I Used To Be, But Now I'm

I used to be a dishwasher at a convent for retired nuns. Now I’m an assistant professor of literacy education in THE Pennsylvania State University system. Hashtag Altoona campus.

I attended a storytelling workshop last Friday. Formerly of the Moth, professional storyteller Micaela Blei flew to town and facilitated the event. One of her exercises asked participants to fill in the blank. I used to be “blah,” but now I’m “bleh.” People shared the way they filled in their “blah’s” and “bleh’s” with each other. You could do anything with this statement:

I used to live in Minneapolis, now I live in State College.

I used to wash dishes, now I’m trying get tenure.

I used to be six-foot-eight, now I’m five-foot-three.

That sort of thing.

I hadn’t thought about washing dishes for retired nuns for years. But that was my first job. And that was the sentence that came to my mind during the workshop.

I used to ride my bike up Hodgson Road. Down a winding driveway, through a thick forest, and into the parking lot of a terrifying compound. The Home of the Good Shepherd. My shifts started at 4:45 and lasted until 7:00. I think I was paid $4.25/hr. And then I got a raise. $4.50/hr. My good friend Josh, a Catholic through and through, got me the job. It was 1994, and I was fourteen years old. I wore Metallica shirts and had long, flowing hair. Those decrepit nuns used to eye me up and down as I walked through their hallway. A demon child. And they didn’t even know I had Jewish blood coursing through my veins!

There was always a cook on duty during my shift. I met all sorts of strange adults at The Home of the Good Shepherd. There was the recovering heroin addict who would sip Methodone during our break.

“Shooting heroin is like being covered with a warm blanket for the first time,” he told me once. I never forgot that. Never tried heroin, either. I think his name was Mike.

My favorite cook was Dean. Dean was enormously overweight. He was a huge AC/DC fan. Dean used to let us sneak treats during our break. A bag of chips. A can of pop. That sort of thing. We’d sit in his car during our break and listen to metal. He’d talk about his drinking problem and his inability to find a girlfriend. Dean was a really kind man. Haven’t thought about him in years. I hope he’s well.

I love telling stories. It’s like traveling back and forth through time.

***

I’m twenty years into a career in education. I’ve spent time in all sorts of classrooms now. Elementary, high school, and college. Spent time facilitating learning for adults, too. I’ve built a wealth of experience around teaching and learning. Yes, this experience is listed on my c.v. But I don’t think those line items capture the half of it. Playing with Sharp Objects was an attempt to tell stories about my work in education. I don’t know. The book is an account of some of that teaching and learning, for sure. But there’s something so powerful about sharing those stories in real time with real people. Speaking them aloud.

A woman wrote me a note a few weeks back. She is a teacher, and she’d picked up a copy of Playing with Sharp Objects. She said so many kind things in that letter. Told me that the book helped her process some of her own experience with teaching. It was so cool to get that note. My trilogy of memoirs was nothing more than a DIY creative writing project. I don’t get much in the way of validation with those books. And I put lot of energy into that work. To quote the estimable Richard Wright at the end of his memoir Black Boy, it felt like I was hurling words into the void. It was so cool to hear an echo in the letter this woman sent me. A response. She told me some of her stories in that note. Cool.

Much of my teaching is rooted in storytelling. I’ve told thousands of stories to thousands of students. Early on, I discovered that telling a story seemed to shift the energy in a space. A connectivity appeared. I think this started when I was student teaching. A class had five minutes left at the end of the period. I had nothing more planned, and I wanted to keep the students from rioting. So I told them a funny story about working at McDonalds or hanging out with my friends in high school. I was no professional storyteller, but it felt so good when they hung on my words or howled with laughter.

My early storytelling was a little self-serving. I had time to kill in a class and an audience at hand. I wanted to make them laugh, because getting a laugh feels good. So I made them laugh and it felt good. Later, as time passed, I learned to use storytelling more strategically. I embedded certain stories in my teaching. Stories helped me illustrate points or inspire students to dream up material for their own writing or thinking. Storytelling has become part of my pedagogy over the years.

I’m teaching literacy methods to pre-service elementary teachers these days. I teach other things, but literacy methods is where I spent much of my time. I open class with a simple exercise. I ask students to think of something that has happened to them in the last few weeks. They write the event down in a journal. Describe it. Then they share their writing with a partner. Finally, I ask students to tell a story about the event to the class. We do this in a circle. Nothing too frightening or performative. We listen to each other’s stories. Mostly, we laugh. Sometimes we grimace. I’ve had moments where the group has cried, too. Stories are so powerful. I won’t get into it here, but I’m careful about how I structure the exchange of stories. Give students boundaries to share what they feel comfortable sharing, make sure everybody gets equal airtime, that sort of thing. We then have a discussion, after this exchange, about how telling and listening to stories is related to the work of literacy education. Seems to me that telling and understanding stories is central to that work.

Literacy is, amongst other things, the work of connecting with others through the tools available to us. Words to share our thoughts and imaginations through the bodies through that we use to move through the world.

Maybe what I’m thinking about is this:

I used to be a haphazard storyteller, but now I’m a pedagogical one.

***

Micaela asked us to do another exercise during her workshop. We visualized a space where we felt comfortable or safe.

My mind drifted to a bench overlooking the Mississippi River. I grew up in Highland Park. We were a block from the bluffs. Dad used to take me on walks along those bluffs, or down near the shore. Those are probably some of my happiest memories. The dysfunction or chaos of my childhood faded when I was by the river with Dad.

Years later, Dad and I would meet up near my house in Northeast Minneapolis. We’d have a beer at the Aster Cafe before it became trendy and hip (lots of things became trendy and hip in Northeast Minneapolis after I left) or sit on a bench near the river and smoke a cigar.

It surprised me to find Dad in my safe space during Micaela’s workshop. Both as a child and an adult. Sitting near the Mississippi River together. Dad raised me after he and Mom got a divorce. And despite all the chaos and dysfunction of my childhood (and of his childhood), Dad was always safe. I was hit with emotion as I made that realization in a storytelling workshop on a Friday night in Central Pennsylvania – many years and many miles away from that bench near the river.

I used to be a child, but now I’m an adult. And my father’s presence still matters to me, I guess. That’s probably the way with all us. Our parents move with us through our adulthoods whether we realize it or not. Whether we want them to or not. At the very least, telling stories might be a way to recognize and articulate the energies and histories that are always with us anyway. Seems like that’s something worth doing.

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