Tell your stories

Tell your story

You Can Tell Your Story. Cate StorymoonCC BY

“As a teacher now I make a point of sharing my personal stories as a way of connecting and building relationships with my students … My hope is that my students can feel their classroom is a safe space for sharing their unique background stories and experiences.”

 —Julian Rolden in I Wish My Teacher Knew by Kyle Schwartz

The staff at my school is participating in a study of the book I Wish My Teacher Knew: How One Question Can Change Everything for Our Kids. At the first meeting, we were asked to share a quote that resonated with us.

Several lines struck me, but the ones that went deepest were of a teacher making a point to share his personal stories with his class.

I thought of how teachers create the atmosphere in their rooms; where personal stories are valued, individuals are valued. Story is where humanity meets. Where we see, understand, and feel for each other. Story is where identity and belonging begin.

I thought about teaching writing, primary grades to adults. In the end all writing is about life, about having lived, about recording images, observations, emotions. To share with others is to make an impact. As I share snippets of my life in the modeling process, it spawns questions and conversations but most of all an electric synergy in the air, as writers of all ages come to realize the power of their own stories.

Last night I was invited by a dear colleague to share some of my writing with students during their family literacy event. I brought a stack of stories written over the past few years in front of classes. After a brief description I let the students choose between memoir, realistic fiction, and fantasy for me to read aloud. I explained that while memoir is a real experience, writers also weave pieces of their real lives into fiction.

And so I read my work to the students, who opted for fantasy and fiction. I was a stranger to them in the beginning, but somewhere in the sound of my own voice reading my own words, in the sudden stillness of the young bodies seated around the foot of my chair, something changed. It wasn’t visible or tangible, but it was there. Born of curiosity, interest, empathy, rapport. I was a stranger no more after the readings when the questions came, as students wanted to know more about the characters and was I going to keep writing about them and what pieces of these stories were the ones I’d really lived.

The time grew short; I answered the questions, all the while thinking how I’d freeze these moments if I could so that I could go on watching their faces as they absorbed the words. I’d stay there always, encouraging writers to find and tell their own stories. Many lingered at the end and I knew it was, it is, it always is, the power of story, that kept them wanting more, that stirred their own thoughts, feelings, ideas, images that they, too, need to share.

I packed my bag, walked into the throng of strangers at an unfamiliar school, and didn’t feel alone.

Making space

Anyone who’s ever worked in kindergarten or first grade knows that emergent writers often write strings of letters.

For example:   The flowers grow.

Sometimes the strings of letters are much longer and harder to decipher. A next teaching point would be working on the concept of words.

Enter Mr. Finger Space.

He’s a handy little tool for young writers, to facilitate their thinking about each word they’re trying to write and to begin making spaces between them.

I have, as you can see from the leading photo, a colorful collection of googly-eyed Mr. Finger Spaces ready to get to work.

Today as I passed by the jar, this gathering of Spaces seemed so beguiling that I thought: There’s a blog post in this. Somehow. 

I snapped a photo and went on my way.

I knew the accompanying story would come. That’s how it always works. A spark of inspiration, given time to grow . . .

This time it came pretty quickly.

As usual, it didn’t arrive as the expected story. Not about a little writer employing a cheery craft stick—I mean, a Mr. Finger Space!— to compose a sentence of separate words for the first time.

No.

It came after a conversation with a colleague about her wonderful weekend getaway, reconnecting with old friends, reliving priceless experiences:

There’s so much I’d forgotten, that I haven’t thought about in so long . . . it was incredibly meaningful to have those memories come rushing back. How important they were, those times we shared. I loved every minute of remembering and at the same time was saddened by how much I’ve lost because day-to-day responsibilities take all my focus . . . you know there’s not room to carry it all around in your head all the time . . . .

You need to write about them now, I told my colleague. My friend. Those memories, while they’re freshly stirred. Preserve them before they leave you again. Spend time going back in your mind, immersing, and you’ll be surprised at what you can recall.

I know this to be true from my own experience, over and over again.

A sigh. The longing was etched on her face: Just how to find the time . . . 

That’s when the googly eyes of Mr. Finger Space appeared in my mind; I immediately understood the message.

Moments of love and laughter, priceless gifts, slipping away under the weight of just living. Fragile strings of memory running together until the beautiful meaning is nearly obscured . . . .

