Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard - by Laura Bates

Last week my Facebook feed included a post from a fellow librarian about the Big Library Read - a global book club. Through the Big Library Read e-books are made available for two weeks, with no limit on the number of people who could check them out. I downloaded my copy and joined in.

Dr. Bates' memoir of her time teaching Shakespeare in the SHU (Secured Housing Unit), of the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana details her relationship with inmate Larry Newman, who was sent to prison for life as a teenager. Mr. Newman not only excels as a student providing unique insights into Shakespeare's plays, he writes workbooks for other college students to use in order to help them understand the works better themselves.

It is interesting to note that a book that is essentially about reading hardly mentions libraries at all, although I expect the prisoners Bates worked with had no access to one. And the professor only includes one childhood memory of using the library herself
Our final reading assignment was The Tragedy of Macbeth. It's been a special piece of literature for me ever since I first read it at the age of ten. Well, I can't really say that I "read" it at that age, but I did check it out of my elementary school library. And I can still recall the thrill of poring over its archaic words that I knew meant something significant, that I hoped would someday mean something to me. By the time I reached high school, I was able to begin to make meaning out of the language. But it wasn't until I started teaching these plays, in prison, that their meaning would come through: beautifully crafted works of literature written hundreds of years ago that can connect with us here and now. 
I've always felt strongly that children should be able to select their own reading material from libraries. While they may pick something out that is beyond their reading or comprehension abilities, it probably won't matter. They will likely decide to put it aside, but that too is their own empowered choice. The book may serve, as young Laura Bates discovered, as a challenge, that she returned to again, and again. She could never have imagined how it would change her life.
A few days after I posted this, I discovered this blog post on the importance of prison libraries. It is well worth the read.

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