I was having a conversation with a student the other day – her mother works with refugees and has facilitated storytelling workshops. As her daughter, this student was a guest at a story telling event and she told me that afterwards, she left feeling “the heaviness of their stories”. Attending was an honour and leaving changed the mass of her being.
We’d been discussing this because of our Writer’s Club meeting the night before. She had shared her writing of a short story, and I shared mine. We connected over gravity.
I then told her my story of teaching at Adult High School for three years. Reading and hearing of war, poverty and homelessness changed me. I learned from new Canadians, from those attempting to reclaim their lost high school years, to heal. I’ll never forget the Creole woman who looked at Macbeth on the pages of our Falcon textbooks and did not know how to navigate the page; “What are these names at the left?”She had never read a play. That moment reminded me of the many assumptions that Whiteness makes. Or the woman from Sudan who navigated her writer’s notebook with one arm deftly, graciously, and with the most beautiful handwriting I’ve ever seen. Her missing arm, draped in her hijab, never once interfered with her ability.
Their stories left me wondering at the absurdity of teaching Shakespeare for those just learning the English and for those whose need was utilitarian in many ways – they needed high school for work, for survival. This is when the canon lost it’s power over me.
But getting back to the student sharing her story — she then talked a bit about the trauma in stories and “young privileged minds” who don’t know this lived experience; we both paused in measuring the complexity, the solemnity of this. I sensed this “heaviness’ which she was carrying as the weight of others’ stories.
I said that I often consider what loading of trauma is done in education intended to build empathy, and wonder at my own teaching – where had I left a student pulling stories along with them? Was this weight for uplifting? I thought about gravity and the force which pulls us down, but also plants our feet firmly on the earth, and then how gravity can be grave, as in “serious”, as well. I wondered about the distance between the story and the self, and how closely can my students touch the stories? All this filled the space of a pause in conversation, until I broke the silence.
So, someone like you hears the story and you are merged with it, you feel as if you are in the story? Others might have distance between themselves and the story.
She smiled and nodded as I explained more, a moment of shared understanding, me giving her the words that she was unable to express under the load.