Studs Terkel died today. His death might not have made a difference in my life had I not spent a significant amount of time with one of his twenty-two books a few years ago. To write WORKING he traveled across America interviewing hundreds and hundreds of people about how they worked, where they worked, and why they worked. Eventually the book was made into a stage musical.
Working was the final high school musical I directed in my career. In the production everyday people came alive to tell the stories of how they approached their jobs. What struck me about the news clips this weekend that recounted the author’s life was the same lesson I learned while directing the musical: his uncanny ability to find at least one story in everyone’s life. He could meet an everyday, common person like you and me. He would simply talk and listen as the individual unveiled his story.
How many potential stories do I encounter as I go through the day?
On a routine day it is the gas station attendant, the grocery bagger, the retail store clerk, the homeless man on the street corner, the phone solicitor, and I should not forget my colleagues and my family members. Do I look them in the eye and see the person inside?
On an unlucky day it may be the police officer, the fireman, and the hospital staff. Do I look them in the eye and see the person inside?
In over thirty years of teaching, thousands of stories have come in and out of my classroom. How often have I been able to really look my students in the eye and see the person inside? How many of their stories have I heard?
I sometimes wonder about stories I have missed throughout my life, especially those that no longer can be retrieved. For those individuals, I can only recognize that stories were part of their being, and I can hope that someone listened.
Realistically, I know I can’t hear everyone’s story in every encounter, but I can communicate my sense of their significance. On the occasion when one of these people responds to my questions or possibly offers an unsolicited tale, I can listen and learn. I want the people in my life to know that I value them as individuals. I believe that every person has a story within him worth telling.