For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been giving the same assignment. I ask my students to write a story about their lives, a “personal narrative.” And when I explain the assignment, I’ve always, always, met with a chorus of “but nothing’s ever happened to me! My life is so boring!”
At this point I always tell the story of Joseph, an English Language Development (ELD) student from my first year teaching, whom I can only describe as a 15-year-old curmudgeon. Interrupting my description of the assignment, he stubbornly yelled that he “had no stories in him.” (His words, as often happened, became unusually pithy due to the language barrier.)
I asked him if he’d ever been in trouble. His eyes flickered. And in almost one breath, he told a hilarious story of being three and nearly burning down his own house.
“Write that,” I told him.
“Okay,” he said. And he did. And when he turned it in, he grudgingly admitted that he’d loved writing it.
I’ve given this assignment for nearly ten years, so you’d think I’d be tired of it by now. But I’m not. There’s power in asking someone to tell you a story. And there’s something about my classes after they’ve submitted their stories: they stand taller. They participate more actively. In the years that I’ve made time for them to read their stories to one another, the change is even more pronounced. They are kinder. They listen to one another more willingly.
Because there’s something really good about knowing you had a story inside you, and even better about being able to give it to someone else for safekeeping.
Now, I’m making the whole process sound utterly dreamy. Of course it’s not. There were some dark days this year, grading 140 narratives. One boy wrote a three-page saga about finding worms in his kindergarten lunch box (this one lacked any decipherable moral and most punctuation, but was rich in figurative language). Another submitted a technically flawless essay about having the stomach flu, also rich with metaphors and sensory imagery (I suspect this to be passive revenge on me for assigning the essay in the first place, or else a far-too-literal interpretation of my “find the story inside you” pep-talk). One student misunderstood my prompt and penned a sweeping, 15-page elementary school memoir. He’d also missed the part of class where I imposed a page limit.
After they turned in their papers, I asked my students for a metaphor for the process of writing about themselves. Some of my favorites: “looking for the whitest flower in a field of white flowers,” “peeling back layers of skin, but not in a way that hurt” and “staring into a fun house mirror for a long time.” And of course, there was the “falling down a deep pit of despair.”
But even as I’m accused of inflicting despair, I consider this a noble task. And I consider this lesson perhaps the most important one I will teach: you have a story in you.