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.