Literacy is a major challenge within our correctional institutions. The average inmate reads at a sixth-grade level. For many inmates, navigating court documents, parole applications, and housing requirements can be daunting.
HeartBound Ministries recognizes how important literacy is, which is why we created our Little Readers program. We also provide literacy resources to 30 plus juvenile offenders serving adult sentences at Burruss Correctional Training Institute in Forsyth, GA. Our weekly visits to these young men incorporate reading exercises and tasks designed to build critical thinking skills. Many of the juveniles cherish these opportunities to learn, while others are not as apt to participate. For the past several months, one student in particular has politely declined to read out loud or participate in any reading activities. Until last week.
Christmas can be a difficult time in prison. Separation from family, gloomy weather, and memories of Christmases past compound the stressors already associated with incarceration. Still, Christmas is a time for joyous celebration, reflection, and thankfulness. While we can’t celebrate a traditional Christmas in prison, we can still bring a little Christmas spirit to those residing within the razor wire.
Last week, we chose to read O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” to the juveniles at Burruss. I remember that when I was little, my mom would put on a CD recording of The Gift of the Magi each Christmas once we had all bundled into the car to make the annual trek to see my grandparents. That CD became a part of Christmas in the Shelton household.
We figured we might as well share our tradition with the family we’ve formed at Burruss.
I began by asking the boys if they knew what a pseudonym was. After explaining the concept and sharing some of the more famous authors that wrote under a pen name, I asked them why O. Henry might have written under a different name. “Maybe he wrote about something the government doesn’t want you to know about; maybe O. Henry was actually a woman; maybe he didn’t want to be famous… Mr. Spencer, can you just hurry up and tell us?”
It was then that I revealed that they shared something in common with O. Henry. Blank faces, no guesses from the crowd. I then told them that O. Henry, whose real name was William Porter, served time in prison. Scholars speculate that Porter got his pen name from a pharmacist that he worked with while in prison. I also explained that how at the time, Porter would have been ostracized from high society for being a convicted felon, thus forcing him to use a pen name. I could quickly see their young minds begin to awaken as they sat up in their chairs.
And so we began the story. It’s only 8 pages long. I asked for six volunteers to read a page each - I would read the last two.
Six hands went up. I began writing down each name, pausing as I reached the fifth face. Jordan.
Jordan never reads out loud. Truth be told, I didn’t think Jordan could read. He never volunteered. Anytime we had an activity that involved reading he would hand the paper back to me. He never writes to me, never asks for books, never shows interest. He rarely speaks and when he does, his voice falters with unsureness. He never writes down the answers for his team when we play trivia. I never pressure him to read out loud because I can tell how much it terrifies him. I know to avoid Jordan when I pick people to read.
So you can imagine my surprise when I saw his hand raised. I quietly nodded to him and moved on to the sixth volunteer. And we began to read. Slowly but surely, our first reader made his way down the page, pausing at certain words, hinting that he could use a little help. O. Henry does not write at a sixth-grade level.
I’ve learned to stop at the end of each page and ask, “What did we learn from that page?” It gives us time to cover words we didn’t know, discuss similes and metaphors, check up on each character. It helps keep us all on track. We slowly moved through each page. One by one, they read. It was beautiful, just like O. Henry’s story.
The time came for Jordan to read. He began, slowly sounding out each word, breaking the larger ones down into smaller parts, pausing to ask for help with the tougher ones. I heard one boy snicker to the side. Jordan paused, clearly hurt, I thought he would give up.
But he kept reading. He kept reading!
One of the more difficult parts of this job is separating work life from home life. I often find myself talking about my work to anyone and everyone who will listen. It’s hard to “turn it off” each day at 5 or 6 when it comes time to head home from the office. A lot of what I see and hear hurts me and I just want to help, make everything right, give those boys the childhood that they deserve. I try and remember that there’s a victim on the other side, perhaps a family that’s missing a loved one, a brother, son, cousin, whoever, someone that will never come home. Those boys are there because they hurt someone, but I still can’t help but feel empathy for them. I struggle to go home and forget about them because in another life, I could be them and they could be me. I’m constantly thinking of new activities for us to do, new ways that I can help, and sometimes, it feels like I’m fighting a losing battle. For every juvenile that we help, that we set on a right track, that we mentor, another boy is transferred from a youth detention center to Burruss a couple weeks later. Another 17-year-old serving a 10 or 20 or life sentence for some crime. It seems like there is a never-ending pipeline of these boys. It’s heartbreaking.
So I have learned to celebrate the little things. To find joy in the small moments to remind myself of why we do this work and why it matters.
And when Jordan sat there and read that whole page, it was no little thing. It was a big thing. He did it. Finally. Jordan read.
I know this letter has dragged on for much longer than I intended. But I share it with you as a thank you for your support of HeartBound. To express to you my gratitude for your faith in this little nonprofit. When Andrea started HeartBound nearly 19 years ago, I never thought that I would get involved. I figured I had bigger ambitions, hands to shake, deals to sign, riches to amass. I thought HeartBound was this small little thing doing good in a small corner of the world. I am so grateful that I was so wrong and that I am here today. This job brings me so much joy because we are able to help so many people. We are impacting lives each and every day. As long as I live, I will never forget Jordan reading that whole page of “The Gift of the Magi.” I am so grateful for Jordan and that one, singular, double-spaced page.
I will leave you with this. The Magi travelled through the desert bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the newborn Jesus, believing in their hearts that he was the Prince who was Promised. As O. Henry writes, they were wise, and their gifts were wise ones. I don’t pretend to know the first thing about wisdom, but I do know something about gift giving. Your support has given people the greatest gifts of all – love and compassion. I hope that we can all find it within our hearts to love our fellow man this Christmas.