Essayist and poet Kim Stafford once wrote, “A story saves life a little at a time by making us see and hear and taste our lives and dreams more deeply. A story does not rescue life at the end heroically, but along the road, continually.” I believe a story saves life. I believe a story saved my life.
Shortly after I was born my parents divorced, leaving me and my older sister of seven years to ping-pong between households and arguments. These contests exhausted all involved – including the lawyers – and lasted well beyond my sixteenth birthday when the custody battles were supposed to cease, when I was supposed to be able to advocate for myself and all would morph into “normal.” When I was in fifth grade, the shuttling and shuffling stopped abruptly. My mother ensnared me in her rented house, in her we-don’t-fit-in-here neighborhood. For reasons unknown to this eleven-year-old, I was no longer allowed to see my dad.
A multitude of other no-longer-allowed tos quickly followed suit: I was no longer allowed to attend gymnastics practice, no longer allowed outside the house unless under my mother’s surveillance, no longer, no longer, no longer…However, in retrospect, the allowed tos more than made up for their absence. I was allowed to choreograph dance routines to Barbara Streisand records, and I was allowed to read.
During my imprisonment, I flew through whatever texts were at hand, moving quickly up the literacy ladder to my sister’s “rite of passage” paperbacks: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and The Summer of My German Soldier among other titles I can no longer remember. While Margaret Simon battled puberty, I battled my mother’s mental illness (although this label only seeped into my vocabulary decades later). While Margaret Simon sought answers in her training bra, I sought answers within the prose. I sought escape between the paragraphs, for each page offered not only a safe attic similar to Anton’s but also potential personalities I could try on, identities I could slip into when I was tired of being me. And I was tired of being me. I was tired of longingly and voyeuristically staring out my bedroom window at the neighbor’s escapades. I was tired of the vests and the ties, of the barely audible whispers that forced me to always answer the phone and order for the two of us at the McDonalds’ drive-through. I was tired of turning off the facets, the shower, and the sink because my mom was cleansing the house of I don’t know what. My life was exhausting and lonely and terrifying and monotonous and frustrating and unpredictable.
But I had protection, for not only were these texts a means of escape, they were also a means of defense. They were the fortification I hid behind in the morning when I could no longer hide my tears and the armor I slipped into in the afternoon when I could not longer let the words mom, mommy, or mother slip from my mouth. My library also safeguarded the only form of communication I had with my dad, for after the elementary school principal hand delivered my dad’s weekly letter and I inhaled its every word – every word about the court proceedings, every word about my sister who ran away to be with him, every word about his expanding stamp collection – I snuck each message between the pages of my children’s books, tucked safely in a cardboard box that stood its ground on the rusty rug of the hall closet; however, even Cinderella can let down her guard and one day the letters were gone. Disappeared. Perhaps asking these picture books for protection beyond the figurative was an impossible feat. Stories aren’t heroes; they didn’t bombard my bedroom and rescue the not-quite-old-enough-to-be-damsel-but-still-in-distress child but they saved my life nevertheless. They gave me a skein of silk that I wove into a ladder, enabling me to see and hear and taste my life outside my claustrophobic cell.
I believe in the power of stories. I believe that stories save life, and that is why I’m currently an English teacher. I teach texts because I want to give children the braided tresses that were once given me.
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