Stories Need Attending

A month ago I wrote about a poem I had previously shared with my grad-writing group and had received little feedback. Later, an instructor, suggested, “It is an interrupted narrative that metacommunicates about its own limits and explodes conventions of pedagogy by falling silent at the very moment a conclusion is expected” (Ellsworth, 2005).

Though I feel she was being supportive, I pushed back against her feedback. Yes, I’d intentionally crafted the piece to pause, eventually to silence the reader/educator, but I’d also shared openly, not to oppress and certainly not to stop conversation. There’s a difference. Art is fluid. Narrative is fluid. Within the silence surrounding creation there is much I am sharing.

 The profound pedagogical achievement of the refusals of narrative closure that lead up to this silence is that this final gesture of silence cannot be taken as, simply, silence. All that comes before the silence at the ‘end’ of the permanent exhibit frames it in a way that makes of it very particular silence. It is a silence that teaches what pedagogy can never speak. In that structuring of all that comes before this last element of the exhibit, it would be wilful “ignor-ance” to call this silence a form of nihilism. It cannot be read as a form of forgetting, nor can it be taken as melodramatic moment of overwhelming sentimentalism, nor is it the silent of self-reflection. Like the exhibit’s refusal of narrative continuity and clause, the silence with which the visitor is met at the end of the exhibit, a silence that asks to be met in turn by silence, is a communicative act after all. It is an act of metacommunication. This silence is a metacommunicative refusal of rules of narrative closure. It is self-referential refusal to offer and ending.

 This silence that metacommunicates marks the limits of pedagogy. It marks the limits of knowledge. It is the licence of “passing through our own answerlessness” (Felman, 1995, p. 53). It is the silence of the pedagogue who accepts that she or he does not, cannot, have the last word and who embraces the pedagogical power of not providing the last word. (Ellsworth, 2005).

When I pushed back and told my instructor that I was sitting around the table of grad study folks so they too could push back, I answered my own question. “Ok, I went in with expectations. But this is how I enter space, before I come to trust. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. I enter seeking to be heard.”

 She replied, “Why is it so important for you to attend to student narrative?”

 Why?

 Attending is messy work. Attending is not easy, comfortable work. Folks who come to attend to narrative don’t usually, in my opinion, have a gentle go of it. Why am I so focused on attending to narrative?

 Stories are complex. “We are suspicious of complexities, distrustful of contradictions, fearful of enigmas” (King, 2003).

 Why? I know how beautiful it feels when someone attends to my narratives.

 My parents listen well. Almost every day during the commute home from school I call my parents and share kids and school. My parents are both educators; they have advice to offer. However, most often during these trips with both of them and me on speaker, I share; they listen. The listening connects me to them. The listening is love. The love is profound. 

 I remember the first time I learned that I wasn’t attending to student narrative. 

 More than ten years ago, during my first pre-internship, I met Braedon (pseudonym). I taught Braedon a few classes a day. By the end of the two week block Braedon and I had formed a connection. We talked about Graffiti Art, family, and school. He was in grade ten. That last day, I told him I loved him and that I would never leave. He told me I was lying. What I had meant was that I would always remember him and that was true. Braedon understood another truth too. He understood that I was leaving. He knew that though we’d shared some stories, I wasn’t going to stay a physical presence in his life, and he called me on it. Braedon and I had needed time to live with each other’s stories. Then, it was Braedon who had attended to the narrative of our connection.

I attend to narrative because my daughter needs to me to listen. I listen because I make a choice to listen.

Listening to each other’s stories keep us well. Not always happy, but well.

My daughter, Jessy Lee, turned sixteen Saturday.

At lunch on Saturday she received an email from her long absent Dad. She skimmed through the email and shared bits of the message, the main points with her best friend and with me. The story didn’t end there. The birthday celebrations continued. That night, after a busy across town photo scavenger hunt, Jess, her friends and I went for supper.

Jess had invited a hodgepodge of friends to celebrate along with her. She had invited those who attend to her stories. One friend, Kate (pseudonym), was new to the group. At the end of the evening, while we were waiting for the girls’ rides, Kate asked me if I was going to cry.

“No.” As I looked towards Kate, a pause filled the foyer. Kate waited and I shared a story about Jess, eventually it was time for Kate to leave. As Kate pushed the door open she said, “Back to the crying, when I was little my Dad made a time-line and it had when I turned 16, and he cried and cried.”  Kate was smiling. She had waited and had wanted to share her story. Her story may not have seemed far from ordinary, yet all stories are. The week before Kate had shared her family-stories of the past year with Jess, the girls connecting over their Dad-silenced-stories and in finding stories to live by. The way Jess and I watched Kate, daisy tucked behind her ear, bound from the restaurant into her grandmother’s mini-van was different, I think, than the way the others were able to understand her going.

Later, much later that night, after the gaggle of girls in the living room had fallen asleep, Jess sent me a text message, “Check your email.”

She had forwarded her Dad’s email.

For an hour we messaged back and forth. I was almost glad she didn’t see my tears, though I told her about them. She told me about her tears too. In her poetic, truthful and blunt manner she shared. She shared that, all these years later, in reading his emails, she could no longer hear his voice. I replied that all these years later, I can hear only conjure his voice in a fog of him as only a very young man.

Stories need attending. If we don’t find attending spaces we create new stories to live by.

I know.  

“Yet this is the story I continue to tell, because it’s easy and contains all my anger, and besides, in all the years, in all the tellings, I’ve honed it sharp enough to cut bone” (King, 2003).

If your story is silenced, then what? If my daughter’s story is silenced, then what?

To silence story is to oppress. Narrative is ongoing, open.

Sure, there are easy stories and we share these, most often effortlessly. However, there are messy stories and if you listen, we effortlessly seek spaces and connected relationships with which to share these too… well, until we are silenced.

If you silence students’ stories you discount them. If you silence my story you discount me. 

Listen.

“We were called to attend to the multiple narrative unities of participants’ and our lives as a way to not hide, deny, or silence the multiplicity of participants’ and our life compositions or the shared narrative unities being co-authored between us” (Clandinin et al, 2006). Trust me. If you won’t allow me to share my narrative, I will find another story to live by, another place where my narrative is honoured, another place – another place that is not school or home or family – where stories bind me.

In some way, in some space, we story.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Stories Need Attending

    • saasc

      Your feedback is always what I seek most, first. I have (re)learned everything about myself, all of Albert’s teachings living alongside you. You listen, beautifully. My entire life, I hope to come to listen, to attend as well as you.Thank you for trusting me to share our stories, your stories, me. Thank you for listening. I love you.

  1. Grant Urban

    I, too, love this. You are an incredibly unique and insightful woman, Cori Saas!

    • saasc

      I like stories. And I can say the same about you, Grant. I was writing tonight, wondering about story-spaces; I was thinking about your attending classroom-story place. You like stories, too. Thank you for listening, for sharing, for understanding.

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