IN his book ``The Periodic Table,'' Primo Levi writes of a friend's reproach when Levi, then in a German concentration camp, despaired, understandably, about the future. ``You should never be disheartened, because it is harmful and therefore immoral, almost indecent.'' Keats expresses a similar thought. ``I must choose between despair & Energy.... I choose the latter.'' The ability of the human spirit to surmount life's hardships never ceases to impress me. Recently, I witnessed examples of this phenomenon in two unlikely places: a prison and a welfare hotel for homeless families. Taconic Correctional Facility, a state prison for men, is in Westchester County. I was there to attend the opening of the Thomas Mott Osborne Children's Center. Osborne, whose dates are 1859-1926, was a remarkable human being. He lived in a prison town - Auburn, New York - and after a successful business career decided to devote his life to penal reform. He became Superintendent of Sing Sing prison.
A political cartoonist of the time depicted the entrance to Sing Sing, with a sign above the gates reading, ``Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.'' The word, ``Abandon,'' was being vigorously crossed out by Osborne. His oft-stated desire was to change a prison ``from a scrap heap into a repair shop.''
The Children's Center is generously stocked with toys and books. It is a place for inmate-fathers to enjoy the company of their children on visiting days when their families come up from New York City. Prisoners participating in the Osborne Association's FamilyWorks program, which assists them in becoming better fathers and husbands, helped to build the Children's Center.
The Center and the FamilyWorks program are rooted in several basic assumptions: that children love their parents and parents love their children. That men who have been bad citizens can still be good parents. That a program built on the love and concern fathers have for their children can have a lasting impact for the entire family. That strong family ties are an essential factor in an inmate's decision and ability to lead a crime-free life upon release.
To see prisoners joyfully playing with their children in a cheerful setting, as opposed to the usual sterile facilities of prison visiting areas, is a moving sight. Obviously, basic problems remain. For the prisoner, whose imprisonment has separated him from his family, loneliness and deep uncertainty about the future; for his family, a difficult struggle to survive on their own.
But the fathers participating in the program have not succumbed to the despair of prison. They are trying to get a grip on their lives. For each of them, may these words of the Anglican ``Book of Common Prayer'' be fulfilled: ``Remember all prisoners ... and give them hope for their future.''
The Prince George Hotel, on East 28th Street in Manhattan, has seen far better days. At the turn of the century, ``Diamond Jim'' Brady and Lillian Russell held lavish parties in its ballroom. Today the Prince George Hotel, the largest welfare hotel in the city, shelters 463 homeless families with 1,200 children. These are poor people living lives of desperation. Fear haunts the hallways. Violence and drugs abound.
In the midst of this chaos, lovely children, with names such as Heather, Jumel, Janise, Linisha, Precious, Jason, and Shariff, after being cooped up much of the day in grimy hotel rooms, come downstairs to the ballroom to paint scenes far different from their surroundings: scenes of vast blue skies, expansive fields, trees, grass, and flowers.
In their painting, ``Latin American Rhythms,'' this viewer feels a tropical sea breeze on his face and hears the sounds of surf and drums and dancers' feet upon the dark, rich earth.
For this work, art teacher Richard Barclift, of the Children's Aid Society, assigned children with little or no experience the job of painting the background areas. They became the ``sky children'' and the ``hill children'' of the class. They acquired a feel for the brushes and learned how to apply paint. Youngsters who showed greater skill painted the figures and trees.
The art class meets in a corner of the hotel ballroom that also serves as a gymnasium. The night I was there, as a raucous basketball game proceeded nearby, the children worked on the eleventh of a planned 17-panel mural, the ``Evolution of Black Dance.''
Five youngsters, aged 7 to 12, knelt on the ballroom floor in front of a masonite board, sketching figures and houses with charcoal. They made mistakes and, using a chamois, erased them - and began again. Mr. Barclift gently told them that mistakes are part of the learning process. ``This is why we use charcoal and pencils. Even trained architects have to redo things.''
The children did not become discouraged. They are deeply drawn to art and work with intense concentration. Mr. Barclift would like each child to have a chance to create something. To feel that each has played a role in bringing joy and beauty to others.
Prisons and welfare hotels, for good reason, are not considered places of hope. Yet, even at such unpromising locations will be found human beings, in the words of Primo Levi, ``against whom the weapons of night are blunted.''