Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Sunny and School

In January 2017, we got a fish. Actually, Annabel was gifted the fish by her best friend for her sixth birthday. Annabel named the fish "Sunny Sun Sun," although we have since called her "Sunny." We have no clue if this betta fish is even female, but that's beside the point.

For the past three years and three months, Annabel and I have taken care of that fish with love and dedication. Granted, we don't do anything fancy, but I do switch her to a clean bowl every few weeks, Annabel keeps a calendar of her daily feedings so one is never forgotten, and in those nostalgic times when we left home for vacation, we always left Sunny with trusted neighbors. We talk to Sunny, include her in family dinners, and sometimes she even makes it into the count as a member of the family. Even our morning babysitter (slash, lifesaver-angel, Kathy) has a special place in her heart for Sunny.

My students know about Sunny, too. One morning earlier this year, I was teaching my high school juniors when I saw a call from Kathy ring through to my watch. Nervously, I picked up the phone, well aware that my students were all listening.

It was Annabel, sobbing.

"Sunny is asleep?!" I gasped. "Where? Is she at the bottom of the bowl or floating at the top?" I was upset, but my students' giggles convinced me to pretend to smile.

Annabel was bawling. "She's at the bottom." Good. I assumed that fish float to the top when they die so I was hopeful. But I know nothing about fish.

Annabel, still sobbing, handed the phone to Kathy. Within seconds, Sunny was awake / back to life. Praise the Lord.

When I got off the call, my students all seized the moment to take us off-track from the lesson, so they asked me questions about the fish. They told me that when Sunny died, I would have to find a fish that looked the same and replace her. They told me a few of their amusing fish-replacement stories. I listened and laughed, then made sure that they knew I wouldn't let them out of the lesson for long. I remember feeling truly happy that morning. Sunny was alive, Annabel and Kathy were relieved, my students were comfortable, and the morning's lesson persevered through distraction.

*   *   *

I'm pretty sure I have wanted to be a teacher since the day I met my first teacher. Since my first (and best) teacher was my mom, I guess I've wanted to be a teacher since the day I became more than a cluster of cells. Maybe it's because I'm bossy, or because I can't sit still. Maybe it's because white boards and bulletin boards make me giddy. Maybe it's because I love the innocence of kids (yes, even high school kids), or because they are way more fun to hang out with than adults (especially adults who are lawyers - ha!). Maybe it's because when I read something beautiful, I want nothing more than to share it with someone else who will analyze it with me. Or maybe it's because I honestly believe that the hope for individuals and for humanity begins with great education. Whatever the reason, I will never feel a place of belonging as perfect as the classroom. 

Of course, yesterday, we learned that we will not return to our classrooms this year. I wasn't able to sleep the night before and now I wonder if the root of my anxiety was knowing this announcement was imminent. Certainly we all knew it was coming. But for some reason, the finality of the decision formed a heavy lump in my throat that still hasn't gone away. I know I'm not alone. 

I knew that school closing would hurt me and Brian (also a teacher), and I knew it was going to crush our kids, too. So, for weeks, I have made it a point to ease the idea into their minds. I was subtle at first, starting sentences with phrases like, "If we go back..." The first time they each registered that we may not return to the school buildings this year, I could see in their faces that their hearts had sunk. Those sunken hearts were (and are) painful, but they are beautiful, too. Because loving school is a sincere blessing. 

So here we are -- our kitchens, bedrooms, and basements; our Zooms, Nearpods, and Google Meets the "classrooms" for (at least) the remainder of the school year. The reality of that change had me anxious and restless this morning, both for "my kids" (my students) and for "my real kids" (the ones I birthed). 

I am certain of this -- in homes across America and, I'm sure, around the world -- teachers are fighting back the tears. The luckiest of us are grieving the end of the school year with the simultaneous guilt of knowing how fortunate we are for our health, our safety, and our (relative) job security. But please remember, we get our kids as members of our classroom families for just one school year. This year, a virus kidnapped them from us for three-and-a-half months of that year. And there's nothing we can do to get them back. 

