On the Importance of Telling and Hearing Our Very Own Stories

The guiding questions for our oral history unit

Soon — very soon — my students will be authors of a book. A real, published, four-cornered, many-paged book with a cover, a table of contents, and yes, even a signing party. The brilliant people at Chapter 510 and the Department of Make Believe, a chapter of the national 826 Valencia writing mentorship program, have worked with some of my students on revising, digging deeper into, and polishing the oral histories they wrote this fall. This autumn, all of our 10th graders focused on how we can learn about the world from our families, and how our families can teach us about the world. They chose a family member to interview about their experience migrating to Oakland, or living in Oakland, or living wherever they lived before Oakland.

Students read one of these books before we started collecting their family’s oral histories. What an astouding literary time to be a teacher.

The results are beautiful, which is why, when the brilliant people at Chapter 510 asked my partner teacher and me to write an introduction and preface to the collection, I balked, I hemmed, I hawed, and I did some of the most skillful procrastination of my adult life.

 

I am publishing this introduction here, because I think I said something here that I actually mean: that our stories are important, and at this moment in time — this terrifying moment in our history — our stories just might sustain us while we plot, plan, and act on changing this terror into something more humane.


Whenever we are on a long car ride, my two sons will often ask me, “Mom, tell me a story!”  When I ask about what, they will always say, “From your childhood!” Usually, I am flummoxed. I freeze. In my mind, my childhood was mundane and dull, unworthy of sharing, filled with a near-constant runny nose, tummy aches and an overwhelming shyness and a general family security that kept me from collecting the stories that I think the boys want to hear. There was nothing noteworthy about my childhood, I tell them. Nothing exciting! Let’s read a book aloud! But the boys, they insist.

So I search the dustiness of my brain and try to find some stories more interesting than paint drying: the time I told the babysitter that a frozen rag was beef jerky. The time my hippy aunt took me to my grandparents’ basement and taught me, complete with drawings and charts on the blackboard we would play school on, about how eating meat was completely unethical. How my mom, a high school theatre teacher, would pick us up from school and take my sister and me to play rehearsals, where we would sit in the front row, learn all the lines, and then go play in the prop room with the swords and old-timey phones. The panic and lasting shame I felt when I blanked during a 7th grade poetry contest. The time my sister purposely gave me chicken pox because I was being a big jerk. Boring stuff, I tell the boys. “Tell another one!” they insist. Again, I am flummoxed, certain I’ve bored them enough. Can we maybe turn on the radio, or play “I Spy?” I plead.  The boys, they are transfixed. They insist. Telling my children the stories of my life is not easy; it pries me open in ways that makes me uncomfortable, and I think, to my dismay, that this discomfort is somehow important. Being human is hard, I think, and the boys are looking for different paths and bridges and stumbles that I took to navigate this journey. So I dig further.

When we introduced the oral history project to our students, some were excited, but most were skeptical. “I know everything about my mom’s history,” some said. More said, “I don’t know anything about my family’s history. I’m not sure there’s anything there.” In the process of researching and writing our oral histories, both the I-Know-Everything’s and the There’s-Nothing-There’s were happily, and sometimes shockingly, proven wrong. They learned about how history affects real people. They learned about wars in Central America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East that led people to flee homelands, poverty of the kind our students happily have not experienced, migration that took both emotional and physical tolls. They also learned about their elders’ emotional landscapes, about how a life requires that you contain both great joy and tremendous sorrow, and despite the worlds you hold within you, the dishes have to be done, the kids need to get to school, and work, it must be done.

As parents, we often think our stories are not exceptional, or not important, and very often, simply not worth telling. This is untrue. We need to tell our stories, and we need our children to hear our stories. These stories belong in car rides, at the dinner table, on walks to the laundromat, and most definitely, they belong in school.  At this present, terrible, historical moment, our students’ stories are far more often vilified than lionized, and this may give rise to silence, and not the amplification of the stories of migrants, of refugees, of the disenfranchised. Read these stories, though, and try to find a villain; you won’t find a one. You will find a dozen heroes and sheroes, whose stories belong front and center in our history classes, in our policy-making, and in our children’s and student’s consciousness, as they do the real work of creating and understanding what it is to be human.

 


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