My Version of Hell on Earth

Hi Professor Stavans, 

Hope you are doing well. 

I have been thinking about the discussion we had in class about Act III in King Lear being the closest Shakespeare comes to describing hell on earth. You asked what our version of hell was. Some students spoke about darkness and the lack of human contact. Others spoke about chaos and being around people all the time. My version of hell is something that I have seen play out in my life. I am terrified of being a burden to my family and having a negative rather than positive presence in their lives. 

A couple of years ago, my family and I found out that my grandfather had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It started with little things: misplacing objects around the house and forgotten appointments here and there. Slowly it began to be more obvious. Every time I went back to Mumbai I would meet my grandfather. He’d say, “Oh, Khushy. You’ve become so tall. You must be taller than I am.” He’d take me by the hand and lead me to the closest mirror and compare our heights. I did indeed grow taller and stronger, while my grandfather was shrinking with age. But there came the time when he’d follow that same ritual of greeting two days in a row. And then twice on the same day.

The last time I went home, he hugged me with the same love and affection he has always shown me. However, he didn’t compare our heights. Later, when I was sitting with him, he asked, “So, Arati, you must be married now?” Arati is the name of my aunt, his daughter. I don’t know if he remembers me any longer, if I am somewhere buried deep within his memory.

Hell to me isn’t going to a place where I will suffer alone and isolated. It is being alive and watching my family suffer. Having them watch as I lose my memory, my identity, while still being around them physically. Having them suffer the heartbreak of watching me turn into a shell of my former self, changing the fond memories they have of me. 

Perhaps that is what drove King Lear to insanity, seeing his daughters betray him during his lifetime. When he meets Edgar disguised as a madman, suffering, he asks him, “Didst thou give all to thy two daughters, and art thou come to this?” Going through his own personal hell, he cannot imagine a worse condition to be bestowed on any other person. 

I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this. 

Khushy (Amherst College student) 

What Would Change If We Knew More?

Hi Professor Stavans, 

I’ve been meaning to write to you about a conversation we had in class two weeks ago. You asked: Would your opinions about Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets change if you knew more about him? Particularly, if you knew he was an asshole. In response, I said that my opinions would change. I brought up Tiger Woods and explained how his career came crashing down almost overnight when the scandal broke about his affairs with multiple women. Others in the class disagreed and argued that one’s merits as a writer, actor, singer or sports player should only be based on their abilities in that particular field.

I couldn’t help but think about my opinions about the inmates. I asked myself a tough question: Would my opinions about some of these men change if I knew what crimes they committed? We are only allowed to interact with the inmates on a depersonalized level. We know nothing about their criminal histories or families or upbringings. I wonder what would change if we knew more. What would change if, prior to enrolling in the class, we were given a sheet with their names and crimes written next to them? 

In the podcast we listened to, the narrator described his own experience finding out about the criminal pasts of the actors he worked with while putting on a production of Hamlet in a high-security prison. He described how strange and confusing it was to find out that someone he had come to know and like was a murderer. He explained, “It felt like they have betrayed me. But strangely, I felt that I had betrayed them too.”

I wonder if I would experience the same thing. Would these people I have come to know and like become different people entirely? Would they, like Tiger Woods, transform overnight? I’d like to think that I would give people the benefit of the doubt, but I just don’t know. And that’s a bit sad to me. Should we learn to judge people less on their past actions and more on who they are now? Should we have more faith that people can change?

Best, Maggie (Amherst College student)

Through Your Eyes, I Glimpsed My True Self

Professor Stavans,

Who would have thought that we—inmates—could contribute and even excel in a classroom with such gifted Amherst College and other college students? I guess the short answer to that question is you. You made it obvious that all of your students would be equals, and as equals would be held to the same standards.

As we made our way to the visit room for our first class, there was nervousness and anxiety—worry about fitting in, fear of being overshadowed by the well-educated college students. Ah, but on the way back—I wish you could have observed the shift in perspective: conversations about paper topics; laughter over input from specific students, both “inside” and “outside”; and confidence.

Perhaps the most important education we received from your course is the knowledge that there is a world—outside of these barbed-wire fences and concrete walls—that accepts us and wants to hear our opinions. For some of us, this was the first time we realized we have something of value to offer, and that society would be willing to hear us. For others, we realized that our records will only matter as much as we allow them to, that there are kindhearted, good-minded people who will give a chance to those willing to work for it.

Me, I receive all of these gifts, plus one more. Through these classes I have been able to see myself through the eyes of an educated stranger, one who has willingly overlooked my past and responded to me as I have presented myself to you today. Through your eyes I have seen myself as intelligent, respectful and respectable. As hardworking, approachable, opinionated and a good listener. As a leader, and as a person. Through your eyes I glimpsed my true self: capable of success and rehabilitation and, most important, deserving of a chance to grow to new heights. Who knew?

You did, Professor Stavans, as did Professor Bumiller, Professor Saxton and Professor O’Connell. Thank you for this program, for your belief in us as redeemable and for making us see ourselves as you have seen us from the very start—as equals.

The term “gentleman and a scholar” seems at once overly cliché and completely fitting here! 

Forever in 
your debt, 
André ("inside" student)