I know, I know. I, too, love the quotes about the school buildings being closed but all of us still being teachers. Many teachers are working as hard as ever before and we are excited about the opportunities to learn new ways to teach our students. But there is magic in a classroom. There is an electricity that is lost in remote learning: a pure, exhausting, unpredictable, invigorating spirit that cannot be created in even the best of virtual lessons. 

*   *   *

When humble moms and dads I know make self-deprecating jokes about unsuccessful "home schooling," I try to remind them that we are not "home schooling;" we are "crisis schooling." Athletes training for the Olympics (and others, of course) "home school." Right now, we are just trying to get through a global crisis with as much sanity and love as possible. And maybe for a split second, I buy what I'm saying.

Crisis schooling.

But then my mind starts to race. Crisis schooling. I beat myself up for not doing enough as a teacher or as a parent. Crisis schooling. My lessons for my students have been subpar, and Teddy is back to playing video games for hours every day. Crisis schooling. Sometimes I convince myself that things are good enough in my own house, but then I'm still worrying about others. I worry about hunger, and abuse, and the traumatic stress of kids being forced to care for the sick, the young, and the old. No schooling. Just crisis. 

Part of me is jealous of the people who still think that some of us are overreacting. But I can't unsee what I have seen in the countless articles and posts I have read reporting from the front lines. And those images are terrifying from the comfort of my own home. I can't fathom what patients, their families, health care workers, and so many others are enduring right now. Because compared to them, teachers have it pretty easy. And my heart hurts. 

*   *   *

So where does that leave us with good ole, Sunny? The poor old fish can barely swim up to the surface to get her food anymore. She pretty much lives in a vertical position and it's clear that one day soon, her nose will just float to the surface and her body will follow until she's horizontal, and no longer breathing. 

Sunny Sun Sun: April 22, 2020

But here's the one tiny thought that organized my anxiety enough this morning to take me to the "New Post" button...

A few weeks ago, I heard Annabel talking to Brian about Sunny. She said: "When Sunny dies, we will have a funeral for her in the backyard but no one else can come." (The kid shares my passion for social distancing right now.) She was strong in her assertion. Confident in her decision. And accepting of this reality. I know that may sound like nothing but in that moment, the world felt just a bit lighter. 

Here's the thing. I don't know what home schooling, crisis schooling, or future schooling looks like. I didn't know what to tell a junior student who asked me yesterday on a call, "Will this virus end our senior year?" All I told him was that I did think the virus would change what he had always assumed his senior year would look like. And change is hard. 

That's it, really. Change is hard. For many people around the globe, this pandemic is not the first time that their entire world has changed almost momentarily. Cancer flipped the world upside down for me and for countless men, women, and children long before COVID-19. For others, a different physical or mental disease changed everything. For yet others, the entire world changed with the death of a parent, a sibling, a spouse, or (gulp) a child. People's worlds have changed in an instant with paralyzing falls or experiences in war. With divorce, or assault, or mistakes that cannot be fixed or forgiven. With tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. With poverty that broke them. For millions of people, including myself, this pandemic is not the first time that the universe has made us question our ability to survive. 

While I still believe that hope is the most important life raft in a turbulent sea, I also get frustrated at the simplified message that "we will get through it." Many of us will, and the number of survivors increases with education, hard work, strong leadership, and cooperation. But like cancer, this virus is a beast, and some of us won't beat it, no matter how strong we are or how hard we pray. 

That's what my upside down world taught, and continues to teach me: in the end, none of us get out of here alive. I don't know the first moment when I learned that. But I do believe that whenever that moment was, it was the first moment I really started to live. 

