Monday, October 31, 2011

Everyone Has a Story

I was standing in the kitchen washing potatoes several years ago--it was a winter night, dark had come already, and there was a steady hum of kids playing, NPR reporting, and my husband working around the house.  I reached for a knife to cut off a green portion of a potato when suddenly a childhood story about a homeless man who was in my grandparent's basement eating their raw potatoes came pouring back to me.  I quickly cut up the potatoes and raced through my living room yelling over my shoulder to my unsuspecting husband, "I need to go write something..."

I had a story.  I am reminded of this every year when I embark on our memoir writing unit in 7th grade.  I start the unit by telling my students the green potato story, and later read what I had eventually written down--words that wove together my childhood memories and my adult realizations of justice and prejudice to show how we find meaning in our memories.  On this first day, we sit in a circle in my classroom on the floor and just spend 40 minutes telling stories.  The only person who can speak is the one with the bouncy ball.

Writing memoir is one of my favorite units to teach, but this particular day is one of my favorite lessons.  Without any sense of hindrance from getting language fine tuned on their paper, my students begin to pour forth their stories.  And so I hear about getting lost in the grocery store; near death experiences, traveling, washing a cat off in a mall parking lot mud puddle, buying a new puppy, getting stranded in the snow, mistaking another adult as a parent...

Every child has a story.  That's one reason why I think teaching English Language Arts is nothing short of an honor; my job allows this intimate glimpse into what my students think about, believe in, and question.  But even then, I wonder if I take the time to really know everybody's story.  Do we, as teachers, know the stories that are guarded behind a child who is a behavior problem?  Do we know the stories behind the quiet student in the back of the room?  Because when we know those stories, we are suddenly much more efficient in the classroom.

Last week on an 8th grade trip to Boston, I stood on a cement wall a couple of feet above my students, in front of the Holocaust Memorial, explaining to them what the towers and numbers represent.  An elderly man and his wife wandered over to our group and stood among the students listening.  I wondered why they were standing there, and I have to admit, my first reaction was one of annoyance.  As the kids left me and began to stroll through the memorial, I saw some of them give the old man a quick lookover and then promptly move away from the stranger.  I walked over and reached out my hand.  "May I help you?"  I asked.

The man was a WWII Navy pilot who flew over the concentration camps, never knowing what they were--he was never told until his service was up.  He was shot down over Yugoslavia and it took him 10 days to get to safety.  He asked me why my students were so interested in the Holocaust--he didn't think they would care.

And there you have it--I almost missed his amazing story because of an initial response to a stranger "infiltrating" our group.  And he almost missed the story of how 14 year olds are passionate about justice, find meaning in history, and are fascinated by the Holocaust.

Think of all the stories we miss in a day because we are too busy, overwhelmed, annoyed, overbooked, scared, shy.  We must not only remember to take the time to hear each others' stories, but to teach our children to take the time to hear one anothers' stories as well.  And we need to, above all, make sure that our school environments are safe and comfortable enough for our children to share their stories.

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