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Thinning Down the Needle


Colby Magazine: Spring 2002

by Robert Gillespie

Peter Harris
Peter Harris

Colby Cares About Kids. That's not only the name of the mentoring program that matches 150-plus Colby students with youths in local schools, it's Peter Harris's mission statement. Or one of them.

"Kids have attention deficit because nobody's ever paid any attention to them," declared the plain-spoken English professor after his composition class volunteered literacy tutoring to Waterville schools last year.

"Eighty-six percent of the kids don't feel they can have a conversation with adults about drugs, alcohol, truancy, pre-marital sex. You see how tiny a window of opportunity they have to pass through. So why not try mentoring when you can?" said Harris, whose commitment to service learning--community service with a learning component--provided the push to get CCAK up and running. "The idea that somebody can talk with them about their lives has an effect on grades, on hygiene, on self-esteem. Just in these terms it's a big success."

CCAK is only Harris's most recent volunteer or community service pursuit. The list of ways he has served his community, including teaching, is a long one, and a theme of social justice permeates it. "I just get disgusted with the split between haves and have-nots. I came from great privilege. I have trouble with my conscience. 'It's time to thin down for the needle,'" he said, referring to a line in "Pre-Mortal," a poem by Franz Wright, on the biblical word to the wise that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

Harris came to Colby in 1974 to teach American literature. In the '80s he moved into teaching poetry writing and writing his own poems, collected in Blue Hallelujahs, winner of the Maine Chapbook competition in 1996. The '90s saw him turn toward the downtown schools and community.

Early in March, Harris paused to talk on his way out the door to a weekend Zen retreat.

"They tell you to stop running your brain. Just attempt to concentrate on your breath. That stuff appeals to me," he said. "Separation is an illusion. We're not separate from one another. That's true on a molecular level, and that's what poetry comes to. Everything should connect in a poem, so why shouldn't everything connect outside?"

At Waterville's Inland Hospital Harris still leads a state-wide Maine Humanities program, Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Health Care. Hospitals are by nature hierarchical, he says, which keeps people from relating. "Literature has a way of illuminating that we're all the same. So it breaks down barriers," he said.

To improve town-gown relations Harris involved himself with the REM program, a volunteer organization that works to improve the economic and cultural life in greater Waterville. The redesign of the city's Concourse and creation of the Sterns Art Center were the best things to come out of it, he says, although he found it wasn't the way for him to go. He started paying attention to the Colby Volunteer Center.

Even though 200 students were involved in CVC, they still needed a faculty member to push for funds and a budget. "We've tacitly ignored students' idealism and their capacity for engagement," Harris said. "If truth is in action, they were the conscience of the institution."

He used his position as faculty representative to the Board of Trustees in 2000-01 as a bully pulpit: "CVC is housed in a broom closet! I kept saying that. They were responsive. I'm waiting for the shoe to drop."

He believes it's enlightened self-interest for the College to keep the CCAK and CVC programs going. And he'd like each academic program, from administrative science to physics to women's studies, to make at least one of their courses intersect with the community. "You can do this in any subject matter," he said confidently.

Making connections, overcoming separation, setting the College and students along the road of social responsibility . . .

"If I had a million bucks, I'd give it to people who needed it," Harris said. "It's what a decent society would do anyway."




      © Colby College   Colby Magazine Spring 2002