Which leads to me to the end of this circuitous message: my nine-year-old knows that her beloved fish, Sunny Sun Sun, will die one day soon. That means that she knows that the world changes, and that the future will bring pain. She also seems to be building the confidence and the skills to face those changes and that pain. She's had awesome teachers and decent parents but I'm pretty certain that none of us created a lesson plan to teach her these life lessons. But somehow, in her old school, home school, or crisis school, she learned about compassion and resilience. And truthfully, I can't think of two more important virtues for any parent or school to teach, no matter what a classroom looks like today, or in the scary, uncertain, and promising future. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Catcher: One Year Later

Over 7 years ago, after surviving my second chemotherapy treatment in the ICU at the Brigham & Women's Hospital, I wrote a blog that began as follows: 

Most of the time, I'm pretty skeptical of advice. I much prefer observing a person's actions or listening to his or her opinion on an issue over hearing a blurb of advice. That's not to say that I don't want to learn from someone else's experiences because I definitely do. I'm just not crazy about boiling down those experiences into a neat little package of advice.

A lot has changed in those seven years but a lot has stayed the same, too. I still prefer actions to opinions and I still do not feel right giving advice to other adults as if know what's best for them. I'm a teacher now, having left the law years before I paid back my loans, and I have no new degree that makes me even the slightest bit qualified to talk about the global pandemic of COVID-19. Instead, I have spent the last 4.5 years teaching English and SAT prep to high school kids in Boston and shockingly, that experience has not made me an expert on what the f*&^ we should all be doing right now. 

Until last Friday, I got to spend my weekdays with brilliant teenagers who are figuring out life. I tried to convince the doubters to love reading as much as I do, and I cherished nerdy after-class conversations with the ones who already found that love. Best of all, I learned from those kids and from my incredible colleagues. In this, my 11th (non-consecutive) year teaching, I started to learn what seems to be the most important lesson so far: that I cannot do anything right for my students if I don't listen to them. Like really listen. So I have tried to ask more questions and hear the answers with my mind, not just my ears. I struggle to hold my own thoughts inside (because I have far too many thoughts to reign in), so I nod and I keep listening. It's crazy how much you learn when you listen.

In my job, I have also improved (though very much not perfected) how to accept when I'm wrong. Damn, that's hard every single time I have to do it but I will say, with practice, it's gotten a lot easier. Which is good, because I seem to be wrong more and more often as I get older. 

*  *  *

One very long week ago, on the evening of Monday March 9th, I was feeling overwhelmed. I would turn 40 the next day, and when I was diagnosed with triple positive breast cancer at age 32, I always had my heart set on 40. "My kids will be older, then," I told myself. Now I was staring down the goal. I felt like Gatsby and the green light: "Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever." (Thanks, F. Scott Fitzgerald)

Anyways, that night, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a fellow breast cancer "survivor" (Dr. Britt Lee) post advice on how we should all start cancelling events, trips, and even small gatherings (her blog here). After I got through about half of it, I was pissed. How dare she over-react this way?! How dare she say we should cancel things that we need to do? How dare she not think of less privileged people in the world whose problems were so much bigger than a rescheduled piano recital or ski trip? As I read, my tunnel vision got more and more narrow. Ultimately, I snapped at her over Facebook while Teddy and Annabel were getting ready for bed. I called her out on privilege and (oops) made rude references to her rich friends in Chestnut Hill. I knew she had earned her PhD in immunology but I didn't care. I was mad and scared and I decided to take it out on her.

I felt empowered to act that way because I thought that people needed to know that Dr. Lee was not "all there." I remembered why I had pretty much cut off non-Facebook contact with her years ago after she gave me advice during chemo: she told me to stop doing things I wanted to do so that I would stop collecting germs. She told me I had to stop going places in large groups, exercising at gyms, and handing over money to people on the street. "F*%* her," I thought. "I will take on whatever illness those germs bring if it means that I don't have to miss these things." So I went to a Thanksgiving Day football game and I hugged and kissed all my relatives in large family gatherings. She was a wimp and I was awesome. So I thought.

By the Friday after Thanksgiving, my fever soared. I have never felt so sick. I landed in the ER with an Absolute Neutrophil Count (i.e., white blood cell indicator) of ZERO. I was very ill and doctors could not find the source of infection.

It would take a five-day hospital stay at the Brigham to make me better. That hospital stay wasn't fun but it was necessary. My nurses and doctors gave my body all the medicine, time, and attention that it needed to fend off the infection and make me able to fight regular germs in the world again. I missed my kids terribly during that time. But before I knew it, I was back home.

