Scared Straight -- by Poetry?

It sounds like a joke: "What's worse than prison? A poetry class." But for 25 teens, the sentence for trashing a former Robert Frost home was a mini-course with a Middlebury scholar of the New England icon.
June 4, 2008

Jay Parini has taught poetry to many, many students during his 30-plus years of college teaching. But the group of teenagers for whom he has read and analyzed Robert Frost's poems in recent weeks are unlike the young people he has encountered in the classrooms of Dartmouth and Middlebury Colleges since 1975.

"To them, Robert Frost is just a name on a plaque," said Parini, a poet, novelist and biographer of Frost. "I can't assume a damn thing that they have any knowledge at all" about Frost or poetry.

Parini's students these last two weeks have not had much of a choice but to listen to the Middlebury professor. Their attendance in the two sessions, the second of which was Tuesday, was mandatory as part of a "court diversion" program they entered in lieu of going to jail. Their crime: trashing a Vermont home in which Frost summered for the last two decades of his life, as a party they held raged out of control. The high school students, who were invited to the Homer Noble Farm, an unheated farmhouse in Ripton, Vt., by a youthful former employee of Middlebury College, which owns the structure, burned furniture to keep warm, broke china and soiled the carpets. They did more than $10,000 in damage.

The local prosecutor, Addison County State’s Attorney John Quinn, contemplated sending them to jail. But he opted instead for a more creative punishment. “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,” he told the Associated Press.

Quinn's call to Parini suggesting that he teach the wrongdoers about Frost caught the author and poet by surprise, but he embraced the idea. In two sessions, Parini said he "tried to take it down to brass tacks ... just reading some very moving Frost poems," rather than trying to beat the young people over the head with lectures. ("I had three teenagers of my own," he said.)

"Out Out," which describes a teenage farmhand's loss of his hand, seemed to resonate with the high schoolers who themselves hail mostly from farm country, Parini said. And as he read from the seemingly inevitable "The Road Not Taken," Parini said, he could not help but suggest to his temporary students that they might be "lost in your own woods."

"This was a very moving and emotional experience, and I think I really connected emotionally with these kids," Parini said. "The goal was to show them why poetry matters in their lives. That it's not just some monument on a hillside, but it has very crucial and vital things ot say about their very own lives."


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