Being Here

by Bert Stern

May 11, 2005

A Man’s Life

An ongoing conversation about what it means to be a man in the 21st century.

Seven years after retiring from Wabash, one of the College's most unconventional professors is teaching again, far from the sanctuary of Center Hall.

His new classroom is South Boston, and his students are "people who were told long ago, by a parent or a teacher, that they were stupid—and they believed it."

Here I am, at noon on an overcast Saturday morning, still in my pajamas and robe. Working in my pajamas is a concession I made to myself when I stopped going to work but instead worked by a window at home that not only looks out at my neighbors but also as far as my stretch of the Boston skyline-the Hancock and Prudential buildings.

I'm still a little astounded to find myself here, gulls cutting their airy ways outside my window, and a Portuguese woman and her child walking and talking together in the street-sweet music. I feel a long way away from my old life at Wabash-except when I'm reminded by a visit from a former student, by my own return to Wabash for Don Baker's memorial, or by the recent afternoon I spent here in Somerville with Peter Frederick, catching up, my heart full of nostalgia.

Alas, my heart belongs to Wabash—the marvelous awakenings in students, the classroom insights, the refinement of a student's writing style, intellectual friendships with students and colleagues. I miss, more than I can say, Center Hall 206, where I could imagine I was teaching in the room where Ezra Pound once taught.

In Boston, I'm just another working stiff. Until two months ago, I worked at what started as a half-time job but got progressively fuller. The job began six months after I retired, when I got a call from Hilton Hudson '80, a former student who had become a heart surgeon. Did I want to help him start a publishing company? I said "yes" right away, knowing and not knowing that I hadn't the ghost of an idea what I was saying "yes" to.

Today, Hilton Publishing is the go-to publisher of books aimed at underserved communities. We're part of the fight against the shameful health disparities between White versus African American and Hispanic populations, and it thrilled me to be a soldier in that fight. My job was to help develop and produce informative and readable health books. That meant everything from working and negotiating contracts with some of the nation's leading African-American doctors to dotting the i's in my final copy edit. One night I found myself editing in my sleep, almost pixel by pixel, as I do when I'm awake.

If the job were all I had, I'd have gone nuts. But we live in a house I love on a street and in a neighborhood I wouldn't trade for anything. My wife, Tam, has made a beautiful garden in which perennials are blooming as I write in early May. We've made a new home here-not a home without stresses, but a regular home, with its ups and downs and with the continuity that under rides them.

A key to our life arrangement is our practice of Buddhism, which offers a way of making the truth of suffering a context for our contemplation of the ego mechanisms that make us suffer endlessly in the struggle between gain and loss, in our endless desire to be what we cannot be: permanent, singular, separate, and independent.

Each morning Tam and I meditate—our effort to be harmonious with things as they are. Once a week we do the same thing with friends. We have learned that Buddhism "works," and it works by being both strict and kind. Practice becomes a kind of refuge, not so much from reality as in reality, where the mind can know calm.

For my first six months here in Somerville, I feared that I'd never again know the joys of teaching. Now I'm teaching again, at UMass Boston, in a nationwide program called "Changing Lives Through Literature." The program is about just that- changing the lives of people on probation. Our students are mostly black and all from Dorchester, a tough section of Boston. They're often people who were told long ago, by a parent or a teacher, that they were stupid, and they believed it. In fact, many of these men are smart and resourceful, and once they start trusting the course, they start trusting themselves.

They learn again how to read and write, this time as if words matter and are part of our public speech. Our readings and their writing serve as jumping off places for small-group discussions where we begin to build trust. Student writing is also part of a conversation between the men and the instructor and between the students, since we "publish" selections from their writing each week.

We read Frederick Douglass's Narrative, complete; selections from Malcolm X; stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky; the memoirs of Bill Russell and Hartman Turnbow; and other people's recollections of Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King. Readings and discussion are built around themes: What does a child need to grow up effective and strong? What's it like to hit bottom? Who has the right to sit in judgment over others?

The course is like a religion. It's about changing lives. Changing oneself means facing angers, giving up one kind of pride and gaining a new sense of self-worth, despite schooling experience that almost erased it. By the last weeks of the semester, most of us are bound together by trust. One day, we're sitting in what one of the men described as a roomful of pushers and pimps and robbers and "drug fiends"; the next, we're a community of trust-at least, for the duration of the course.

We have plenty of testimonials that the course works. As one student said in his course evaluation: "It seems like before I came to this program I was going numb. I can't remember the last time I picked up a book to read it or even skim through it. I also have a better relationship with my girlfriend. I try to think about other people's feelings now. It isn't just about me any more.

"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!"

But of course not everyone changes his life in a way that you'd notice.

Don is a powerful man whose parents came up from Guatemala, and whose face looks like a Mayan carving. He'd be menacing if it weren't for his big smile, which can be sheepish, self-ironic, excessively self-forgiving, or just plain warm. Sometimes the smile seems to ask: "Am I hustling you or are you hustling me?"

Don graduated from the program in 2001, back out into the world he'd never really left, where he likes to encompass himself in warmth, not always caring who or what gives it to him. He listens carelessly to the deeper messages of his own heart. He lives off his woman, even though he cheats on her and is too lazy and comfort-seeking to change his ways.

