I’m in the business of stories. As a middle school reading and language arts teacher, and a parent to three little boys who adore stories of all kind, much of my day is spent reading, writing, and listening to stories.
At every possible opportunity, I remind my students that they have a story to tell — that their choices, actions, and LIVES are part of their story and that story matters. Each year, I show my students a Ted Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story.” The speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, tells her story about growing up with books that only portrayed white children from Western cultures. She fully believed that in order to write a story, she must write about children such as the ones she read about, and that she could not write about the life she knew.
I tell my students that they have both an opportunity and obligation to tell their story. That one day, their story, might open someone’s mind and heart.
It is the stories of people that make up society’s true history. While history books give you the broad strokes of events, they do not often show the very essence of the people who lived through them. How long did we know that John Glenn orbited the Earth before we heard the story of Katherine Johnson and her fellow mathematicians who helped put him there?
Oral history, as a practice, was once the foundation of civilized society. Generations of people used storytelling to pass down lessons learned, history, and cultural practices. Everything was learned via word of mouth, and if you wanted to know how to cook a special dish or discover your great grandfather’s occupation, you had to listen.
In today’s current stage of 24-hour screens, listening has almost become a lost art. Checking for new posts and clicking “like” or “share” is our new way of connecting to one another. An Instastory may be a glimpse into someone’s life, but does it deepen understanding of that person, of her struggle, of his true story?
With the holiday season approaching, the time is ripe for a listening renaissance. Whether you celebrate with friends or family, you will have an opportunity to listen to one another, to share your stories. It doesn’t have to be a formal setting in order to listen to one another. Stories can be told over rolling out pie crusts, washing dishes, or during halftime of the football game. The setting isn’t important, but the story is.
Every year, NPR’s StoryCorps sponsors a movement called The Great Thanksgiving Listen. Their mission is “to create an oral history of the contemporary United States.” The program focuses on people of all ages as they interview their elders using the free StoryCorps app. It provides suggested questions and interview techniques for interested parties. After recording, participants may choose to have the interview added to the archives at the Library of Congress in the American Folklife Center.
While it may feel awkward or unnatural to record your family members telling a story, as opposed to taking a quick video or picture, it can sometimes mean so much more. When I tell my own children the stories of my grandparents, who they never got the chance to meet, I am often overcome with emotion. There is nothing I wouldn’t give to listen to their voices tell those stories just one more time, to be able to share those voices with their great grandchildren.
Whether or not you choose to participate formally in “The Great Thanksgiving Listen,” I hope that you consider serving that turkey or ham with a side of history this holiday. Your story and your children’s stories matter, and so do those of your parents, grandparents, and back and back and back. Your stories are part of our history, and they should be heard and remembered.