I believe that everyone has a story to tell. I believe that telling and listening to each other’s stories saves us. Hearing someone’s story enlarge my heart, sharpens my vision. Telling my story helps me better understand myself and what it means to be human. Stories weave us together with invisible silver threads that overlay our differences and lessen the spaces between us.
When I heard the stories of the juvenile offenders I taught in detention, I came to see them not only as those who had hurt others, but also as those who had been hurt. I listened, fascinated and often horrified, as they shared slivers of their lives: how the police knocked down the door of Grandma’s apartment and arrested her for arms distribution…how they watched a baby drown in the wading pool of their fifth foster home…how they found a gun under bricks in their backyard..how no one had ever read to them…how it felt to get “beat down” to enter or exit a gang.
As I tell my stories of teaching reading to these boys, I hope others come to see them as boys, too, not just criminals. Like fourteen-year-old Manny who popped into my cell-classroom like a loose firecracker, shouting, “Look, Lauren, look! I have facial hair!” as he pointed to two shy hairs on his little-boy chin. Of Mario and Kenny who told me I wasn’t married because I was a “book fiend” who needed to stop reading and find a man. Of sixteen-year-old Hasaam who, once he knew for certain no one else could hear us, asked me to explain to him what was “out there past the clouds” and why we didn’t “just fall off the Earth into the sky.” How each time the newest book in the Harry Potter series came out, we drew names to see who could read it first. Stories of their humor and their anger, their selfishness and kindness, their insight and lack of it–just like any other teenage boy.
I have had incredible stories handed to me unbidden. Once while walking, I saw a young woman kneeling by the sidewalk crying. I stopped and asked if she needed help. “I have breast cancer,” she blurted at me, “and my boyfriend just broke our engagement!” A story of love, betrayal, life, and death told in one short sentence. And I, a stranger, was shot right to the heart of it. Another time, making small talk on a bike path with a man in his late seventies, I asked him how far he’d ridden that day. “Twenty-two miles,” he announced proudly. He went on to tell me that four years earlier he’d been paralyzed by a brain tumor and that no one expected him to ever walk again.
I believe that people are amazing and their stories worth listening to. Each one is like a jewel, stunning and often wrought from hardship, and we are all made richer in the telling.
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