So, back to last week... After I over-reacted at my keyboard, I fell asleep beginning to worry about the state of the world but not at all worried about anyone's reaction to my harsh social media comments. I'm a high school teacher; I can handle a pretty good amount of attitude.

The next day, I read through some reactions with a chuckle. Meanwhile, I wanted to dig my heels in. Fight back. Be witty and sound sassy. But there was just one problem. I was wrong.

I kept reading articles, kept listening to medical professionals in the United States and abroad, and considered the fact that maybe this woman had a point. Maybe this COVID-19 thing was bigger than I thought. I read more. I kept an open mind. As I educated myself, the adrenaline pumped on high gear. At times, my anxiety made me feel short of breath and shortness of breath only made the anxiety worsen.

It didn't take long before I understood: Dr. Lee was so far ahead of me in grasping the gravity of this situation. She, and so many others, were trying to help us because the government was stagnant, and we did not know enough to help ourselves. She was trying to share information with anyone who would listen. And I was one of those people who needed to listen.

The problem, as I see it as a teacher and only a teacher, is that we need to talk and teach more about listening, reading, debating without rancor (Dr. Lee's word). This doesn't mean staying quiet while others speak (although that's important), but it means considering the views of others. It means wanting to be around (perhaps, only virtually) people who know more than we do. I'm not very good at it. But this week, without any grace, I did it.

Since then, I have read the news obsessively. I have read everything I can about China and about Italy. I cried in front of my students on Friday because I am worried for them and I knew that I wouldn't see them for a very long time. I figured that the book that I hurriedly gave them to read, Catcher in the Rye, would likely be the last book I gave them this year.

In planning to preface Catcher in the Rye for them, I found myself back at the last blog I posted in this space. It was called Catcher, and I wrote it almost one year ago, after a 28-year-old friend of mine, Justin Perry, died of lung cancer.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about Justin. He was so young when he died and until the very last photos I saw of him, he looked so strong. But his lungs were not strong. They were riddled with cancer. I can only make the educated guess that Justin never could have survived COVID-19. We all need to do more for those like Justin who, right now, must be absolutely terrified.

Meanwhile, while Massachusetts and others states gradually lock down, I see people still in denial of the seriousness of this situation. I know it's scary and I wish we could all deny it. But we can't. It's here and it's time we face it like adults. And adulthood is not easy. Actually, many times, it really sucks.

Nevertheless, an important step in acting like adults is admitting when we are wrong. Years ago, I should never have been such a cavalier cancer patient who almost consciously thought things like, "Bring on the illness; I can take it." I should have said "no" to games and parties, and protected myself like Dr. Lee said to do. I should have avoided germs and not wasted resources at the hospital. Instead, I brushed off Dr. Lee and categorized her as an elitist germophobe with whom I couldn't be friends.

Maybe Dr. Lee and I won't ever be friends beyond Facebook and that's perfectly okay. But I can most certainly admit that she taught me a lot this week, about myself at 40 and about myself back at 32. She taught me that nobody wants to realize his or her own vulnerability. To varying extents, we all struggle to fathom having an illness for which there is no cure. The more privileged, including myself, assume access to certain things, like health care. But many cancer patients, including myself and (I'm guessing) Dr. Lee, have faced the reality that even a strong body cannot handle everything that this crazy world may throw at it.

Eight years ago, when I was immunocompromised and stubborn as all Hell, I figured the hospitals would have whatever I needed to get better if I got sick. At the time, they did. But in the coming days, weeks, and months, they won't. Instead, doctors and nurses will decide who falls off the cliff and who they can try to catch. Those brave men and women on the front lines will be the catchers in the rye. But unless we do our part -- listen, sacrifice some things, and admit when we are wrong -- there will not be enough catchers and the cliff will be a deep, deep, dark one.

Image result for catcher in the rye quote

Monday, April 8, 2019


I should be in my classroom right now. I should be walking between desks, cuing students back to task, and snapping at strong outlines for an essay on The Catcher in the Rye. (The essay topic is an interesting one: Why was Holden Caulfield so disillusioned and what did he do to cope with that disillusionment?)

