We told stories in class tonight. I do a lot of story-telling work with my students, because it is important. I learned how to tell stories when I taught in Hawai’i: “Christine, can we talk story a little?” one of my graduate students would ask me. He is Mexican and lives on Maui and is a beautiful, brilliant 3rd grade teacher. We would sit and talk for hours about how desperately he wanted the world to change, about Paulo Friere the great educational activist, about our dreams and our hearts. We felt connected, then, in the intimacy of our stories.
When I tell the students in my classes that they will tell a 2 to 3 minute story that is true and about themselves they give me the side eye. They are nervous, they don’t want to stand up. They don’t wanna get intimate. I tell them I get it. We are boxed into little windowless classrooms with tattered chairs pushed together willy-nilly like crowded jelly-fish on the corner of the beach. But our hearts are free like the little space where rain hits the ocean.
When we start telling stories the room gets quiet. Everyone wakes up. One girl talks about how she was white in Colombia. When she moved to America a little white boy in her class told her she was brown: she didn’t know she would cross racial lines, she said. Another woman talked about writing the word “lesbo” on the doors of her college dormmates in spite; years later she kissed a girl and then another. Now she says “lesbian” like a juicy grape.
In schools in the United States we talk a lot about reading and writing. I tell my students that oral work is a cultural tradition honored around the world. That we are only privileging certain kinds of assets when we tell kids to write and type. I ask them to compose their stories without a pen in hand, to simply construct, to struggle in one mode. When our story-telling work is done, something changes in the classroom. A student once told me: “I may not greet anyone from my other classes. But I always say hello to people from this class when I see them out. I have to– after what we did together.”
Story-telling is healing. We share those bits inside of us that we think are broken, those bits we have hid away in dark closets in our souls, those words we never thought we would say aloud. We own the broken and the beaten, our stories hold their heads up to the light, and we are transformed. We say the words aloud and they fly from our lips and sew us together in community.