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Va. students are reading Russian literature in a prison

Time:2018-07-11 12:33Shoes websites Click:

Russian students Literature prison Reading

When his University of Virginia classmates discussed the story of a peasant woman who found joy amid pain and isolation, Josh Pritchett didn't say anything.

That's because he was flashing back to his time in the hole, to being locked in solitary confinement for violent fights. So while the others talked about symbolism in 19th-century Russian literature, he was thinking about how, with the passage of days in that cold cell, dreams became beautiful, and anger faded into serenity.

This spring, Pritchett went back behind bars - by choice. When he did, he showed the unexpected reach and powerful consequences an idea can have. He thought he knew a thing or two about redemption. But he also learned how relevant, and powerful, the past can be.

Pritchett was taking a Russian literature class at U-Va. that pairs students from the elite campus with inmates at a juvenile detention center. Together, they tackle works by Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy.

Once a week, the U-Va. students get patted down by guards behind razor wire and hear the crash of the metal door locking behind them.


Josh Pritchett learned to drive by stealing cars. By the time he was 17, he had created his own character - a hardened, weary kid ricocheting from house to group house to jail. His close friends were living the same repetitive, empty chapters: drugs, fights, anger, boredom.

When he was finally taken away from his Virginia high school in handcuffs, he was conscious of a strange sense of relief: He could stop trying to evade the inevitable ending.

After his conviction, he was temporarily assigned to a building on the grounds of the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center in Richmond, Virginia, while officials finished his intake paperwork. Looking out his cell window at the low brick buildings and high fences of Bon Air, he felt the growing terror and certainty that he had become voiceless, powerless, trapped. He was locked in.

It was a feeling he remembered viscerally years later, at the University of Virginia, in the weeks before he was to go back to Bon Air with the other students.

He kept having the same nightmare, more and more often as the class began. In his dreams, he was back in that cell, waiting.

He would wake up in the middle of the night at U-Va., heart pounding, asking a desperate question out loud: "Why am I here?"

His mind kept racing in class, too. They read a Turgenev story, "A Living Relic," about a young peasant woman confined to a one-room cabin, bedridden after being stricken with an illness. She was able to find joy despite her loss, in the sound of bees humming in their hive, in the glimpse of a soft wild rabbit, in her abiding faith and in her vivid, transporting dreams.

Every part of it reminded Pritchett of being in solitary confinement, sleeping and sleeping, hoping for an escape through dreams. "I remember looking out of my little slit of a window, tracing my finger on the pattern of the trees off in the distance, looking at the clouds," he said, "and getting pleasure out of that."

When he told his U-Va. classmates about his past, his voice was shaking.

But after the initial shock, his classmates offered their own revelations: One talked about a family member in prison. Another spoke of depression. A first-year student confided that she hadn't felt comfortable on campus, because everyone seemed so wealthy and privileged.

"It was exceptionally intimate," said Andrew Kaufman, the U-Va. faculty member who created the class.

Kaufman quoted Tolstoy: "Man is flowing. In him there are all possibilities: he was stupid, now he is clever; he was evil, now he is good, and the other way around. In this is the greatness of man."


Russian literature might seem like an esoteric choice for forging bonds among 19-year-olds. But the questions the stories raise about life and death can be startling, even revelatory. And with everyone involved jolted out of the routine, there's a vulnerability that fosters connections.

The U-Va. class is featured in a documentary, and in a forthcoming book about how college courses should be revolutionized. It prompted conversations about how to change juvenile justice, too.

At its core, Kaufman said, it's about making meaning for oneself.

It forces people to rethink what's possible in their lives, said Andrew Block, director of Virginia's Department of Juvenile Justice. "We're trying to help the young people in the system change their stories."

Just after Pritchett was transferred to an adult jail, years ago, his former cellmate took the Russian literature class. He wrote to Pritchett about some of the questions it had raised for him, about spirituality, death, the meaning of life.

Pritchett was asking his own tough questions. And he remembered those letters years later, when he was out of jail, working hard, taking community college classes and praying for redemption.

He had already proved himself to the hardware store that risked hiring him. He had become a leader at work, in the classroom, at his church, someone deeply interested in how to motivate people and how to keep changing his own future.

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