The only way to stave off such loss is to push this often senseless, insensitive, jumbled-up world back, if only for a few precious minutes, in the midst of every run-on day. To breathe. To plunge deep into the recesses of your mind, to know yourself, who you are, and what really matters. Feel the stories pulsing through your being. Fight for them, to keep them alive.

Find the words. They’re all there, within you. They just haven’t been put into organized form yet.

Make the space. 

Put your pencil to the paper. Just start.

The rest will come.

Getting in

Keep your eyelids up

And see what you can see.

-Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street!

Any writer knows how important it is to be a noticer of things. All things. To catch a sudden spark of inspiration, to fan the flame of an idea until it’s spent.

Around the elementary school where I work, for example, there’s plenty of intriguing things to notice. In this old building a careful observer can find some obsolete oddities.

Such as the dumbwaiter that connects the first floor of the media center to a second-floor loft that, once upon a time, must have been an extension of the library. In my time here the loft has been a computer lab. Until this year. With the arrival of new Chromebooks and iPads in classrooms, the computer lab was disassembled to become the shared space of instructional staff; three colleagues and I are housed there now. The dumbwaiter stands in our space, appropriately silent and still, long out of use. It must have been created as a lift for sending stacks of books or old overhead projectors up and down in decades past. I cannot think of another explanation for its presence. If it were ever opened I’d halfway expect to see Harriet the Spy hiding in there, making her anecdotal notes.

Downstairs in the main lobby, a colorful, student-painted mosaic wraps around the exterior of media center, disguising a flat metal drawer in the wall—an old book depository. As books are now returned at the circulation desk, the handle of the depository was removed years ago so that students wouldn’t keep putting books (or anything else) in there. Every day, throngs of students come and go without ever noticing the plain metal plate embedded in the mosiac artwork that overshadows it and draws the eyes away.

Except for one particular pair of eyes, that is.

One morning, as I stand at the back of the lobby greeting students arriving from buses as usual, I notice that a boy is over at that book depository. I’ve never seen a student acknowledge its existence, so I just watch to see what he’s up to. His back is to me. He’s doing something to the drawer. The lobby has cleared except for a couple of boys who realize something’s going on. They linger to check it out. Next thing I know, the two bystanders are bending over with laughter:

“He opened it! He opened it!”

That’s when I walk over to see. The bystander boys scatter. Sure enough, the first boy has the drawer open. He’s so immersed in his task that he’s unaware of my presence.

“So,” I say, “how’d you do this?”

He starts a bit, automatically hands me two opened, extended paperclips. He’d worked them into the two little holes where the depository handle used to be.

“Where’d you get these?” I query, the mangled paperclips resting in my open palm.

“Upstairs,” he says, somber-faced.

And he shuts the drawer, takes off.

I watch him go, marveling.

He’d planned this.

Who knows when he first noticed the depository and wondered about it, whether it could be opened. When he saw the two holes or when he went to find two paperclips to fashion his own handle. How long it took him to think all this through.

And I wonder about him, whether he pays attention in class or gets in trouble for being off-task, if he’s motivated academically. One thing’s for certain: He’s a critical thinker. This book depository experiment is problem-solving at its finest. The greatest thing a learner can possess, perhaps, is curiosity: What if . . . 

As the tardy bell rings, I walk upstairs, wondering what he expected to see when he opened that drawer, pondering what I saw, just before he relinquished his improvised tools.

He was writing with his finger inside the depository. In the dust of the ages, lying there undisturbed for so long. I caught just a glimpse before he shut it away, and I couldn’t quite make it out, so only he knows exactly what he wrote. I’m pretty sure part of it was a smiling face. This much I know: he accomplished his goal. He got in. He made his mark and there it will remain  for ages and ages hence, or at least as long as the building stands.

One day, perhaps, someone else will come along and notice the depository. And wonder what’s inside. And figure out how to get in, and discover that someone was there before. Likely the boy and I will be long gone by then.

And just now, as I write, I think about books themselves as depositories of thoughts, ideas, and images, places where others have gone before, leaving their marks behind from time immemorial, waiting for us to find them. Indelibly marking us, when we finally get in.

Now as for that old dumbwaiter . . .  don’t even think about it, Harriet, it’s permanently sealed . . . .