But I'm not in my classroom. Instead, I'm heartbroken on my couch. One of my many selfless colleagues is covering for me at school because after I spent two free periods crying in a hidden conference room, I still couldn't pull myself together enough to teach my last two classes. So I handed off my lesson and ran out of the building into the cold rain. (Ironically, more than one chapter of Catcher ends with Holden trying to escape his pain by running away.)

This morning my dear friend and Jimmy Fund Walk co-captain (Amy) called to tell me tragic news: our mutual friend, Justin Perry, had passed away. Justin was just 22 years old when his cancer diagnosis (stage IV nonsmokers lung cancer) blind-sided him and his family, leaving him to commute back and forth from Maine to Boston to shrink his tumors enough so that he could breathe.

When Amy and I met Justin and his then-girlfriend, Michelle, in the summer of 2015, Amy and I immediately loved them both and knew we would keep in touch. We did, and we even had the sincere honor of giving Justin and Michelle a "Hope Award" at the 2016 Evening of Hope. Anyone there that night likely will remember hearing Justin speak, and if you didn't have the pleasure, his speech is LINKED HERE.

At last year's Evening of Hope, Justin and Michelle drove down from Maine with a car full of items to donate to the auction. Despite all that they were going through with Justin's many clinical trials and treatments, and despite that Justin had moved to Mass General for his cancer care, Justin and Michelle were still focused on giving. I will never forget seeing them there that night.

Last summer, when Amy told me that Justin had done a podcast about living with metastatic lung cancer, I thought to myself, "I'll never be able to listen to that." But somehow, on one of my long training walks, I clicked on the podcast and was awed and inspired (and yes, tearful) from start to finish. (For more on the podcast, CLICK HERE.) Needless to say, Justin was a force to be reckoned with, and even though I never knew him as a day-to-day friend, I considered him a special friend -- one who understood what it felt like to be "so young" and "look so healthy" and yet still have cancer. One who knew about fear and hope, about optimism and realism, and most of all, about the deepest form of love, despite it all. It's surprising, or maybe expected, how bonded you can feel to another young person who sat, like you did, awaiting a critical surgery or praying in a chemo chair. Who always flashed a thumbs up for the camera, partly because he was hopeful, but sometimes just to make others feel relief.

*   *   *

The first time I read The Catcher in the Rye, I didn't like it. I thought Holden whined his way through every page and should have been grateful when instead he was a spoiled brat. I thought it was silly that Salinger didn't even tell us what "catcher in the rye" meant until chapter 22. I wasn't a fan but I was going to try again, mostly because the curriculum left me no choice.

This go around, however, teaching that book was an entirely different experience. I loved watching my students unpack Holden's disillusionment and discover how, just maybe, it compared to their own. I loved that a few of them figured out early on that Holden wasn't entirely truthful, with others and even, with himself. I think they enjoyed the irony that Holden hated "phonies" yet couldn't figure out who he really was. And I loved speaking things that I was just figuring out myself, namely, that becoming an adult (by more than just age) is so hard partly because one must shift from the comforts of being protected to the challenges of being one who protects.

In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden's younger brother (Allie) died of leukemia when he was only 11 years old. My students intelligently recognized that Holden's disillusionment may have come largely from his loss. But Salinger didn't stop there. Indeed, Catcher has survived the generations because it is more than the story of a teenager who wants to preserve the innocence of youth. Rather, it is a story about the deep emotional challenges that accompany the realization that we have very little power to protect anyone from anything. In fiction, Holden's brother died of cancer, and in real life, 75 years later, Justin did, too. At some point, we will all want to be the catcher in the rye, for a sibling, a parent, a child, or a friend. We feel broken when they die, for countless reasons I am not equip to articulate, including because we feel failure and fear. But there is no catcher in the rye -- no way to protect the ones we love -- and today, that reality feels nearly impossible to bear.

Rest In Peace, Justin. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Straws on the Water

En route to our nation’s capital to join my sister and (finally) bring our book club to a prison there, I watched the sun rise this morning from the Logan Express. Today, six years to the day I was first diagnosed, I was thinking a lot about paradoxes. It wasn't just nerdy English teacher thinking, but rather, an internal conversation spurred by one word that a kind person presented me with yesterday. Bittersweet.

