man spoke from the vantage of being free and then being incarcerated.

One man spoke about “re-wiring” himself by constantly practicing a new way of thinking about the Other and about himself. He felt that by doing this he could distance himself from the miserable person of his past life.

When movement was called at 8:15PM, men were lingering in the classroom, still discussing the topic.

“Wow, who can follow THOSE writing skills!” OR: MY CON’S BETTER THAN YOUR CON

Tonight in ABLE MINDS, I read a random written homework submitted for the Conflict Resolution: Past Choices” assignment. After finishing the two pages, one of the students said “Wow! How can any of us follow THAT!” referring to the eloquence of the writing. My assistant pounced on that one, reminding the class that socialization is not a competition but a chance to be honest with themselves and with the THINK FIRST method. The students were kind of relieved to hear this.

One student spoke of a past violent situation involving an officer and the rough treatment of some of his personal photographs. I related a situation that happened to me a few years ago when the inner security team searched my office for contraband and left the room in a less-than-tidy state. We all agreed that prison is not our homes, it’s property of the State. Some inmates were surprised to discover that staff have similar kinds of privacy issues as do inmates. I told them that nothing in my office is mine, in fact. ‘my office’ isn’t even mine. It belongs to Massachusetts.

Tonight started off slowly, but after a few more Conflict Resolutions were read, men became more comfortable and relaxed, as they usually do.

The prison concept of ‘disrespect’ was addressed and defined, and we decided that this is an emotional trigger that is harmful to the inmate case when trying to deal assertively respectfully with an officer or another inmate. The responsibility of choosing neutral words and phrases was discussed, and the principle that “Words are actions” was reiterated by one man. Another student talked of using a tool called a “value meter,’ which allows him to prioritize. It is also an alternative way of using the first step of THINK FIRST, which is “Take stock of the situation.”

One man shared one free-world experience of completing an earlier sentence. Hours after release, he and a cousin went to a shoe store. The ex-inmate asked the salesman to help him, but the salesman was busy with another customer and said, “I’ll be with you in a minute.” The ex-inmate thought that this comment was ‘disrespect,’ because he was accustomed to being waited on immediately which was his experience with prison staff. He confronted the salesman, but luckily his cousin pulled him away and explained that this wasn’t how things were done in the free world. The ex-inmate ended up apologizing to the salesman for his actions. The salesman ended up giving him a discount because he was just recently released, and gave him a few coupons to use for the next time.

At the end of the night the concept of love conquers all was raised. A man told of his gang life in LA, and said that h was taught that to get respect you had to be ruthless. He said what he learned from that is that you couldn’t earn anothers’ respect, only their fear. He concluded by saying “The Dali Lama says ‘Love and only love can conquer hate.'” I mentioned the scene in the book The Exorcistwhere the older priest Merrin tells the younger priest Damien that it is possible to do unto others without feeling love for them. It is a human impossibility to feel love for those who oppress you. But is it psychologically possible to help someone who is unworthy of you help.

Honest responses, thoughtful written assignments, a relaxed atmosphere. Good class.

“Now if we can just get the Librarian to shut up!” OR: MODERATING THE MODERATOR

The April 3rd class was interesting & productive.

I began the night by apologizing for canceling last weeks’ class (I was spending money at NE Mobile Book Fair). I reviewed what we had covered in the previous class, which led into a lecture on the various friendships that Bilbo develops in The Hobbit.  This went on for about 10 minutes.

One of the inmate participants then continued his discussion of the ‘weather report’ concept from last week. A ‘weather report’ is how you measure your feelings and state of mind when you first rise and shine in the morning; then you monitor your behavior toward the Other accordingly. This same person also shared about his brief stay in Segregation since the last class, and how even though he was lugged for an offense, he refused to allow his baser nature and aggressive words to exacerbate the situation. Which is precisely why he spent only a few days away instead of weeks or months.

I then spoke of the THINK FIRST mechanism as a process, and of expectations; that everyone is incompetent to instantly prefect the method. Change takes time, like getting a river to run a new course. I told him it was miraculous that she was even sharing her thought life with him, because so many young people zealously guard thoughts and feelings. He thought tat he’d like to get an extra copy of the handout to send her. I gave him another.


CharacterThis served as a segue to the first handout, “It’s All About Character.” One man said he never believed that words, simple words, should be considered along the same lines as physical action, but said he could understand how words are emotionally-laden and can lead to altercations.

That’s a step in the right direction.

Another inmate spoke of how his daughter is taking the right physical steps (college) to better her circumstances, but worried that her negative inner thought life — which she shares with him — might be molding her character in undesired ways. I said that it was miraculous that she was sharing her thought life with him, as young people tend to zealously guard their thoughts and feelings. He concluded by saying that he wished he had another copy of the handout to mail to her, so I gave him another.

