Thursday, June 5, 2008

Poetry As Punishment

Frost Home Vandals Take Poetry Classes
Photo Gallery by Marty Lederhandler, AP
Posted: 2008-06-03 10:01:35

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (June 2) - Call it poetic justice: More than two dozen young people who broke into Robert Frost's former home for a beer party and trashed the place are being required to take classes in his poetry as part of their punishment.

Using "The Road Not Taken" and another poem as jumping-off points, Frost biographer Jay Parini hopes to show the vandals the error of their ways - and the redemptive power of poetry.

Frost, here in 1954, was born in San Francisco, but is commonly associated with New England, where his writings were frequently set. He received four Pulitzer Prizes during his lifetime. He summered at the home from 1939 to 1963, the year he died.

"I guess I was thinking that if these teens had a better understanding of who Robert Frost was and his contribution to our society, that they would be more respectful of other people's property in the future and would also learn something from the experience," said prosecutor John Quinn.

The vandalism occurred at the Homer Noble Farm in Ripton, where Frost spent more than 20 summers before his death in 1963. Now owned by Middlebury College, the unheated farmhouse on a dead-end road is used occasionally by the college and is open in the warmer months.

On Dec. 28, a 17-year-old former Middlebury College employee decided to hold a party and gave a friend $100 to buy beer. Word spread. Up to 50 people descended on the farm, the revelry turning destructive after a chair broke and someone threw it into the fireplace.

When it was over, windows, antique furniture and china had been broken, fire extinguishers discharged, and carpeting soiled with vomit and urine. Empty beer cans and drug paraphernalia were left behind. The damage was put at $10,600.

Twenty-eight people - all but two of them teenagers - were charged, mostly with trespassing.

About 25 ultimately entered pleas - or were accepted into a program that allows them to wipe their records clean - provided they underwent the Frost instruction. Some will also have to pay for some of the damage, and most were ordered to perform community service in addition to the classroom sessions. The man who bought the beer is the only one who went to jail; he got three days behind bars.

Parini, 60, a Middlebury College professor who has stayed at the house before, was eager to oblige when Quinn asked him to teach the classes. He donated his time for the two sessions.

On Wednesday, 11 turned out for the first, with Parini giving line-by-line interpretations of "The Road Not Taken" and "Out, Out-," seizing on parts with particular relevance to draw parallels to their case.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," he thundered, reciting the opening line of the first poem, which he called symbolic of the need to make choices in life.

"This is where Frost is relevant. This is the irony of this whole thing. You come to a path in the woods where you can say, `Shall I go to this party and get drunk out of my mind?"' he said. "Everything in life is choices."

Even the setting had parallels, he said: "Believe me, if you're a teenager, you're always in the damned woods. Literally, you're in the woods - probably too much you're in the woods. And metaphorically you're in the woods, in your life. Look at you here, in court diversion! If that isn't `in the woods,' what the hell is `in the woods'? You're in the woods!"

Dressed casually, one with his skateboard propped up against his desk, the young people listened to Parini and answered questions when he pressed. Then a court official asked them to describe how their arrests and the publicity affected them.

"I was worried about my family," said one boy, whose name was withheld because the so-called diversion program in which took part is confidential. "I'll be carrying on the family name and all that. And with this kind of thing tied to me, it doesn't look very good."

Another said: "After this, I'm thinking about staying out of trouble, because this is my last chance."

"My parents' business in town was affected," said a girl.

When the session ended, the vandals were offered snacks - apple cider, muffins, sliced fruit - but none partook. They went straight for the door, several declining comment as they walked out of the building. The next session is Tuesday.

"It's a lesson learned, that's for sure," said one of them, 22-year-old Ryan Kenyon, whose grandmother worked as hairdresser in the 1960s and knew Frost. "It did bring some insight. People do many things that they don't realize the consequences of. It shined a light, at least to me."

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  1. I know a lot of people thought this was a bad idea (poetry as punishment), but I think there are more positives in this than not.

    Had this class not been offered to them, they still may have the idea that they just destroyed some old dead white guy's house without the history of why this hurt so many.

    I personally see it as a good way to help share with these teenagers the significance of their crime.

    Other crimes have used community service to help the person understand why what they did was wrong, I think this is much better than just placing the kids in jail or giving them a black mark on their record. It's communicating something deeper. It's follow-through. So, I'm one of the ones who appreciates that this was part of their "punishment."

    Of course, I'd love to be in that class as well, though I will not be trashing anyone's historical home to get a private session.

    Thanks for posting this, Diane. I appreciate all the photos you included.

  2. Good thoughts, Kelli. This goes against everything I ever learned about teaching practices. But obviously traditional education missed these kids, so why not try something untraditional. I have to wonder why they would take pleasure in destroying some old dead white guy's house, but I doubt they even considered the importance of what they were destroying. They were simply enjoying the act of destruction. I doubt that it occurred to them that this house had historical or literary significance. It could have been anyone's house. Perhaps poetry can save them. Wouldn't be the first time poetry had a curative effect. Maybe if they'd had more of it in school, they would have grown up into better people.

  3. I hate seeing poetry referred to, as punishment. Too many people already have that impression, so they don't need it to be reinforced.

    Otherwise, that was an interesting decision and I hope it makes a positive impact.

  4. This is one of those stories...who needs to write fiction when stuff like this goes on...?

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  6. I agree with Kelli and Diane. I don't see this as punishment but as opportunity. This quote seems appropos.


    I wonder what Frost would have thought

  7. That's a perfect quotation! Yesterday's NJ Star-Ledger ran an article by Parini about his experience teaching these kids some of Frost's poems. I'm tracking it down to the original source, The Washington Post. Stay tuned.


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