Jay Parini was expressing limited ambitions for the class he was about to teach to some of the young drinkers who sacked Robert Frost's summer home in Ripton late last year.
"I'm not under any illusion that this will transform their lives," Parini, a Middlebury College professor and Frost biographer, said before the May 27 session. "But I do have a particularly strong faith in the power of poetry to transform minds."
There were signs that Parini may have achieved that goal.
His recitation and analysis of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" offered "some good insights into what happened" at the secluded cabin, Ryan Kenyon, 22, said after the class. Kenyon and most of the other 28 offenders were required to attend one of two classes Parini was asked to teach as part of their sentencing for vandalism - a case that drew international attention.
As the 11 attendees listened attentively, Parini interpreted Frost's famous poem as a melodic meditation on the choices life presents.
"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood," Frost's famous poem begins. Parini interjected to explain that many of Frost's poems "are about the process of being in the goddamned woods." It is amid the confusion and myopia figuratively represented in "The Road Not Taken" that choices must be made, Parini noted. "We're always in the woods," he told the class. "If you're a teen, you're especially in the woods."
Parini made clear he did not view the class members as miscreants, though he acknowledged that he was initially "horrified" by the desecration of a cabin where he himself occasionally lived in the course of 25 years of researching Frost's life.
The bald, 60-year-old professor and author pointed out that his three sons have attended local public schools. "I know what it's like for you," Parini told the group of young people dressed mainly in T-shirts and baseball caps. "I've been through some stuff with my own kids."
In fact, he added, "You may even be lucky the place you broke into was Frost's house. You broke into a pile of poetry." Parini then returned to the twin themes of his one-hour session: the difficulty of making choices and the guidance poetry can offer.
"You're just starting your lives," he said to the nine young men and two young women. "You should start with a basis of wisdom, a basis of judgment. One of the places you can go to hear that is poetry."
Parini gave a growling rendition of Frost's "Fire and Ice," citing its title as an indication of the poet's status as "a kind of grandfather of this town." Several heads nodded when Parini asked whether the class had heard of a local restaurant, Fire and Ice, which, he noted to his listeners' apparent surprise, takes its name from Frost's poem.
The local impact of their destructive escapade was on the minds of class members when Sharon Tasker-Dalton, head of the Addison County Court Diversion and Restorative Justice Project, asked them to recount "what you've thought about since this happened." One young woman noted that her parents own a business in Middlebury. "I've thought a lot about how it's affected them," she said.
A slender young man with a scraggly beard told the group he had been sentenced to 72 hours in jail "for a stupid decision I made" on the night of December 28, 2007. "Everybody here," he warned the class - "don't screw up again. Don't do anything to get yourself sent to prison, because you really, really don't want that to happen."
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