A thoughtful man from the communications department at Dana-Farber wanted my patient perspective for a short publication, and we spoke over the phone for almost an hour. We covered the necessary details of my own treatment but more so, I told him about Kristin and Steve and Dr. Ng. I told him about our Jimmy Fund Walk team, my students, and my family.

Towards the end of our conversation, he asked me if my six-year mark was bittersweet. I have been thinking about that word ever since. Or maybe, about the two words, and the space, or no space, in between. Bitter. And sweet. I thought about that space this morning when I woke Annabel up to put her hair in a ponytail (despite a serious lesson yesterday, she insists Brian won't be able to do it in my absence today). I thought about that word and that space as the dog skipped back to our bed once she realized I was leaving. I thought about it as I drove by the restaurant in Braintree where I first met Marisa.

Now, waiting for my flight to board, I wonder, am I bitter? Actually, yes, I am. Not for myself, of course, but for others. I’m so deeply bitter that cancer is the relentless murderer and thief that it is. I’m bitter that Kristin is not in the passenger seat while her husband and kids travel north for a week of summer vacation. I’m bitter that this winter, Steve will not see his son play hockey nor his daughter play basketball. I’m bitter that the day after tomorrow a surgeon will remove a large tumor from my neighbor’s innocent body. I’m bitter for mothers and fathers who buried their children, for siblings aching for their brothers and sisters, for sons and daughters who no longer can call mom or dad, and for grandbabies who never got to be spoiled by their grandparents. I’m bitter because of the permanence and depth of a loss that I can only barely comprehend. I’m bitter, with deep fibers of my soul, at the enemy that is cancer.

Meanwhile, I don’t identify with the word “survivor” and I don’t feel a sense of victory today or any day. I hate my blog URL because really, I didn’t beat anything. I just got lucky. That’s it. In the words of the poet Wislawa Szymborska, I was closer or farther away (see poem here). Or maybe I survived because I was first or last, maybe because a shadow fell. Really, I have no idea why I’m here six years later and so many others are not. Maybe it was because somewhere a straw was floating on the water.

When I think of today, of six years, one word comes to mind. Humbled. I am humbled today and every day by life and by death. Maybe because of cancer or maybe just because it’s in my blood, I notice with sweet and with bitter detail the love and the loss that surrounds me. This week I am especially aware of those senses because right now, in my town, there is palpable pain.

Like countless others in my hometown and beyond, I remain shocked by the week-old news that a young man – a human being as good as they come – died by accident in a reservoir a mile from my childhood home. Cancer didn’t take Jimmy but water did. Why? No mortal could ever begin to explain it. A frame, a turn, an inch, a second. They are gone and we are here. Straws floating on the water. Full and broken hearts. Contradictions never to be sorted out.

I saw a billboard on the expressway this morning that read, “Real Christians love their enemies.” I can think of no better example of a paradox. But can someone ever love an enemy? If I love my enemy then that enemy is no longer my enemy, so doesn’t the statement swallow itself? Similarly, in this life, does the sweet swallow the bitter or the bitter swallow the sweet? Are we to expect Kristin’s family to cultivate a love for cancer or for Jimmy’s family to ever feel anything but anger and regret when they look out at the rez? That seems offensively absurd.

Rather, it seems to me that as humans, we are forced into a life of incomprehensible contradiction. Of fear that makes the night a ghastly monster, and of hope that somehow clears a passage to breathe when the air seems to have turned solid. Of love that, under the hot summer sun, forms a long orderly line down a small town’s main road, a line leading into a funeral home where a strong and kind 26-year-old rests.

