Letter to the Editor: ‘The Power of A Good Book’

Last week I led writing workshops at a federal and at a state prison as part of the NEA’s Big Read program. We studied Ernest Gaines’ novel A Lesson Before Dying.

Washington, D.C., had chosen Gaines’ book as the one the city would read together. Washington Post staff reporter DeNeen Brown wrote a great profile of Cardozo and Calvin Coolidge high schools students who were wrestling with the book (Ernest J. Gaines’s ‘Lesson’ Prompts Teens To Grapple with Stark Realities). Brown writes:

On Monday, students at Calvin Coolidge High School in Northwest Washington created a dramatic play based on the novel, which paints the last days of the life of the main character, Jefferson. It tells the story of the town’s only black teacher, Grant, who had been asked by Jefferson’s godmother, Miss Emma, to help Jefferson gain self-respect after suffering indignities at a trial. A racist public defender had called Jefferson “a hog” during the sham trial. The word rattled Miss Emma .

Alyrah Davis, a 16-year-old junior in an orange sweater, took the stark stage in Coolidge’s auditorium to recite her lines as Miss Emma. “My baby didn’t do anything to anybody,” she intoned. Her class had just finished reading the book and Alyrah wrote her part last week. “My baby is not a hog. He’s a man. . . . That teacher and that reverend, they are going to turn him into a man by the time he gets to that chair.”

When I read Brown’s article, I knew it was a great opportunity to write a letter to the editors at the Washington Post to let them know that while our city’s teens were reading Gaines’ novel, our city’s imprisoned were also reading it and struggling with the same issues.

The Post ran my letter in today’s paper. I’m grateful to Carol Fennelly and Hope House DC, along with the Humanities Council of DC, for giving me the opportunity to lead the writing workshops. See below:

Text below (with shout out to Post copy editor Helen Jones!)

Thank you for DeNeen Brown’s excellent  profile of the District’s   celebration of the Big Read [“‘Dying’ wish: Free minds,” May 11].

While high school students were reading Ernest J. Gaines’s novel “A Lesson Before Dying,” D.C. inmates at a federal prison and a state prison in Maryland were doing the same thing. I was invited to lead writing workshops on Mr. Gaines’s book in both institutions through the D.C. Humanities Council and Hope House DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening D.C. families.

With security officers keeping careful watch, I sat down with 25 writers, many incarcerated for life. We used the opening line of Gaines’s book, “I was not there, but I was there,” as a writing prompt. Melancholy meditations on many of the things the prisoners had missed  — the deaths of parents, the births of children, the small, day-to-day intimacies with wives and girlfriends — poured out.

The final assignment was to write a letter to a character in Gaines’s book. Their letters were full of questions: Why did Jefferson take the money when he wasn’t involved in the robbery? Why did Grant come back to the South after he’d gotten away to California?  As each inmate read his letter aloud, a transformation occurred among all of us gathered. Everyone stood a little straighter, held their heads a little higher and looked at each other with greater respect.

As we finished, one man looked me straight in the eye and said, “That book changed my life. Are there other books like that?” Yes, brother. There are lots of other books like that. –Rose Marie Berger, Washington

One response to “Letter to the Editor: ‘The Power of A Good Book’”

  1. What an experience this must have been, Rose. I am so very proud of you and especially this work that you have done with the Hope House fathers. Just ordered Who Killed Donte Manning? from my favorite local bookseller in Denver. Blessings, Sandy

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