Last year, University of Virginia professor Andy Kaufman wondered, what if we taught Russian literature – Lermontov, Tolstoy, and all the rest – to kids in juvenile detention. Would they find those works meaningful? And moreover, if he brought in some of his own students to talk about the readings, would it spark some kind of conversation?
"Conversations about life through literature, about things that really matter to them," says Kaufman.
He pitched this idea to the superintendent of a corrections center, and the superintendent was a little skeptical.
Michael Ito, superintendent of the Beaumont Juvenile Correctional Center in Beaumont, Va. wondered how it could be applicable to people at the center. But he says the more they discussed it, he realized those classic stories have timeless human nature issues that could be beneficial to the residents.
And so this spring Ito has opened the gates each week to 14 students from the University of Virginia. They meet in conference rooms with residents all about 18 or 19 years old from both the minimum and maximum security side.
During one of the activities, two residents are listing qualities of a good friend, an activity inspired by one of the characters in their reading, who's not such a good friend.
One of the UVA students asks a 19-year-old resident -- who's soon to be released from the center -- if he's nervous about being around his own friends again. He nods his head slightly, and says these conversations about Russian literature have changed him.
He admits that if he wasn't at the center, he'd probably be watching TV, and "not using his brain."
Another resident agrees. His favorite story this semester was "How Much Land Does a Man Need" by Tolstoy. It's about a man who was offered as much land as he could walk in a day. His greed ultimately kills him.
"It's funny how you can read literature from years and years and years ago and still apply it today," he says.
He says what's impressed him the most about this program is that the students have an interest in his life.
"It makes us feel like we're worth something, you know what I mean?"
Not one UVA student has missed a class this semester, says Kaufman. And in order for the residents to continue participating each week, the couldn't have any behavior infractions.
Ito says they hope to try the program again next year.