Today feels especially bitter because I can’t shake the injustice of lives lost too soon. I am also especially grateful because soon (God willing) my plane will land, I will see my sister, and we will spend the evening talking about books with a group of men who may enjoy the pages we hand to them. But really, I am once again humbled. I’m humbled by the worry that still haunts me – that I could eat something (a strawberry?), breathe something (air near a turf field?), or do something (use deodorant?) that could cause another tumor to grow. Every day I know that death’s net could catch me or someone I love and, despite my daily anxiety medication, the realization of that vulnerability makes some moments feel unbearable. Indeed, the mesh of death’s net seems ever so arbitrary and suffocatingly cruel. For some reason, I squeaked through the mesh to be blessed with this day. But I will be forever humbled knowing that really, it may just be because somewhere a straw was floating on the water.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Book by Book

Just before my double mastectomy in 2012, I introduced the blogosphere to my sister, Rachel, in a post entitled, Page by Page.

My sister shares my love of books and, if I'm being honest, reads much more than I do. In the last year, our passion for books met in the most unlikely of places, and we set off on a mission together.

Rachel began working in prisons when she helped two inmates at different facilities (both convicted of nonviolent federal drug distribution crimes) apply for clemency under the Obama Administration. This program was designed to rectify the inconsistency between past and current sentencing guidelines. One of Rachel's two clients, a young father of three, had his sentence reduced by 10 years and was released earlier this month. Her other client, who we will call Joe, was denied clemency and will remain in prison until 2025.

I got to know Joe through Rachel. Rachel would tell me about her client and how much he loved to read, so I sent him some books. He read the books and we would discuss them over the prison email system. I immediately saw that Joe's intellect and passion for reading was something special.

Since Joe loved reading, I assumed he may like writing, too. Turns out he did, and he is great at it. In the last few years, Joe has sent me stacks of lined paper with perfectly printed stories about his life. I've been compiling and editing them, not knowing exactly what will come of the effort. One such excerpt is here:

My infatuation with money began at a very young age. As I reflect back this strong interest was more about the things that money could buy and not the currency itself. Growing up poor and not having things that other kids have and being told by my mother, “I can’t afford to get you certain things,” or, “I don’t have the money right now,” intensified my desire to have money.

I always saw other kids with cool toys, bikes, clothes, and shoes that I knew my mom didn’t have the money to buy me things. The thing I wanted most back then was a new bike. I never had a new bike. All the bikes I ever had were put together from the parts of other stolen bikes. We would use an old frame and take the parts from stolen bike tires, handlebars, seats, pedals, and even the chain. The chain was probably the hardest because you had to find the special link in the chain. Sometimes we would spray paint the frame. We could fix anything on a bike at a very young age. ...

My desire for money started when I was young but grew stronger as I became older. My older cousins and their friends who were teenagers at the time were selling drugs and they would give us a few dollars. I was always fascinated by the large wads of money that they often carried in their pockets. Any time I had a few dollars I would go to the convenience store and get a Thrifty Nickel newspaper. This was a free newspaper with local ads. I would cut the paper in the exact size of a dollar bill and place the real bills on the top of the cut up newspaper to make it look like I had a wad of money like the dope boys had. ...

The dope boys in the neighborhood I grew up in were good people. I know some might find this hard to believe based on how TV and movies portray things in the ghetto. But these were not guys that used kids to do their dirty work. They encouraged us to go to school. They brought all the kids ice cream when the ice cream truck came around. They gave us money for getting good grades on our report cards. I remember our schools would give kids boxes of chocolate candy bars to sell for a dollar each. And at the end of a certain period the people who sold the most candy would win prizes. I remember a brand new bike being one of the prizes. You had to sell a ridiculous amount of candy to win the bike and I never came close. But a few times the dope boys in the neighborhood would buy the entire box of chocolate candy bars and let us have them for ourselves.

My infatuation with money and the things it could buy eventually became an infatuation with the only people I saw with money – drug dealers. My dreams of becoming a lawyer as a young boy was just that to me by the age of 11 or 12. I didn’t know any lawyers or even believe it to be possible by that age.  

* * *

Less than a year ago, Joe had an idea: a book club for inmates at his prison. He found that he was lending his books to other inmates and they were all talking about what they were reading. He brought the idea to Rachel and they brainstormed. Then they set out to put their ideas into action. They decided they’d need to form a non-profit organization. They wanted to call it “Books Beyond Boundaries.” Joe thought of the name.

