I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the personal story these days. Not that such thoughts are exactly new – anyone who’s read the stuff on the other pages of this space will know it’s exactly why I develop and deliver courses in writing stories and why I’m here. But in the past few days I’ve read some stuff by some fellow bloggers who have illustrated again how the personal story can take something – something so big, so out of control that we feel powerless to understand it, let alone do anything about it – and make it, well, understandable. The personal story gives you cause to experience something like, say, a tanked economy or a major flood disaster, through the eyes and mind of the storyteller – and through that experience you find a bit of yourself reflecting back.
Most semesters, I wind up telling my class about a couple of students I had when I worked for a short time in a small private “school” teaching English as a Second Language. Ronaldo* and Michel* were required to spend six hours a day in this little class because they had been injured on the job and were receiving workers’ compensation benefits. In order for these benefits to continue, these guys had to be enrolled in a school like this to learn some alternative skills so that they could go on and find different jobs and get off the benefits.
I can tell you it wasn’t much fun for them. Michel had been in Canada for more than ten years, Ronaldo more than twenty; both employed in labour jobs since soon after their arrival. Ronaldo injured his back when he fell down a hole. He found it difficult to sit in the classroom for six hours a day, and sometimes would take his book to the back of the room and rest it on the top portion of a computer desk so he could stand up during the lesson. Michel had a repetitive stress injury and suffered substantial pain doing small tasks, like writing and using a computer.
They would talk about how they’d loved their jobs. Ronaldo worked in the Public Works department, and he told me he felt such satisfaction when he got ready for work every day. He loved the physical work, the look and feel of the hardhat on his head and the “good” tired he felt when he got home at night. Michel had always felt a great sense of pride in that he came over to Canada alone, worked long enough to eventually send for his family, and ultimately start his own business.
You might, then, imagine how drilling through pages of ESL grammar workbooks every day didn’t mean a whole lot to these guys. Each was competent, intelligent and hardworking, and would have much preferred to be out working than stuck in a classroom plodding through sentence structures and verbs and tenses and collecting compensation benefits. They were allowed a few sick days a year, and no vacation. No vacation. Collecting worker’s compensation benefits precluded them from the meagre two-week vacation the rest of us are allowed by law.
Knowing that adults have meaningful learning experiences only if they are able to apply what is being taught to their own lives and circumstances, I took every chance I got to apply their personal lives to the lessons. Thus I heard many stories – about their favourite meals, fishing and camping trips, family gatherings, soccer matches, weddings, boyhood games and the challenges they faced when they first came over to a new culture.
At the time I was participating in a minor travel writing competition – and it occurred to me that these guys could learn to write English much more effectively if they were writing their own travel stories. At first they said “NO WAY….I don’t have that kind of education….I can’t write a story….I couldn’t even do that in my home language!”
“Pffft” I said.
I assured them that we would work slowly – sentence by sentence. Each would prepare an outline and that turned out to be not so bad. Then they worked one paragraph at a time, present that paragraph on the board, wherein we, as a group, would critique it and make grammatical and spelling corrections.
They were empowered. They found pleasure in it. And then magic happened – both Ronaldo and Michel purposefully went after bringing out the beauty in their minds’ images with techniques that were way ahead of their appointed learning schedule, according to those dreaded workbooks, things like metaphor and symbolic language – naturally and without prodding by me. They closed their eyes, saw the images and put them down on paper. I’ll never forget those images – Ronaldo’s sand that looked and felt like fine sugar, or Michel’s soft moon hanging heavy over the spruce forest. Mostly I won’t forget the pleasure of living the stories through them.
The best thing learned was this: One story, down on paper, meant it belonged out there on the stage with all the others. And after being sequestered in a small classroom to plod through meaningless grammar lessons as though they were being imprisoned and punished for their chance injuries, these guys managed to turn the language into something that mattered to them.
I had to leave this job not long after because it just didn’t pay me enough to live on, and I’d found another one that did. But I’ll never forget Ronaldo and Michal for showing me what I’d sensed all along – that personal stories are not only important documents of the lives of people and their families, but they invite us to look at ourselves and others and find elements of our experiences that are shared. I suppose that’s the humanity part – there even when we’re seemingly worlds apart.
*Ronaldo and Michel are pseudonyms.
One of the internal “snapshots” I carry around with me is the picture of me at around ten, in my grade five class with the other kids and our teacher, Mrs. Chavis, dancing to “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog). We had a dance in our classroom for an hour or so every Friday afternoon. Sometimes we square danced; sometimes we’d pick songs from the stacks of 45s some kids brought in. The kids with the afros had the biggest and best stacks of records, mostly Motown; most of us just had a few. But our favourite song to dance to was Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.
Vivian Chavis approached learning with a strong combination of creativity and discipline. She was no softie – nobody got away with nonsense in her class. But she also had a well placed sense of humour, and us kids knew it. To this day I can hear her hearty, high pitched, musical laugh.
Mrs. Chavis taught us to be aware, through dedicated daily attention to current events and history. Four years later on my first day of high school, I was the only person in my history class who knew that Mao Tse Tung had recently died. I was the only one who knew who Mao Tse Tung was, in fact, and I’m sure I must have sat there in that Grade 9 history class and thought of learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mrs. Chavis’s class and the big dragon “parade float” we made to carry around the school on Chinese New Year.
