Stories Still Matter

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On Wednesday afternoons the teachers and I gather in the math room for a meeting. It’s a weekly checkup- planning for spring graduation, roll calling classroom budget requests, announcing directives from the district, and, at last, a fast undoing of our zip locked lips.

 

We vent. Like chimneys we vent hot and ugly.

 

We love these kids. We really really do, but sometimes, I will say, they are a bit much. We would speak sense into them all, but a quarter of them show up stoned. We would ask them to not cuss us out, but then they just claim the first amendment. We would write it out on a note, all of these things we wish they would change, but it would probably take too long for them to sound out the words and they’d get bored and go back to facebook.

 

Sometimes we’re angry, most of the time we’re sarcastic with impressions and always, we end up worried. Carefully we comb through the grades of each student, discuss what we’ve heard in the halls about home, sigh over the drugs and the pregnancies, struggle to inspire suggestions as to what we can do about any of it.

 

We are the verbally abused, broken-hearted, care-too-much crew that cannot understand why we try so hard.

 

Throughout the seven-hour day we will be called bitch and motherfucker and occasionally get hit with a threat or two. We will hold ourselves together as best as we can, pushing the pencil back across the desk, stomping down the hall to cool ourselves off, inserting cordial words when we want to flip the hell out.

 

And sometimes, this works.

 

They are disarmed by our charm and unflinching smiles, and they sink back into their desks. They fuss and fuss but in the end, they usually get a little bit done.

 

But when they don’t, when their fury becomes rock hard cone of silence, it usually means something happened. After a lot of patience and space and private sit-downs, it will emerge out of their dirty mouths. It will make us clench our teeth tight, snap pencils on accident.

 

She’s pregnant again. The gang’s got him cornered. Mom won’t get out bed. Dad was thrown back in jail. Nobody listens to me. Nobody loves me.

 

It’s when I’m knee deep in devastation like this that I finally understand the meaning of story.

 

In the blogging world we sometimes dismiss story and a lot of times, it is justified. Like today, a favorite blogger of mine, Danielle, who writes at From Two to One, has been frustrated by the corruptive use of story. You can read her brilliant post here. And I agree with her. “Story” can be a tool of emotional manipulation to sneak in some theological statements here and there. Many times I have found myself at the fighting end of someone else’s “story” because sometimes it’s only a safe, criticism-free way to advance misogyny or capitalism or anti-gay sentiment. And sometimes, I am just as guilty of it.

 

But story, if told truthfully, is the bedrock of community. It is relationships in their first dawn-of-creation form. We allow others to Know us, a risky move that can reward us with love like we’ve never seen. We liberate people from heavy shame when they find out that there are others out there. Story is gospel like Jesus is love. It is Good News to give empathy and encouragement. It brings people inside with no one outside, because the one thing we all have in common is history.

 

And that’s never been as clear to me than when I am standing at the center of teenage misfits.

 

A few weeks ago one of our teachers gave a poetry assignment to her class. For most of the quarter, these kids had done zero work and given her zero respect, and at this critical, but cynical stage, she just wanted them graduated and gone. She just wanted to do her job.

 

On the due date, to her surprise, they all filed in with loose-leaf paper clutched in their hands, taking their seats soberly because she had made some suggestion that they read them out loud and they all looked nervous about it. Halfway through the hour, from down the hall, I saw her step out. She was trying to clear here throat, fidgeting with her hair as she walked briskly to the teacher’s lounge. I sensed there was something off so I followed her in. I found her leaning against the bookshelf in back, choking down a cry. I asked if she was okay.

 

“I can’t- I can’t go back in there. These kids… their lives.”

 

And nothing more was said and nothing more needed to be.

 

She could’ve almost been expressing what one feels when their loved one is dying. It was all in that hopeless hunched over posture.

 

Another teacher sat in for her, and he, later on, also came completely undone.

 

In that hour one kid talked about his addiction to prescription painkillers. One girl talked about her attempted suicide. Another talked about a father that sexually abused her since she was in preschool, she had been cutting ever since. None of the students sat in shock, all them sat in the security that shared pain brings. Darkness can only exist in solitude. Shared in a small room, it is a mass emancipation.

 

Story enhances the picture. It fills in the space between the lines. It changes the way we look at letter grades and extended absences. It reshapes what their hallway fights are really about. It makes us less hurt by all the hate hurled at us. It reforms our relationships with them, allowing us to be our brother’s keeper. Allowing them to sit back and know they’re not alone. Allowing us to catch a glimpse of the responsibility we hold.

 

Story can be a cruel way to advance an argument, yes. It can be manipulative and offensive, true. But perhaps, story is not the problem, maybe it’s the foreign subtexts. The great leaps we take from personal phenomenon to universal truth, applicable in any and all situations. Has to be applicable and if you’re not applying it than your life is wrong.

 

Story is more about bringing out empathy and understanding in the diversity of our lives. Bringing us to a place where we can talk. Where we can vent. Where we can share in a conversation over the most controversial of things and still have the capacity to care about how the other feels. Because we know their agony and they know ours. We know how to boost them back to the surface and they know how to breathe life back to our lungs. I think we are all good people when we aren’t ignorant of our own abilities to drown or to deliver.

