Telling The Story

I like presenting at conferences, probably mostly because I'm an egoist. I like hearing myself speak, and I like essentially holding other people hostage to hear me speak. But, also, I like the work I do and I believe in it. In case you don't know me and need some background here, I'm entering my seventh year teaching in New Orleans. I work with kids who have "Emotional/ Behavioral Disorders."* We make art together to engage in so-called "Social Emotional Learning,"* and I develop resources to share with other teachers who want them. It's a cool job.

But I was watching this episode of Boy Meets World yesterday morning, because the hotel I'm at has a TV IN THE ROOM with EXTENDED CABLE. For modern twenty-somethings who work primarily as teachers, that's an unheard-of luxury. As a side-note, I could definitely live at a hotel. Last night I went to the gym and played on all the weight machines that normally only boys are supposed to use, and then I came back to my room and made a pillow fort. Then I called the front desk to ask them for a free toothbrush and a handsome man in a hat brought it to me. HOW CAN I BE EXPECTED TO LEAVE THIS PLACE.

Anyway, I was watching Boy Meets World, and some of The Bad Boys in Mr. Feeney's high school class start vandalizing the school because Mr. Feeney is too tough a teacher and he gives too many tests. Corey, Shawn, and Topanga get word of it, and they go down to the school to confront the bad boys. They all start wildly defending Mr. Feeney and talking about what a great teacher he is and how lucky they are to have him. Then the Head Bad Boy is like, "What did Mr. Feeney ever do for YOU?!" And Shawn is all, "See how I don't have a can of spray paint in my hand, and you do? THAT'S what Mr. Feeney did for me." And Mr. Feeney happens to overhear all of this, and he decided not to retire, because the kids are thankful for him after all. And I just thought to myself, This doesn't happen in real life. Teaching is mostly thankless.

Then I walked down to the conference headquarters, where I was set to do four presentations in one day. The other teachers there looked exhausted. Most of them don't have flexible schedules like I do, and this weeklong professional development is riding on the coattails of another weeklong professional development session about the Common Core. They've been teaching all year, and it shows in their faces. Teaching is often the kind of job that makes you want to go home, watch reality television, and eat a Dinner Box from Pizza Hut. (I just found out what that is, because THE HOTEL HAS TELEVISION, complete with COMMERCIALS. Pizza Hut now puts everything greasy it makes in one box, like a TV dinner for the Fraggle Rock Trash Monster. It's only $8.99, which is a deal I wouldn't have believed lest country music legend Blake Shelton hadn't told me all about it with his genuine southern charm.)

The touchstone of my presentation is a story about Paris. I show pictures of Paris and talk about how she wouldn't speak to me until I introduced her to pastels. I talk about how she went from throwing the fish tank across our first grade classroom to winning an abstract art contest for her age bracket at the Contemporary Art Center. I tell people about some of Paris' trauma (there's blood and murder -- like any good story should have), and then I explain how she taught me that art had the possibility of giving kids who didn't have the language to express themselves all the time tools to do just that. I like telling that story partially because I think people like to hear it. Whenever I tell it, I look around the room and see people nodding, wide eyed. And also, Paris is one of the main reasons I wake up every morning and continue being a teacher.

Until yesterday, I had believed that telling people the story about Paris was important for them. That without the story, my presentation wasn't relatable and didn't have legs. I am a believer in stories: I think they're the bedrock of social change. Telling them invokes empathy and helps others recognize your humanity. But then the people of East Tennessee who attended my Paris presentation changed everything.

After each presentation I gave yesterday, I was stopped at least half a dozen times by teachers who wanted to tell me their own Paris stories. One woman told me about her son, who had special needs and was unable to tell her how he was feeling in any given moment; but she encouraged him to draw, and found that he could express his emotions in that way. Another told me about a student she'd had years ago who she'd left for unreachable, until she noticed him drawing one day and suggested he storyboard a book report instead of writing it in words. He turned the book into a graphic novel, complete with summaries and analyses. "Three years later his high school teacher came up to me and told me that he'd started to advocate for himself; that he was asking her if he could write a graphic novel instead of a book report. Can you believe that? He had learned to take care of himself." I was inundated with other peoples' stories. It seemed everyone had one to tell. 

At my third session, I told my story about Paris, and then added a segment for participants to turn-and-talk to each other about their own Paris. I worried that people might be shy, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The conversation was lively and long-winded. Everyone had a Paris, and everyone wanted to talk about it.

I had thought that telling stories was important so that other people could hear our perspectives. At the conference yesterday, I realized that our stories have a much more important purpose: we keep them for ourselves. The truth is, as a teacher, you don't ever really know which kids you're reaching. Sure, there are indicators, but there are teachers in my life who wouldn't in a million years have known how much they affected me and changed my life, because I never let on. Paris is probably not the kid whose life I have impacted the most. She is independent, and has had lots of people who have made profound changes in her life since she and I met. As teachers, we don't get to hear our Shawn Hunters stand up to The Bad Kids for us, singing our praises and validating our work. We have to just trust that they are out there, and that the work we care so much about is not for naught. We all keep our stories tucked away, like talismans to remind us to wake up every morning and continue doing the hard work we do.

My story about Paris will not always be there to show people that arts education can change challenging behaviors in kids. Sometimes it will be there to give other people permission to tell their own stories. To remember, in moments of darkness, that there have been times of light.

I guess that's just one more reason stories are awesome. Thanks, East Tennessee.


* I put "Emotional/ Behavioral Disorders" and "Social Emotional Learning" in quotes because those are the scientific terms for those words. If I could pick words to describe those things, I would pick "Difficulty Sitting Still and Being On-Task In Cult-Like Charter School Settings" and "Having Fun and Getting Invested In School," respectively.