When Humanities teacher Susan Neitlich visited Montgomery, Alabama over winter break, she read a book that made a big impression. It was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and social justice advocate. Stevenson founded and now directs the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that built the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the victims of lynching in the United States.
Earlier this spring, a young-adult version of Just Mercy was published and Susan shared the book's introduction with her 8th grade English class. The book floored many of the students, lighting a spark that has grown into a small blaze.
"I asked if they wanted to continue reading and they practically jumped out of their seats they were so taken with it," Susan recalls.
Eighth graders didn't just read the book: they've taken action inspired by its tales of injustice, mass incarceration and the failings of the U.S. criminal justice system. One action project was to write letters to their state representatives. Among those lawmakers is Sen. Gary Winfield of New Haven, visited campus May 13 and spoke to eighth graders about his efforts to affect criminal justice reform in Connecticut, including his successful drive to repeal the state's death penalty in 2012.
Educating others about the contents of the book was another class action project, and on May 31 three eighth graders made a presentation to the faculty and staff.
"One thing that stayed with me form the book was about a man on his execution date and the last request was for a song to be played on before his execution," one eighth grader told the faculty. "Before I had never really thought about these prisoners on death row as human. They didn't really have personal qualities to me. But after reading this it just made me realize that they are human too."
A third action project was to raise money to buy books for a Connecticut organization called CLICC—short for Connecting Through Literacy: Incarcerated Parents, Their Children and Caregivers. Landon Osborne (Foote Class of 2004, and a classmate of Susan's son) is a program manager at CLICC, which uses mentoring and literacy activities to strengthen communication and deepen bonds between children and their incarcerated parents.
On June 5, Landon visited Susan's 8Z class to collect the books students has raised funds to purchase and speak about the challenges faced by families with incarcerated parents. Landon explained how research shows that maintaining strong family bonds during incarceration through reading and mentoring can lessen the chance of inmates returning to prison and help them reintegrate into their communities after release.
Lastly, the students composed letters to Bryan Stevenson, the author, conveying the impact his book had on them.
"Your telling of some of the horrible consequences of our corrupt law system inspired me in many ways. I feel a need to do something about this problem," wrote one eighth grader. "Your story has inspired me to do volunteer work this summer. I'm excited to have the chance to make a positive impact on my community."
Another student began her letter: "Dear Mr. Stevenson. Thank you. I suppose there's not much to say at first other than thank you. I've just finished reading your book and that's really all that fills my mind for a while. All of the facts and ideas and movements and stories that you've written down swirl through my brain at first, like sugar that's just been stirred into tea. ... You inspire us to do things we don't think are possible, but we're going to try anyways. You fought the system with the deck stacked against you and because you could do it, I know I can too."
Susan says those kinds of reactions were universal in her classes. "These are new ideas for many of these kids," Susan says. "It lit a fire in them just in terms of understanding that there are things that go on in the country that need improvement."
This summer, the entire Foote faculty and staff will read the original version of Just Mercy for faculty professional development—no doubt igniting new conversations and areas for further exploration in our curriculum.