Tell Me a Story
One of the first lessons I was taught when I began working with preschoolers over twenty years ago was the power of what can happen when we write down the stories a child tells. The school I worked in had clipboards laying around the room with stacks of paper attached and pens and pencils in cups sitting on every empty flat space. The teachers were encouraged to journal the stories the children would tell us as they moved through their day. “Write exactly what the child says — word for word, grammar mistakes and all,” I was told. “Then read it back to the child to make sure you got it right.”
I was taught to say, “That sounds like a story. Is it okay if I write it down?” Most of the time the child would say yes and continue telling me her thoughts. When she paused, I’d read her words back to her, then ask if I had gotten it right. She would correct me if I had missed something, and occasionally as children do, would retell her story, changing details as she talked the second time through. Sometimes when the child corrected me, she would watch as I crossed out what I wrote, and then move closer to me, leaning her elbow on my shoulder. She’d watch me write the words as I introduced her to the concept that what we say can be written. Then she’d listen to me read her words back to her. Occasionally I’d hear, “That’s it!” before she scampered off to play.
At the end of the day the teachers would send the written-down stories home. Without fail, as the child was leaving the school, he would be clutching in his tiny chubby hand the stories he had told and we had written. By listening to the child talk and really looking him in the eyes, and by working hard to listen to the words, we were teaching that child, “Your thoughts are important.”
Eventually as the children grew comfortable with me, they began to bring me the clipboards saying, “Miss Krista, I have a story. Write it down.” And I would. Word for word, exactly as the child was telling the story to me. The children shared with me pieces of their world, and as I learned about their lives outside of school, I learned what was important to them. I learned what hurt their little hearts and what gave them great joy. I learned what made them terribly angry. I wrote down their whimsical, fairy-tale daydreams filled with their own superhero feats of grandeur as they defeated dragons and single-handedly fought off the imaginary bad guys. I wrote about new pets and baby brothers and the unfairness of being told to sit in time-out for misbehaving, and I wrote about the times they fell off their bikes and scraped knees and got Band-Aids. I also wrote about grandparents who had died and how much those losses made their moms cry.
Years ago I attended a conference for teachers of young children. One of the speakers spoke to the group about storytelling. “You will be a better teacher if you know and understand your own story,” she said. “What has made you who you are? Who are the people who helped guide you? Where are the places that shaped your ideas?” She asked us to move our chairs and gather in small groups of 4 or 5 and look at a photograph we each had brought from home. She then had us take turns telling the story of what was happening in the photograph: who was in the room, what was the occasion, and how we felt about the photograph. Some of us talked about the dated shag carpet in our grandmother’s living room in which the picture had been taken. Others described the pattern of the wallpaper and the family member whose legs were seen in the background. The room became animated with voices remembering details of the spaces of their childhood or the people back home. Some tears were shed as the animation in our voices turned to nostalgia and longing, and as we all took turns telling the stories of our photograph, we felt the gift of being heard. We were sharing the stories of our lives and our stories were being listened to.
My oldest son and I spent a weekend in Austin, Texas, this past summer. While wandering around the city, we stumbled across a piece of property on the side of a hill that held the beginning of a housing project abandoned in mid-construction, only the foundations poured and concrete walls built. It was now a space that creatives in the city had claimed for themselves. They had turned the cement space into a makeshift park of graffiti art and named it HOPE Outdoor Gallery.
The walls had become concrete canvases with spray-painted expressions of joy and angst and anger, and lots and lots of color. Dozens of people climbed the hillside with my son and me, and some carried cans of spray paint to leave their own artistic marks on the concrete. We explored the walls and floors and took pictures of some of the artwork that caught our eyes. On one of the walls in the front of the property, among the bright colors and weed-filled dirt, someone had painted in black and white, “Live a Great Story.” We paused at this painting and took a photograph.
My son and I had just finished a visit to his future college that week, and as happens when you are faced with a big life transition, we had many conversations during the visit about the life we each wanted to live—what we hoped for the story of our lives to be. We each talked of exploration and risk, relationship and caring for others. As a mom in my forties, I was in the midst of living my story, and at 18, he was on the cusp of beginning his.
We researched the “Live a Great Story” painting later and discovered the slogan is a brand and movement started by a young man, Zach Horvath, who now lives in San Diego. His business promotes the “Live a Great Story” idea: that our lives can be stories of adventure and exploration, that we should search for the wonder that happens when we pursue community and relationship with others. Stickers and t-shirts with the “Live a Great Story” logo are sold from its website, and the proceeds support charities that promote beauty in our lives.
It was perfect that my son and I had come across the colorful, messy, deeply flawed park of art. That dusty, painted hillside symbolizes what life is really about: seeing beauty in the mess of every human story. As my son begins the story of his life away from me, what I hold onto is the knowledge that I poured into him what I know will make his life story a work of art: to love well with grace and kindness and courage. What I want for his life is the same thing I want for mine, not only to “Live a Great Story” filled with adventure, exploration and relationship with others, but also, I want his life to be about treating people with the kindness and dignity that brings joy and courage to others. I want my son to live a life marked by Mother Teresa’s words: “Not all of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.” The smallest kindness is sometimes sitting with a friend and listening to his story.
We can never overestimate the value of listening to someone’s story, for it takes great courage to share a hurt or even a joy with another person. The fear of rejection, misunderstanding, or criticism often keeps us from telling someone what has made us who we are. But when another person takes the time to sit with us and listen to what we have lived, our hearts grow stronger. How would we be changed if someone simply listened to our heart’s deepest thoughts and did not offer unrequested advice or judgment. “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply,” wrote Stephen R. Covey.
I spend a lot of time carefully constructing my minutes with children to reassure them of their significance and worth, ensuring they are in a space where they feel they belong, where they can safely risk failure and gain the courage that comes from trying something new and discovering they are better for learning that a mistake is an opportunity to learn. I work hard to focus on them as they talk to me: I look them in the eyes, sometimes kneel down to be on their eye level, and occasionally pat them on the shoulder. I believe with all my soul that listening is art, that the listening I do is really giving a gift to someone who will leave our time together stronger and more at peace for having been heard. “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand,” writes author Sue Patton Thoele.
The value of really listening to a child’s story and recording it is manifold: the child learns from us that thoughts and ideas matter. Children think differently than adults, and paying attention to the stories they tell can show us a lot about who they are, what they think about, their observations, what matters to them. Writing a child’s story teaches the child “I hear you.” And if a child learns the value of being heard, then the hope is that he will, in turn, give the gift of listening to someone else.
My son left home for college last week and as he contemplates how he is going to live his Great Story, my hope is that he will be an explorer, an adventurer, a seeker of community and relationship, and that his story will include the understanding that there is dignity and tremendous love in taking a moment to listen to someone’s story.