At the very end of the 2019 Carnegie Medals celebration in Washington D.C. this past June, I met Dr. Erin Corbett. After an already memorable evening of rousing, emotional speeches from medal winners Kiese Laymon (Heavy) and Rebecca Makkai (The Great Believers) and keynote speaker Laura Lippman, Corbett added a whole new layer to my understanding of one of this year’s Carnegie winners.
She and a friend had come to the event just to see Laymon accept his award for Heavy. Corbett, I learned, founded and runs a nonprofit organization that offers educational opportunities to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. As soon as she read Heavy last fall, she knew she had to add it to her curriculum. Even in our brief chat that night, I understood that the book has had a profound effect on Corbett and her students. Corbett graciously agreed to an interview with Booklist about her experience teaching Heavy in Connecticut prisons, which I’m so happy to share below.
Early on a recent Friday morning, I also had the privilege of speaking with one of Dr. Corbett’s students. Maurice has been a student of Dr. Corbett for the past year. “Since I met her, everything’s been going great. She’s inspirational,” he told me. “She pushes me and she constantly reminds me of my potential. And being able to be in her class has helped me see exactly what I’m capable of.”
Heavy impacted Maurice “in a major way.” He said that reading the book, which Laymon writes directly to his mother, inspired him to evaluate his relationship with his own mother, and write to her more frequently. Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is another memoir he’s read in Dr. Corbett’s class that’s stuck with him, because he can identify with the relationships and losses Ward writes about. (Laymon himself thanked Jesmyn Ward in his Carnegie Medal acceptance speech.)
I wondered if Heavy‘s themes of remembering, writing, and revising struck Maurice the way they did me. “It speaks of a certain form of evolution to just be able to know that there’s always room for improvement, ” he responded. “And to evaluate your progress and to know that being in a position like [Laymon’s], you’re affecting other lives. So you want to do your best, try your best.”
Maurice told me he’d like to thank Laymon for sharing his story, “because there’s a lot of people that can identify, such as myself. Because you have to be vulnerable to share that story with everyone.” Before we hung up, we shared our hopes that we’d have many more Kiese Laymon books to read in the future. I said I was glad Laymon is young and Maurice agreed, saying “He has his whole life ahead of him.”
ANNIE BOSTROM: Tell us about the organization you founded, Second Chance Educational Alliance. What led you to your career?
DR. ERIN CORBETT: Second Chance Educational Alliance was founded out of a recognition for the need for reentry services rooted in educational access and opportunities. As a nonprofit, we are the only community-based organization in Connecticut doing work based in this conceptual framework; other programs are run directly out of higher education institutions in neighboring areas. Initially we launched in March 2016 intending to be a reentry, educational consultant “concierge” type of service for recently released individuals. However, we quickly learned that we had not established the relationships necessary to be successful in this kind of outreach and staff inside our target facility suggested we offer workshops inside the facility. Those workshops turned into semester long courses, not for credit, and we have consistently increased enrollment since Fall 2016. Currently we are in three correctional facilities in the northern portion of the state and our instructors are a dedicated group of volunteers who believe in the mission and vision of the organization.
What led me to this space is my reality of having family members and friends who are justice-impacted. One cousin spent 12 years behind bars and, once released, took his life due to the stress and weight of reentry as a young, Black man with a sexual assault conviction. A maternal uncle is currently serving a life sentence in Florida for homicide, having had his sentence commuted from death row to life. The SCEA cofounder, Erwin Hurst Sr., is formerly incarcerated, as well, and he brought a wealth of perspective in our early months.
One day on Twitter, someone mentioned the book, having read an early copy, and tagged Kiese. I clicked on Kiese’s name and saw the pinned tweet that pointed to the piece written by his mother. “These Are Your Memories” was one of the most powerful, and vulnerable, things I had seen in a very long time, and I’m sure it tapped into the part of me that continues to have a strained relationship with my own mother. I immediately knew that I had to read Heavy for my own reasons, and my own healing, but I had no idea the impact it could have on not only me but SCEA students. I preordered the book as soon as I could and I read it over two days, sobbing from the very beginning and resigning to reading it only in quiet places of solitude where no one could see my ugly cry!
After reading Heavy I knew that I had to find a way to get my students to read it. As I was trying to figure out logistics (SCEA is funded by those of us who teach in the program so money is always a concern), I opined on Twitter, tagging Kiese, that I would figure out a way to teach the book but that if I could just get some donations . . . and Kiese responded saying he would donate! I coordinated through his publisher and had to wait until the paperback printing was available; in the meantime, a volunteer of SCEA, George Jones, went to hear Kiese read at Wesleyan University and it was then that Kiese, upon hearing that the SCEA students did not yet have their books, purchased 35 copies of Heavy on the spot. The rest of the books were mailed to students directly, and the book has made its way around the prison, with SCEA students sharing their copies with those who are not students.
What made you sure that Heavy would speak to your students?
The feedback from the SCEA students affirmed what I thought would happen. Many SCEA students have spoken about the love they have for their families in spite of some of the complexities of their relationships with various family members. The book is about love, love as complicated, love as all-encompassing, love as transformative. SCEA students understand that love in their own ways and contexts and reading about love from the perspective of a Black man who grew up in Mississippi made it more relatable, I think.
How has Heavy impacted your students? Have any of their reactions to the book been surprising?
I think reading Heavy, a book written by a Black man about growing up as a Black boy in the south, provides perspectives and a level of relatability that, perhaps, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Lord of the Flies simply cannot provide. None of the reactions have been surprising, but each student who has commented about how many times they’ve read the book and how many people they’ve loaned it to, takes something different from it.
Did you get to speak with Kiese Laymon at the Carnegie Awards celebration?
I did! I brought my highlighted, underlined, Post-it flagged copy with me and got him to autograph it for me. I was also able to talk to him about a student who had written him a letter directly and he kindly mentioned wanting to write the student back. Kiese remembered my volunteer George, knew who I was, remembered my program, and seemed sincerely interested, and flattered, that the book had had such an impact.
Has Heavy inspired your students to write down their own stories?
I know of at least one student who has been inspired by Heavy to begin writing his own memoir.
Which other books do you think have been most memorable, affecting, or influential for your students?
I would selfishly say that the books I teach in my English Lit and Comp Foundations course that get the most attention and feedback are James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Morrison’s Song of Solomon.