For a number of years I had all my journalism students write an essay that opens with “This I believe” based on the 1950s radio series with the same name where people read something they’ve written about the core values that guide their daily lives.
Students’ stories ran the gamut from this I believe in the power of music to this I believe that everyone should own a dog.
In reflecting on my own life and teaching here at St. Christopher’s for the past decade, I believe in the transformative power of story.
I remember history teacher Andy Smith’s Veteran’s Day talk last year when he read three soldiers letters, each from a different war during a different period of history. I sat mesmerized in chapel as those soldiers came to life through those love letters home, each man sharing much the same fears, courage, patriotism and devotion to family. This is the power of story.
The power of story is what gripped the more than 500 people packed in Scott Gym last year when former NBA star Chris Herren shared anecdote after anecdote about his struggles and people he met along the way. Most of us have been or will be in situations he talked about — in those basements or in the woods where kids experiment with drugs and alcohol, experiments that oftentimes become lifelong addictions that can derail and even kill.
The power of story is what captivated two students and me when we sat down with Mr. Szymendera early in this school year to interview him about a summer trip to Eastern Europe with his daughter Mary. Mr. Szymendera’s description of unmarked concrete slabs that made them feel very small and very trapped gave me chills thinking about what the Jewish prisoners might have felt 70-some years ago.
The power of story is why when a senior once requested that I listen to him read aloud a college essay on a very personal struggle as he wept and wiped his snotty nose that I felt in that moment on that day that no one on earth had a more fulfilling job than I because the student chose to share his story with me.
In my recent chapel talk on this subject, I of course included Jesus as the greatest storyteller of all who relayed parables that people would remember. A bible lesson I recently read reiterated this idea of how God wants us to use all of our stories — the joy, the pain and all the pages in between. I quote from that lesson: “Sometimes our most significant steps forward are the ones that take us back.”
In my arena, yes, the power of story applies to journalism where any story with a human element becomes much more alive. I repeatedly tell students that facts, figures and the sequence of events are all important. Yes, we must include the who, what, when, where, why and how, but those do not move us nor nest into our memory like a story to which we relate. Stories are fundamental to how we organize what we know. Our stories define us. They help us make sense of things. Comparing others’ experiences to what happens to us is how we learn and grow.
We live at hyperspeed. We need to learn how to slow down. We need to silence the phone and turn off the screen. We need to sit and talk. We need to tell our stories, and more importantly we need to listen.
A nonprofit called StoryCorps is offering an opportunity to do just that.
This nonprofit born in 2003 with the opening of a booth in Grand Central Terminal in NYC provided a place for everyday people to interview other everyday people. Some stories have to do with life-changing events; others capture the magic that sometimes shines through the mundane. In 2005 StoryCorps launched two mobile booths which hit the road, and weekly broadcasts debuted on NPR’s Morning Edition. This year, founder Dave Isay received the 2015 TED Prize and with that $1 million award launched the StoryCorps App, which will be used in #TheGreatListen2015, a program that is asking high school students to interview an elder during this upcoming Thanksgiving weekend.
StoryCorps provides instructions, interview techniques and even sample questions. Using the new free app, participants can upload their recordings to the StoryCorps archive. For more information, go to https://storycorps.me/about/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/.
Students from St. Christopher’s who participate can earn two hours of community service. More important than that, however, is the gift bestowed. Participants show the person interviewed that they honor them and they love them. My journalism students will take part. I am particularly excited about Ms. Carey Pohanka and Mr. J.D. Jump’s creative application for their Upper School Make class final project where students will design and create a 3d object that represents the person interviewed and plays audio from the interview.
Looking back to when I was in high school, I didn’t have a clue about how quickly life changes, how soon and suddenly we all face loss. I would give most anything to hear an interview today with my grandparents — one a school teacher who loved reading, learning, history and gardening but died too young before she could share her passions with me; another school teacher turned homemaker whose Appalachian-spun common sense was a touchstone for me and my four siblings. I wish I could ask my paternal grandfather how he learned to ride a bike backwards (who taught him that — circus people?). I’d love to hear the voice again of my maternal grandfather, a man who mesmerized me with stories from the time I was old enough to understand his one arm encircling me and his other arm working his pipe or cigar while stories flowed like a river. Most of all I would give anything to have interviewed my mother, the person who influenced me most, before depression and dementia stole her mind and vibrant personality.
In a March TED Talk, founder David Isay talked about how StoryCorps stories often make people cry, but not because they’re sad. “It’s kind of the anti-reality TV,” he said in his talk. “Nobody comes to StoryCorps to get rich. Nobody comes to get famous. It’s simply an act of generosity and love. So many of these are just everyday people talking about lives lived with kindness, courage, decency and dignity, and when you hear that kind of story it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on holy ground.”
Journalism teacher Kathleen Thomas gave this as a chapel talk to Upper School students in October.