But that's not how I saw Don when he took the class the first time. Don grabbed my attention when he wrote about Frederick Douglass and other men who stayed loyal to their convictions.

"What they say and do can change their lives in a split second," Don had written. "Not only their lives. But [the lives of other] people . . ."

I was thrilled by Don's insight into the connections between the individual and historical hope. It meant that Don could see himself now not just as a solitary man but as part of a larger fabric of action and hope. For me, he was a poster boy for the course.

Don graduated and I didn't expect to see him again. In this kind of teaching we don't see "outcomes" in the form of a steady job, a decent relationship, or a feeling of having ties. We simply don't see our graduates again, once they return, unsupported, to the urgent pressures of their lives.

Don turned out to be one of the exceptional cases. A year-and-a-half after he graduated, I did see him again, which meant that my perfect example of success turned out to have failed. Don was on probation again—what surer sign of "failure"? He was wearing his shit-eating smile when he walked in.

At the end of that first class we asked Don if he wanted to say anything about the course to the new guys. His words were simple and positive, despite the fact that he was back on probation again. His message wasn't so much in what he said as in the fact that he said it. He invited others to trust the course.

A few weeks later, Don told me he was having trouble at home. He'd gotten another woman pregnant and he didn't know what to do. When he asked me for advice, I gave him a couple of questions he might try to answer, as homework, to help him sort out his dilemma and his options.

The homework turned out to be just a sideshow. He never wrote it. By the next class session, the woman he'd lived with for 10 years had taken Don back in, and at that point his sense of responsibility to the new girlfriend and her baby vanished.

Two weeks later Don was busted again. He'd gone out at two in the morning to buy some cigarettes, and ended up buying a lid of marijuana as well. He drove around for a while, stoned and feeling the way he liked to feel. Then the cops stopped him and found not only the lid, but that he was driving without a license.

While he was waiting for trial, Don came back to class. He told me he had a great lawyer-a woman who had never lost a case. But she lost this one, and soon Don was back in lock-up.

Does that mean that Don, and our efforts, have failed? Who could answer that one except God? Human beings are complicated, ready to blaze up or go dim as they dance on a razor's edge. Who can say what Don will do when he steps out onto the streets again in a few years? For that matter, who can say that in prison itself he won't go to the library, continue his reading, maybe remembering how Malcolm X first educated himself by copying out the entire dictionary, page by page, or how Douglass began to find his freedom through books, after his master had warned that it was dangerous for slaves to gain understanding.

The students I teach give me a lot of hope for human beings-hope I can't find in the papers. I also learn hope from the bunch of mostly middle-age Italian and Irish guys I work out with at the Somerville YMCA. They've all known each other since they were kids, back when they shared the sidewalks of Somerville with the notorious Whitey Bulger, a local mobster, now vanished, who enjoys a kind of fame around here.

The Irish have a proverb: "It never rains in the pub." That's sounds like refuge to me, and I get it at the gym, from guys like Bobby (pronounced "Bawby"). Bobby's a contractor who suffers both from Hepatitis C and Parkinson's, the latter possibly as a side effect of his failed Hepatitis treatment. The other guys rib him mercilessly about the comically slow and light exercise he does, always to the edge of his limits and beyond. Breaking balls is a high locker room art, even if it means breaking the balls of a sweet man destined to die too early. Directed at Bobby, breaking balls is an expression of affection and respect.

These men love each other as brothers, and little by little, I've gratefully become part of their circle.

In the locker room, as in my new classroom, I'm reminded that there's still something mysterious and beautiful and brave about human beings, even in a post-human age, when the propaganda/ad machines labor so mightily to diminish what it means to be human.

Anyway, I'm here at my window, on good days and bad days, thinking about all these things. Bad days usually have had to do with the business, when the strain of keeping up production schedules had my body and soul in knots.When the going gets rough, I can ride down to the South Shore and visit my grandson, Owen. We play cars together, or I tickle him, or read him stories I write for him, about a giant whose dream is to find a car big enough for him to drive and a road big enough to drive it on. I never feel more intimate with Owen than when we meet together over the stories and step into a shared imagined world. There's nothing better than to joke and share stories with a child you love.

Moving here from Indiana has been a long, rough road, physically and mentally, but we're here now, on a bright day without much sun, neighborhood kids just out of school chattering down the block in English and Portuguese and Spanish. Later, I'll go down and work in the garden with Tam.

I was at Fenway when the Sox dropped the Yankees 6-2 in the first home series. We took that series and the away one, too. Since then, of course, Boston sports fortunes have flowered in a way that brings fulfillment to many hearts, and Boston has lost it's most popular saying, "Wait till next year."

My own heart, at 75, still beats out the moments of my days, still gives me juice for writing poems and essays. Three weeks ago, I joined others taking refuge vows in a formal Buddhist ceremony. When rice was strewn on us refugees, I felt overwhelmed by my blessings.

Bert Stern is a writer, poet, recently retired vice president and editor-in-chief at Hilton Publishing, and Milligan Professor of English Emeritus at Wabash.

He "retired" from the College in 1997.

Contact Professor Stern at: dr.herbertstern@comcast.net

For more on the Changing Lives through Literature program, visit: http://www.cltl.umassd.edu/

For more on Hilton Publishing, visit: http://www.hiltonpub.com/

 


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