Mrs. Chavis always let us propose creative ways to express our learning. Once, Helen, Patty and I created a “Game Show” to practice question drills, during which we tried to give one good natured kid a whipped cream pie in the face. Another time we did a history project that we presented on a home-made television set, made out of a box and a roll of brown paper. Along with dancing, we had weekly choir singing, where we sang Harry Belafonte songs and old African American spirituals.
Mrs. Chavis, nearing retirement, had hair that was steely grey and turning white, offset with thick, black rimmed glasses. She wore heavy, plain polyester dresses every day. With those she wore sensible walking shoes and thick, taupe coloured nylons, which didn’t exactly match her coffee-and-cream coloured skin. My Mom, who was also a teacher at our school, said she would go into Mrs. Chavis’s classroom after school and find her colleague reclined in her chair with her feet up on her desk, laughing about some grade five related fiasco or other. My Mom said she begged her not to retire until my youngest sister reached Grade 5 and could have her as a teacher. Jane did end up having her, and Mrs. Chavis retired not long after that. She died only a few years after that. My Mom who later learned of the health problems Mrs. Chavis was having at that time, always felt guilty for begging her to stay on.
Vivian Chavis gave me many things; most importantly my ability to think and learn creatively. 30 years later she arose in my own studies in education, and I looked to her as a model when writing my own teaching philosophy. She is no doubt behind my continued desire to know, and my lifelong interest in news and current events. She got me interested in the big beautiful world, and what history teaches us.
And she forever lives on in that internal snapshot of the sixty-something, grey haired, polyester clad lady with a big laugh dancing to Joy to the World with a bunch of ten year olds in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.
Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2009
My name is Jennifer Morrison. Here is a bit of my story. It may or may not explain why I am here.
When I was about 40, I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was sitting in a creative memoir writing class, feeling utterly and completely moved by the impact that the simple act of telling a story had on the members of the class. I kept thinking about how *I* would teach the class, which I thought was kind of funny at the time, because despite the fact that I am preceded by long line of teachers, I had never, ever considered becoming one of them.
But it struck me suddenly and forcefully that I wanted to help people tell their stories. This was it; this is what I could do to make a difference in my little corner of the world.
Okay, it didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Back in university I had explored the power and significance of the story – from great literature through to storytelling as an educational tool to empower illiterate people in the most poverty stricken areas of the world. I learned that we understand our world through stories, whether they come from artists, family, historians, religious leaders, politicians or media.
Having no idea how to develop a class, and serious doubts about my ability to run one, I go back to university.
There, I frame my interest in the story around the study of lifelong education and the significant role it plays on a personal, community and global level. And every memorable marker in my own life of learning is substantiated during this time. Grade five: A creative classroom fosters holistic learning. Grade eight: Compassion in the classroom makes learning experiences more meaningful. High school: Questioning the status quo empowers you. University: Study that is validated against your own personal experiences transforms you.
So I get an education degree, and then a certificate to teach English as a second language (ESL). I find out I’m actually a pretty effective facilitator. Teaching gigs happen. I get creative in my lesson planning and people learn. And they enjoy it. To now, I’ve taught both in-class and online courses in fiction and non-fiction, and ESL. I achieved both my B.Ed. (Adult Ed.) and B.A. (Communication Studies) as an adult learner. I am currently working on a post graduate certificate in Expressive Arts, where I continue to discover new strategies for facilitating arts-based learning programs and helping learners unleash the creative process. At 47, I’ve not ruled out a masters degree.
My biggest education came from Carly and Kelsey, the marvellous creatures the universe somehow deemed me worthy of parenting. They have taught me more than any teacher possibly could – powerful lessons about love, patience, wonder, humour, beauty, devotion, contentment, hope, faith, gratitude, the supreme value of being silly and the fact that sometimes, things really are funnier the more times you say them.
Carly and Kelsey were ever lovely and devoted to a mother who got atrociously cranky in traffic, valued experience over money, never did anything in a practical fashion, took wrong turns and got lost with remarkable consistency, pointed out subversive messages in the Disney movies they were trying to watch, forgot to do the laundry sometimes, thought birthday parties at McDonalds were dumb, was vehemently intolerant of small Christmas trees, rarely baked cookies and who stood on the dining room chair and played air guitar to really loud music. But she also adored Carly and Kelsey for each of their unique and special gifts, and she told them so often.
She made really good soup and outstanding lasagne. She brought them into a loving circle of family and friends, all of whom cared for them from the bottoms of their souls. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Our village did a damn good job and I will be eternally grateful. Carly and Kelsey continue to generate an abundance of love and light with every passing year, and now that they are independent adults, I am approaching life as if there is an adventure around every corner. But the greatest adventure of all began when those beautiful, smart, funny little toe heads came into this world and all the best stories began.
I believe everyone has a story worth telling. And in particular, stories from real life. I believe the world is a better, more democratic, tolerant, just and beautiful place when more people tell their stories. Whether a story is intended for publication, personal growth, or sharing within a family, the act of telling it is tremendously rewarding. If, through this website, I can inspire one person to tell a story, then I’ll have deemed it a success.
talk to me: jensrealia AT hotmail DOT com
Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2008