The women in orange walked into the room. One warden left for a position outside the door while the other took a post on an inside wall. This was not your typical classroom.
The only noise was an uneasy scraping of metal on the concrete floor as each woman adjusted her cold, gray chair to the table.
My colleague and I greeted each mother with a smile they never saw. They held their gaze to the floor as if looking for something they had dropped.
After everyone was seated, we introduced a story that would help them connect with their children the next time they were granted a visit or phone call. Sometimes it was hard to know what to say after being apart from one another for so long, and a story often provided the ground for conversation.
This gathering was part of the nationally acclaimed literacy program, Motheread, Inc., which uses children’s literature to help build family relationships while improving literacy skills for both adults and children.
Classes like these are meant to help incarcerated women learn to read a book and converse with their children around a story.
Ultimately, the goal is to build the literacy skills necessary to help move these women toward employment after serving time.
According to ABC Literacy Resources, sixty-to-eighty percent of men and women in U.S. prisons are functionally illiterate and one in four has a learning disability.
Another effective literacy program for incarcerated parents, Children’s Literacy Foundation, shows that “participation in storybook programs helps keep families together and increases the chances of a parent staying at home once he or she is released from prison.”
I placed the book, Just Us Women, by Jeannette Caines and Pat Cummings, in front of each woman.
“Let’s look at the cover. What do you see?” I asked.
After a long silence one woman spoke up. “My daughter.”
When our eyes met I smiled. This time she saw.
“I dream about going to see my mama. My daughter and me. She lives far away.”
“A wonderful dream.” I said. “Someday I bet you’ll live that dream.”
I wondered if that was the right thing to say, but I knew without dreams life could seem bleak. My colleague and I took turns reading slowly, stopping to share what we saw in each picture. We waited after each page for others to speak up.
“What do you see?” I’d ask.
Sometimes all they saw was the picture on the page. Sometimes they saw themselves. Sometimes they saw a memory. Sometimes a dream.We ended our session sharing any dreams that may have been sparked by the story of a young daughter and her mother taking a road trip—just the two of them.
Not everyone had a dream to share but some did. Some had more than one.
On the way out the woman who had spoken first said, “I’m going to take that trip with my daughter one day. I will.”
And I said, “Yes, you will.”
And together we smiled.
Stories can help us dream.
It can happen in a prison. It can happen in a school. It can happen at home.
Take time with a book today and ask your child (and yourself!), “What do you see?”
Look beyond the picture.
Plant a dream.
It just might come true.
Here are a few to get started:
A seemingly unimportant person sees things of beauty in places others don’t. This book shows how one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, especially when combined with vision and determination. Learn about the dreamer that built a national monument. Included is an activity to do with your child, but first you must take a “dream walk.”
A story to keep your dream alive no matter what other’s think. Perhaps, it’s time to surprise those that may not believe you can do it!
Mr. Qwerty had some extraordinary ideas he kept to himself. Once he finally let them out, he built something amazing to change the world! The illustrations are enough to get you dreaming!
Dave MacGillivray, the Boston Marathon Race Director, never realized his childhood dream. Through a special relationship with his wise grandfather, Dave learns “sometimes in life things don’t work out . . . and you have to find a different way.” Some dreams pave the way for others you haven’t yet dreamed.
A book to assure a child how their uniqueness, designed by God, gives them a place in the world. This rhyming story encourages a child to explore, dream and spread their wings.
I can’t help but recommend the SCREEN-FREE FUN activity book that stimulates creative thinking and play. It’s filled with great ways to help plant dreams, plus learn how to make a dream catcher!
And if you still need a little more help to get those dream juices flowing, try this Chocolate Cherry Dream Cake . . . just in time for Valentine’s Day!