 

Story is holding up our scars, saying yes, I have come this far, respect me as equal, love me as your brother, let me Know you too. Story, in it’s truest form, is simple. It is getting to know one another beyond gossip, small talk, email, and blog comments.

 

We learn to love, we learn to live, by the stories we tell and the stories we hear.

We cannot stop speaking in stories.

 

We just need to learn how to recognize when one is selling us bullshit,

and when one is setting up shelter.

 

And to be perfectly honest, I’d rather have mountains of bullshit out there- mountains of bad theology and ugly words and hate! If it means a million small rooms where scars are touched, filled with exhales and tears and the beginning of collective healing. Because at the end of the day, Love and Worth win out anyway. 

 

RR

  • I love this. Thank you.

    • registeredrunaway

      thanks Aaron!

  • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what you’re describing here about stories, in a nutshell, is the difference between storytelling as an agenda versus storytelling as a means of achieving transparency through which love can work. Love doesn’t have an agenda. Some may argue terminology on this, but the point is Love existed before any of our goals to ‘be loving’ did.

    You and your co-workers definitely have strong hearts.

    • Ford1968

      Michael
      Perfectly said. Integrity matters. Intention matters. “Love doesn’t have an agenda.” Indeed.

    • registeredrunaway

      It is what I’m driving at, and we’ve seen story telling do that lately. Prodigal mag has posted some controversial stuff, drawing theological conclusions haphazardly and defended it in the name of “story”.

      And YES, you put it perfectly. Story achieves transparency through which love can work. That is why it is do critical. We can not love one another when we don’t Know one another.

      Thanks Michael!

  • Ford1968

    If we take God at His word and believe that we are all created in His image, then there’s no better way to glimpse Him than through His creation. Story is a powerful way to know someone. Story is, in its truest meaning, sacred.

    But, in my view, the storyteller dishonors his own story if it is told in an ingenuous way. There is nothing wrong with using a story to illustrate a truth as one understands it. But BS saps the story’s power and incriminates the storyteller.

    RR, I think you honor stories and tell them deftly. You tell them with honesty and compassion. Thank you for your vulnerability. It is a gift to readers like me.

    • registeredrunaway

      Exactly. It is community of the Kingdom kind. I honestly don’t know how we move forward as the body of Christ without investing deeply into the lives of each other. I don’t how we even emulate Christ without doing that.

      A good example of BS (in my view) is the Open Letter to Feminists on Prodigal. It used story to advance an argument that women should submit to their husbands (along with a grisly story of endured physical abuse.) The author, Emily W, published an apology/explanation for her piece after the uproar had died down a little bit.

      It was actually really moving and clearly honest. It also put the whole piece in perspective and gave everyone a sense of understanding about where she was coming from, what she meant and what she didn’t mean.

      Ford, you are too kind to me my friend. Thank you for your words of encouragement! I’m really really behind in my emails, I’m going to try to catch up on them today, and carry on our conversation!

  • I have been thinking about this story controversy over the last few days, and wondering if a big part of the problem isn’t simply our pronouns. Like expressing our feelings, communication happens most authentically through “I statements.” When we tell our story, but talk more about the other people involved instead of our reaction and feelings to the others involved, we distance ourselves. And when we take an “I” story, and make it a “you” story, we belittle readers by drawing conclusions in their behalf. It seems like the most powerful stories are those that invite engagement, not force conclusions.

    • registeredrunaway

      This sounds like a needed blog post (hint hint DO IT!) I hadn’t really thought about it that way. This medium of blogging really has to be more carefully thought through, especially in telling stories within the context of being a Christ-follower. I think about your “open letter from a faith writer to the God she writes about” http://www.everydayawe.com/an-open-letter-from-a-faith-blogger-to-the-god-she-writes-about/

      “This is about You. A living and active God moving in the world, and in each of our lives. This is about us, sharing stories, and reminding each other that our faith is true and we are not alone. This is about the way You can connect strangers who have never met to help each other in our times of need.”

      This, right here, needs to be the focus of all of us. The heart of all that we write.

      Thank you Steph!

  • This is SO good, and I will be thinking about this all weekend: “But perhaps, story is not the problem, maybe it’s the foreign subtexts. The great leaps we take from personal phenomenon to universal truth, applicable in any and all situations.”

    • registeredrunaway

      Thanks for reading it Danielle, I’m happy it gave you something to chew on! Really really love your blog 🙂

  • “Allowing us to catch a glimpse of the responsibility we hold.” As a fellow educator, these words run so deep. The stories that our kids live are oftentimes so far from our own realities. It is in these glimpses that we become aware of gravity of our profession. Thank you, once again, for the beautiful way in which you have strung together your words. Truly inspiring.

  • registeredrunaway

    Thank you Abby! Being in the education system becomes… so much more than a job. For me at least, working with these kids feels like it has become a part of me. I am always worried about them, always looking forward to seeing them. It’s a blessing and a burden… but way more of a blessing 🙂

  • Every time I drop into your site here I am left profoundly moved. The compassion and patience it must take to accept people where they’re at, to see the human behind the difficulties they face… ah, there are no words. Your writing is a blessing and encouragement to me! 🙂