This I Believe
I believe in the Power of Narrative.
I am a reader and a writer, a teller and a listener, a professor in a community college; I have witnessed the Power of Narrative first hand. I believe Narrative can change lives and alter the course of human events. I have seen it happen countless times, but never more poignantly than in the Creative Writing class I teach, have taught each semester for more than twenty years.
And Vince’s story is just one of many.
Like a lot of my students, Vince lived in a Hispanic ghetto near the community college where I teach. At age 19, he was on probation for “a serious crime,” slated to go to prison if he failed to attend school, report to his probation officer on schedule, complete his community service obligation by mentoring at a middle school twice a week. It was half way through his first semester in Creative Writing before Vince wrote a story. It was entitled “$treet $mart.” The Ss in the title were dollar signs. The story was fifteen single-spaced pages; it was unfinished and riddled with misspelled words. Like many student-written stories, “$treet $mart” was a thinly disguised account of Vince’s life—before his arrest, conviction, and probation. In this story, by 7:30 a.m. his first person narrator was already buzzed on alcohol, high on weed, and had $4000 in his pocket from selling drugs, most of them in the restroom before school. Like Vince, his main character was a drug dealer’s Middle Man. In the story he explains the ease with which he circumvented the security guards posted outside the school. “That was easy,” he says. “I gave them drugs to look the other way and hid the rest in athletes’ lockers. They never took the drug dogs there.”
During his several semesters in Creative Writing, Vince’s narrative evolved. For a while, he wrote of funerals for kids fifteen or sixteen who were victims of gang warfare, of Middle Men, friends, who were gunned down in the street and their murders ignored by the law. But then, about half way through his probation, Vince began to write of his fear of going to prison. He wrote of the night his drunk father took his car, had an accident in it, and fled the scene before the police arrived leaving Vince’s car behind. The following semester, Vince wrote rap songs. They were still riddled, of course, with misspelled words, still full of the street and its language. But their tone: perceptibly less final.
By the end of his last semester, Vince’s spelling had not improved. But his poetry—his lyric poetry—was almost free of profanity and street talk; in fact, it bordered on hope. “They don’t sound like Vince poems,” a girl remarked; she had been in class with him from the start. “Sounds like someone else wrote them.”
And she was right; someone else did.
I believe the Narrative is as essential to human beings as food or shelter or sex. Civilizations rise or fall on the basis of the narratives they generate; through narrative, cultures and belief systems are sustained or lost. I have seen this power in action, in those narratives I read, write, and teach and in the tenuous efforts students make to articulate their experience, to share it with others, to understand it themselves.
I believe passionately in the Power of Narrative to alter human lives. And I am convinced of the human need to participate in it. How else can individuals like Vince know where they have been or discover where they are going? How else can they fall and then rise?
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