A Humbling Moment

The Whole Story:

This semester has afforded me the opportunity to teach a class I’ve always wanted to teach – Storytelling. Thus far, we’re still fumbling with the ideas of what makes a story and what stories tell us about who we are. We’re playing directly and academically with those ideas every day we meet.

Except one.

Each Tuesday is story slam day. A blend of the stylings of The Moth and Philadelphia’s own First Person Arts’ story slams, the slams in class have some simple rules:

Five storytellers are randomly selected for each slam.

Their stories must be inspired by the week’s theme.

The stories must be true.

No memorization / scripts.

After each story, three randomly selected audience judges score the storyteller on content and presentation on a scale of 1-10. All the SLAms are here and here.

The room is re-arranged and coffee and tea are served.

In general, it’s a light-hearted, informal experience.

This Tuesday, though, proved one of the most profound and humbling experiences I’ve had in a classroom from my first days in Kindergarten.

The theme was “Giving Up,” and Lewam took the stage.

(audio not available in feed readers)

I’ve been working to process the story from the moment she told it.

Here’s where my mind stands. I’m at once incredibly sad and incredibly proud.

No matter how much I’ve tried or organized or listened or worked, a student in my charge felt pain within my room and within my walls.

In talking to Chris about it, he gave me the words I think I needed. Pieces of what we do will always be invisible. Pieces of our students’ lives will always be invisible. Unless we want to suit up with full-on, both-end-of-candle-burning messiah complexes, we will never see all of the invisible pieces of each child’s life. I’m not so dense as to be ignorant of this fact.

When the fact stands at a microphone in front of 30 of its peers and pronounces itself, though, the effect is markedly different. It is strikingly visible.

She stood in front of the room and said that, to her, the care and culture and collaboration had, for much of her time, failed her.

So, what do stories tell us about ourselves?

What does this moment mean?

It is complex.

When her name was called, she did not hesitate to take the mic. She did not attempt to negotiate to tell her story later or go last. She spoke truth to the power of community because the community told her it was ok.

What do we do with that?

That is, of course, rhetorical. We must honor it. To maintain integrity, we honor it.

Ego is pushed aside, and the community must reflect.

She found her voice, but felt we did not honor it. I am saddened by this and feel I did the best I could by her. It would be easy to go to “My best wasn’t good enough.” Instead, I’m drawn to the idea that my best should have been different. I’m not the only player here. Her classmates, the faculty, Lewam – they’ve all played their parts. My part is to be responsible for what I do and what I can influence. For sure, I’ll be asking Lewam for advice for the future. I’ve already told her her words impacted me more than most anything I’ve experienced in the classroom.

The Gist:

Lewam likely couldn’t have told this story last year or the year before.

She told it though.

And the room listened.

The applause you hear were the longest and most sincere of any slam we’ve put on. Even the kids who tune out or make cute jibes were silent. They saw her, they connected.

Not altogether surprisingly, she received straight 10s from each judge.

Something sits and works at my brain. What do I do with the fact that her story points to the community’s failure, but her telling of the story leads me to believe the community had something to do with helping her find her voice?

What do stories tell us about who we are?


9 thoughts on “A Humbling Moment

  1. What a brave young lady! I cried listening to her speak about her experiences. You have taught her to listen to her voice and tell her story.

  2. Listening to Lewam's story tells me so much about you and your classroom: open, honest, and comfortable. That she feels safe enough to share this in an environment you helped create should give you a modicum of confidence that what you are doing is affecting people much more than if it was just school. She's brave, but even bravery has to be coaxed sometimes. Also, what an empowering thing for her to have you go to her for advice. Let this be a watershed day for both of you. Great stuff!

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  4. Thanks for sharing. What a brave student. You have obviously created a safe and trusting atmosphere.

  5. Zac, Good teachers work hard to create a safe environment for students. It's another thing all together to create an environment so safe that a disaffected youth could share her story with her classmates this way. That's the difference between good and great teachers.

  6. I can draw some parallels between my experience with moving at the age of 12 and hers. When I look back, I think that it would have been great to be able to speak with my counselor but she didn't seem to like me so I was distrustful of her. I kept my interaction with her to the bare minimum. But I was lucky because there was a teacher with a similar cultural background to mine who I could speak with.Lewan is very brave; at her age, I would have so courageously done what she just did. But her feeling safe enough to expose herself like this probably in some way reflects on some component of you, the classroom and/or the school. I hope that can be preserved, and that there can be some support for her with a mentor or other appropriate peer/adult.

  7. You gave me much to think about. Thank you for sharing your story, feelings and questions.

  8. Pingback: Things I Know 74 of 365: Story is currency at Autodizactic

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