Every other Tuesday I attend a writing/story group. Attendance isn’t a requirement of my graduate work, but yet I feel it is a useful space to share stories with other grad students who tend to have a relational narrative way of living and being with the world. Along with my instructor, there are six of us. Everyone shares.
Last Tuesday I shared a two and a half page poem about a former student’s suicide journey and how my then principal and I had come to journey alongside his narrative. After I had shared, the group’s feedback almost stopped, stuck between discomfort over both the shift in style and content as well as the power of the story, “I feel like you’ve pushed me in the stomach and I don’t quite know how to respond.” I tried to meet my group members’ eyes, but really, the discomfort had been the point of the poem.
I looked toward my instructor, not there to grant grades, simply a woman giving her time, and offering time for story-sharing, pulling us together so we might … I don’t know: grow, create, critique, pause or push.
The purpose in sharing the story was to show through narrative that in so many ways students’ voices are silenced in schools, in classrooms, within teachers. Some stories are told with the hope they live only as hidden-stories.
Darn it! I wanted feedback.
The poem will become the transition to a larger document I will share with my division in a few weeks. After a few moments of silence and after I had shared the poem’s purpose, many in the group asked if I was worried whether this professional work of opening spaces where student narratives are honoured will put my job at risk.
Pushing the boundaries around silence is messy work. Those on the boundaries listening to narrative for the first time “cringe at the mantra of people growing ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty feet tall with pride as they “disclose” the sexual abuse they suffered at residential school or the relentless cycle of attempts and failures as characters try to put their lives in order. But in all this, there is a delightful inventiveness of tone, a strength of purpose that avoids the hazards of the lament and allows the characters the pleasure of laughing at themselves and their perils,” (King, 2003).
My instructor listens well. She allowed me to talk my way through to understanding how best to figure out this question.
Much of our work attending to the lives of children involves creating safe spaces by listening to each other creating stories to live by. Clandinin et al state we are creating and sharing stories to live by when we are “finding the space with parents and children to try ‘something different’,” (2006). For the most part, our ways of attending to the lives of families and of children creates stories to live by.
But sometimes kids aren’t connected to schools or to their teachers, and they leave. Sometimes, the same thing can be said for teachers who similarly are not connected to their school, to their administrators or to their divisions. And this happens again and again.
I’d sure like to understand why.
When I looked up and met my instructor’s gaze last Tuesday, it is stories to leave by that she was sharing.
Years ago, before my instructor was a Mom, she resigned her teaching role in a large school. Dismayed over changes in the division that demanded shifts in her practice that did not coincide with her philosophy, she resigned. Her departure was an act of activism, though a silent one then. Her choice to leave her position had a lasting effect on her future. Tuesday she shared that when she left, for the most part, only her immediate supervisors knew the reasons for her departure. Hers was a silenced story to leave by.
My work is messy work. “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous,” (King, 2003). I do not want my work to become a story to leave by.
I hear stories to leave by every day with kids I live alongside.
Three years ago I met two brothers – kind kids, busy. They reminded me of me when I was their age. I coached them in junior basketball; they hung out outside my window on Saturdays while I worked late at school. We talked dirt bikes, school, Graffiti Art and life. Through a series of events, the boys had been storied negatively by some adults as trouble makers. I think this was why they liked being with me. I let them tell their silenced story. For hours and hours, while they cleaned the classroom and Art room, they shared. But outside the classroom other stories were being told. Soon not only were the boys able to explain the benefits of moving schools, but it was like no one could read any other story than a story to leave by; “storms can be tricky,” (King, 2003).
And their lingering story, these many years later, some days feels as though, if I were to let it, would become the opening line of my own story to leave by. I just never understood this until I sat down to write this post.
Years ago I met a fluffy haired kid dressed all in black. He knew no other story than a story to leave by and he told it clearly and to anyone who would listen. “I’m a drunk” & “I’m dumb,” (he is not & he is not). He became one of my favourite students. His name is Dylan.
When he graduated his classmate told me it was really important that I speak at his graduation. When I asked why, the classmate said that he had been ready to drop out of school when I had met him. What is important about Dylan’s narrative is that it wasn’t his connection with me that helped him retell his story. Dylan began to tell a story to live by because he had a space where he felt safe sharing his story.
I guess you can say Dylan’s story is my plot.
Last fall I met a senior student, Derek (pseudonym) who had been silenced in his home life and at school. Though he is happy now, and expresses a deep connection to his learning space, Derek arrived open to listening. I arrived open to listening. Derek has a past filled with the kinds of stories which the community and parents caution should not be shared in learning spaces. I find these statements oppressive. I am my stories. We can no more silence student voice than we can be allowed to hide students. Yet often, this is the norm.
Often I wonder how anyone could have chosen not to listen to this young man. But Derek tells me he wasn’t the same then, and I get that. I remember the way I lived alongside my high school teachers. The other day, a community member stopped by the school and Derek, seeing the vehicle, returned to check in on me. He wanted to make certain “I wasn’t’ getting any grief.”
I am amazed how well my students understand the tensioned-stories that I try to keep silent. I know they can read my behaviours, the times my eyes are a bit darker underneath, or when I’m not bouncing around the classroom as much. They listen to me as well as I listen to them.
This weekend, as I sat down to read journals and prep for student-led conferences, Derek, who had been away from school three years and is back, sent this note, “you better not leave until I do,” (Personal notes, 2013).
Last Friday one of my grade ten students decided to transfer. I wasn’t surprised. I had been listening to him tell his story to leave by for months. I knew he’d go. Last year, it was a grade eleven student (who has since returned home now to graduate with his friends). But each story is different. Each child is different. I wasn’t surprised, but I was saddened. The grade ten student and his story to leave by had begun when his best friends moved three years ago. I had tried to help him tell a story to live by.
Why had I allowed him to keep telling it as a story to leave by? Maybe, it was because I knew I’d open a space by listening. Maybe it was because I cannot save kids. Maybe it was because, I just don’t know…
Why do we allow some students transition between places, why do we allow teachers to leave without asking why? Why do we choose not to listen?
Why do we choose not to share our stories to leave by? Why do we stay silent?
I am guilty of silence.
But I’m learning.
When my instructor retold her story to leave by I think she was saying, “Share, for goodness sake, Cori, share. Don’t stay silent.”
This is messy tension-filled and valuable work. Do not let the voices of a few force you to be silent.
Stories. “I tell them to myself, to my friends, sometimes to strangers. Because they make me laugh. Because they are a particular kind of story. Saving stories, if you will. Stories that help keep me alive,” (King, 2003).
So, I am pretty sure, Derek’s story, like the stories of so many of our students, is my theme. His story is my theme because so often we have told stories to leave by and have come to tell stories to live by.
Last Friday after our first basketball game while the kids were running amuck in the gymnasium, I shared my week with a friend and colleague. And you know what? He storied in return. He shared a tensioned-filled grief story. And I felt honoured.
More importantly, I felt rooted in our story space.
If I so desperately need this space, so do kids.
Honour stories. Live, tell, retell and live stories to live by.