When Rachel shared their plans, we quickly realized that their mission aligned perfectly with that of Writing Saves Lives, a non-profit organization that I had created back in 2013 to promote literacy and encourage writing as a form of coping and discovery. And so Rachel, Joe, and I continued to plan.

From prison in the South, Joe arranged for a graphic designer to create a logo for BBB (see below) and brainstormed ideas for book discussions. From Virginia, Rachel arranged for a prison in Joe's area to host BBB for a book club and drafted lesson plans for the two days we would spend there. And from Boston, I did my little part: I used my English-teacher skills to tweak the lessons.

Rachel and I coordinated our trip south. We raised money and were excited to bring something new to the 40 men who had signed up and had the grit to read all 1200 pages of our chosen book: The Way of Kings. 

Two days before we were set to fly out, our plan fell apart. The warden cancelled our workshop because he learned that Books Beyond Boundaries was largely Joe's idea and that we had named him a co-founder of the program. The prison explained that it could not "promote any one prisoner's agenda" and starting a book club was seen as Joe's agenda. 

Obviously Rachel and I were heartbroken. Rachel did everything to try to get the warden to change his mind but he wouldn't budge. The workshop never happened. 

Clearly, it was time for Plan B. When we learned that the men had gotten together on their own to prepare for the workshop (one inmate had even drafted a pre-test for workshop participants), we realized that our physical presence was not totally necessary; the men had already taught each other without us.

To acknowledge the inmates' disappointment (and ours), Rachel then sent individual letters to our readers. She apologized for the cancellation and gave them her email address if they had any questions. 

Last week, Rachel received email after email from these men, including this one:

Good morning and God bless you and your family. My name is --- and I was so happy to hear from you. Thank you for your time and also for believing in me. I also want to thank you because I have never been a reader and you have inspired me and encouraged me to read more and further my education. I really loved the book and I'm not going to lie at first I wanted to give up, but just looking forward to being a part of your book club and simply a part of something positive is what got me through. I was really looking forward to our meeting but it's ok .... Thank you for everything ...

And this one:

Hi, I just got your letter yesterday and I really appreciate you taking your time and resources to do a program for prisoners. For some of us, we have little to no outside support so anything that people do that can help us very far and is very much appreciated. I signed up for the book club because I am an avid reader but I was kind of shocked when The Way of Kings showed up. I'm really not into fantasy books and stuff like that so initially was kind of skeptical. However once I forced myself to read it, I found it to be a very good book. I like the leadership lessons and the lessons about thinking, strategy and self control. Especially in the face of conflict. These things can be applied to so many different things but to me as a person thats going back to the free world soon, these things are paramount and thats why these things resonated in me so much.

On the one hand, the emails broke our hearts, but on the other hand, they are one of the most hopeful things we have ever seen.

*   *   *

Rachel and I grew up surrounded by books. We read them, talked about them, and even as kids, wrote our own. As we grew up, Rachel and I did what we saw people around us do: we went to college and then to graduate school. As Joe grew up, he did what he saw people around him do: he skipped school and started to deal drugs. There but for the grace of God go I. And so we went. 

Joe is now working on earning his college degree through a mail program. He loves his classes and meanwhile, he keeps reading. He has creative ideas and inspiring ambitions, and he writes poetry that is so good neither Rachel nor I feel we can adequately provide feedback. He has been in prison for 13 years and will remain there for seven more. Twenty years for non-violent crimes committed when he was in his early 20s. There but for the grace of God go I. And so he went. 

Joe won't give up on the book club idea and we won't either. We all still believe that reading and writing save lives. We believe that books can break down boundaries and that conversations about books can change a person. 

And so Writing Saves Lives will support the Books Beyond Boundaries program not only by leading in-person workshops in prisons, but also by helping to connect volunteers outside of prison with inmates so that the pairs can discuss books over email. If you would like to be matched to an inmate to read and discuss a book, please visit our website. Because sometimes healing happens page by page and sometimes it happens book by book. There but for the grace of God go I. And so we go.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Books Beyond Boundaries