Attending to the Messy Ones

“[W]hen the words form I am merely retelling the same story in different patterns,” (King,  2003, p. 2).yoho stream november 2012

This past year I’ve been thinking deeply about story; this is what my Dad calls ‘storying’ – the process of living with narratives and attending to the lives of those we love  – and storying is messy.

And I’m tired too. Storying can be difficult. Storying can be filled with “tension [simply in] being part of, and contributing to [our] narrative history,” (Clandinin et al., 2006, p. 70).

These past few months I’ve been living, telling, and retelling stories – thinking deeply about my stories in an autobiographical relational narrative way – sometimes as the stories came to live so clearly for me, as I searched for them in attics, basements, storehouses, and most important spaces, the ones that hide in plain sight – the stories became fresh, a bit less uncomfortable for me, and yet once shared, no longer secret.

This past fall I was scrimmaging at noon with our junior and senior boys’ basketball teams. I blocked a layup shot by a dear student, James, (pseudonym) a very broad-shouldered, very tall grade twelve student. The force of James’s layup drove his elbow into my nose. Blood and memory oozed, pain swirled, swallowing the backs of my eyes. I was blindsided by the residual effects of story. It had been more than a decade since someone for whom I cared had hit me. That fall day, though my feet had remained planted, my mind swirled away into a retelling of a story that James had meant to harm me. The swirling stretched into 15 long, long seconds. I waited. I said nothing to the students. I was silenced by the unplanned memory of my familiar long silenced difficult story. I walked to the bathroom. The administrative assistant tipped grey powder onto the gash, clotting the blood. When she left, I closed the door, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, slid down the wall, and wept; I was 21 years old again, blindsided and alone. “This is a story I know,” (King, 2003, p. 1).

I think it is sad how easily schools and teachers often make assumptions about students’ difficult stories – stories that are frequently deemed too uncomfortable for students and staff to share in teaching and learning spaces, stories that are kept silent behind closed doors by never being discussed, by beinghushed, by being ignored, by being discounted, by being push aside, by being marked, labelled, or marginalized. Place, when supported with trust and entered through narrative, can bring comfort to the retellingsof our difficult/tensioned-stories. Place does this for me.

I stood in the washroom. I heard the senior student ask after me. After I’d washed, after the flow of those fifteen seconds had passed, some 30 minutes later, I returned to the gymnasium to reassure him. I understood he had not caused me intentional harm. I needed to tell him I was okay. I knew he needed me to tell him I was okay – I knew he needed this from me because I have spent years attending to his stories.

I have lived alongside hundreds of students. “I’ve heard worse stories,” (King, 2003, p. 8). I know you have as well. I know you hang around after school because some of your students have no one there for them at the end of the day. I know that some of your students go home to parents who ignore them, or harm them. I know that your story too might be filled with details that reach deep, deep and will never leave. There are details that may be storying every relationship now, every moment of your life.

So how is my story special?

What makes my story different or needed?

Absolutely nothing…I tell the stories not to play on your sympathies but to suggest how stories can control our lives, for there is part of me that has never been able to move past these stories, a part of me that will be chained to these stories as long as I live. (King, 2003, p. 9)

When I completed the first draft of my thesis, I sent this story to my Mom. I’d never shared the stories of abuse with her. These are stories my Mom and I have kept silent; these are stories my daughter and I puzzle through. Storying is difficult.

Teaching and learning is messy.

Life is messy.

I wonder at the insistence in schooling spaces to choose only to listen to the easy, accessible and gentle stories?

3 thoughts on “Attending to the Messy Ones

  1. Cori, this is beautifully written and evocative. I’m not going to push back because I was and always will be a fan of all the stories that surge through schools. My goal each year was to create a space where not only could students feel safe sharing their stories (no matter how messy), but they could feel safe hearing others’ stories as well. Thank you for this post. It was lovely.

    In the place where I keep beautiful phrases, I’ve now captured: Blood and memory oozed, pain swirled, swallowing the backs of my eyes. I was blindsided by the residual effects of story.

    Thank you.

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