Just before the break at 7:15, another man voiced as how he believed that I was talking too much tonight, and not allowing enough time for others to share their views. This man took five minutes to express this.

During the 15-minute break, my class assistant spoke to another member of the class who said he disagreed that I was monopolizing the discussions. His view is that he class is just as much for me as it is for the benefit of the inmate participants. He further stated that one of the reason that he enjoys my lectures because he gets “jewels” when he listens to me. He finished by telling the assistant that he’s applying the THINK FIRST method in his daily prison life, because he will be released in a few months and wants this technique to become as much a second nature to him as possible before he regains his freedom.

When class resumed, we spent the remaining 45 minutes reading out the homework assignment called “Conflict Resolution: Bilbo’s Decision.” Each student was given a summary of the scene in which Bilbo makes up his mind to take the Arkenstone to Bard and the elven King. They were then directed to use each step of the THINK FIRST method to get into Bilbo’s head and see how he arrived at his decision. We read five of these assignments before movement was called at 8:15, which requires each inmate to return to their housing units.

Before they left, we distributed the next assignment called “Conflict Resolution: Previous Choices.” This asks each man to isolate a time in the past where they were thinking and acting in a criminal way, and then apply the THINK FIRST method to understand how that situation could have been avoided.

Before they leave, I tell them “Good class” and ask them to give themselves a hand, which they do. It’s a nice, encouraging way to end each class night.

“Not to kiss his a$$, but this is a good class!” OR, LOCAL HOOD MAKES GOOD

ABLE MINDS meets each Wednesday night for two hours in the Lending Library. Right now we have eight participants, including my course assistant. This is the advanced class, where we delve into the components of good human character. we’re using The Hobbit. Tonight marked the 2nd of eight planned classes for the cycle.

All students demonstrated the depth of their knowledge regarding the novel. To be sure, The Hobbit was written for children, but participation of this kind you do not take for granted in the Pokey. An engaged classroom is something to be thankful for. The Moderator (Yours Truly) did not dominate the conversation, as everyone had something tangible and pertinent to contribute. That’s the way ABLE MINDS is supposed to work. I don’t need to lecture; I need to introduce concepts, see where they take them, and then challenge them to come up with alternatives if opinions begin to stray in the antisocial realm.

Many of the men contributed personal anecdotes about explaining the course to family members, both face-to-face in the visiting room and over the phone. One student’s ex-girlfriend was surprised to hear that he was reading the novel, a book that she happens to know well, So now they have a common conversational thread. Another student said his sister was shocked to discover that he was reading the novel, as she has been coaxing him to read both it and Lord of the Rings (LOTR) for several years.

The men were honest and sincere. One guy held up the novel and said, “I can’t relate the story to the life I’m leading.”  But then he held up his THINK FIRST handout and said, “But I can ride with this. This is gonna help me live in here.”  (At break time, my assistant discovers that this man had difficulty reading in English, and is ashamed to admit it. I’ll discuss this with him later on).

From the PowerPoint lecture, the concepts of friendship, duty, and honor drew nearly an hours’ worth of reflection. We identified plot points in the novel where examples of these take place, and then attempted to relate these to our American culture generally and then to specific prison culture.

One individual was called out of the classroom by an Officer, and was told to bring his coat and books with him. It looked like he was done for the night. But he returned, and explained that he had the choice of remaining in the Unit but chose to come back to class because “I have an anger issue, and I think this class can give me a better way of thinking.”

Several times during the evening, I’d made correlations between The Hobbit and LOTR.  Finally, one man said enthusiastically, “Why don’t we do that book next?” which elicited some laughter from my course assistant.  I explained that we’d been using LOTR in ABLE MINDS since April 2007, and just discontinued it in favor of The Hobbit.  Feigning frustration, I said “Where have BEEN for the past five years?!” He said “Here!” which elicited general laughter.

Toward evening’s end, our discussion turned to emotions. I ventured the notion that once someone recognizes an emotional problem within himself, he must next recognize an inescapable truth about that problem, which is — It Will Never Go Away. The best that we human beings can do is work at it and hope that it gets better. A student said “And will it? Does it ever get better?”

I said that this question is probably one of the most useful questions that can be asked in a consequential thinking seminar. I asked the class to contemplate the adage, “While there’s life, there’s hope.” We’ve assembled in a course that offers troubled people encouragement and a problem-solving method to try. Like the reformed alcoholic, the problem remains but we are its master. We try. We fail. We try again. We succeed. It begins to get easier. Nothing we can ever do can make the problem vanish. But we can learn to manage it. And managing it is good enough. Knowing we have the control to make it better is enough of a self-esteem boost to get up out of bed and face each other. We give ourselves the confidence we need to face our burdens every hour of every day.

It’s a good group of men. They listen, they ask questions, and they give those answers consideration. That’s all any teacher can hope for from the classroom dynamic.