Friday, October 21, 2016

The Value of a Story



Every day I read someone else's work. A lot of someones. On Facebook and Instagram, I whine about how long it takes to grade essays; yesterday, I gave meaningful feedback on seven papers in an hour. Seven down, seventy to go. And those are just the ones who turned it on time. [Sigh.] Occasionally I resent the hours it takes because it laps up my writing time (or cooking, reading, parenting, and dog-snuggling time). But, friends, these essays? The stories are incredible.

I gave my students a simple prompt: Write about something or someone that evokes feelings of love or hate.


One student wrote a narrative about his two favorite uncles; one who taught him out to work hard and manage a farm and the other who taught him how to woo the ladies. Then, one morning my student found the former uncle dead in the barn. The uncle's skin was cold when he felt for a pulse.

Another student wrote about how during a basketball tournament in St. George, their team was snowed in and forced to stay the night at the bus driver's dilapidated cabin. She tried to sleep in a bunk bed, but bugs crawled all over the wood. Instead, she camped out on the floor of the common room. When she woke in the morning, the bus driver stood nearby, watching her. She pretended to sleep until he left the room.

One young woman wrote about leaving home for a summer to participate in a competitive veterinarian-internship two states away. She worried about being on her own and wondered if she'd get along with her mentor. Then, she met her. The mid-forties vet gave her a big hug, showed her to her quarters, and said, "Wanna come with me to check on a goat?"

In another narrative, a student's mother worried her daughter's boyfriend was too controlling. Convinced, the young woman broke up with him in the parking lot of a church. When she tried to walk away from his truck, he threw her to ground and stood over her, cursing.

One kid's father, who was a teacher, cheated on his mother with one of his students and ended up in prison. The young man's story was about having to live in his grandma's basement and saying goodbye to his dad.

I'd read these stories if I caught their blurbs in a Barnes and Noble. I'd buy 'em and read 'em on the treadmill, in the bath, or listen to the audiobook on my commute. I know I'm only one voice of encouragement, and some pupils probably think I have to say nice things about their work, because...teacher. But do they know the value of a story? That people read for the chance to connect with the author, the characters? To learn when to be compassionate and when to be cautious? To escape their anxieties, traumas, or crummy childhoods (or adulthoods)? Do they know that stories like theirs change the world? That stories shape policies, raise awareness, incite action, save lives?

And if they don't know, how do I teach that?


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