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The Story or the Situation

This post was originally meant to be shared on a colleague's blog last year. Forgetting, other commitments, and perhaps, my own lack of championing this lens, contributed to waiting. Yet, 2020 was a year of waiting in most respects but also a year of attempts at connecting, if sometimes clumsy at best. The text below includes reflection questions written in the style of my colleague's blog. I left them because they are as important this year as last, and their significance extends beyond the exploration of the book list included. Those questions are the beginning of identifying and/or creating themes like those highlighted. Those themes, in other words 'stories', are the 'storms' of human existence, and during 2020, as every year before, we are in very similar storms some which include love and loss, fear and heroism. The 'situations' we need to examine using reflection questions are those 'boats' we are all in, which are not all constructed the same.

The wood. The size. The style. Provisions included. Navigational instruments denied. Same storm. Different boats. The story and the situation. With that in mind, I invite you to the exploration from one year ago that asked, 'how do you describe who you are? How much of you told is the story? How much is the situation?' As I posted last week, 2020, if nothing else, was another year, gifted to me, of stories. During a holiday season with such disparity in situations, there is no better gift than a shared story.

Original Post

If you read the bio on my website or written in cover letters it generally reads like this.

I am an experienced classroom teacher, nonprofit staff trainer and curriculum designer who has worked both locally and abroad. My experiences focus on promoting a love of reading across cultures as well as diversity training through connections between texts and learners from preschool to adult readers.

The question worth asking, and that Vivian Gornick posed revolves around “the story” and “the situation”. I first heard this question as part of a writer’s group critique, but it has bled into the books that I read and the diversity work in my community in which I participate. Gornick’s question serves not only to bring clarity but also to connect.

In her blog post utilizing Gornick’s work, Maria Popova quotes, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

My challenge for myself, and for you the reader, is to identify your stories and situations within whatever you are reading or retelling or writing as a means of understanding and lessening the “other”. Lydia Millet wrote, “We are always the main characters in our own stories; other stories may be interesting, but they tend to be most interesting when they cease to be the other and become our own.” Connecting to a story, a situation, or both help us to accept all stories as our stories.

The most personal practice activity would be to rewrite your bio as many ways as you can. Remember my bio at the beginning of the blog post. Considering Gornick’s description, I could rewrite my bio like this:

I am the daughter of a farmer who spent countless hours in the yard between barns and chores imagining stories of fairies, rewriting song lyrics and teaching me to retell the stories he retold from his childhood records his own mother bought him. So, I want others to love stories. I am the daughter of an adventurous woman who followed passions and convictions that mirror the Jewish heroines in traditional tales she died too young to tell me, yet remained as books in a library my niece helps me to access. So, I want to help others find their stories.

But, I don’t spend much time writing my bio in new and exciting ways, unless you count the fiction. (HINT: Fiction counts.)

For example, I wrote the story about the boy who desired one last conversation with a mother he never knew in the situation of the Argentine Junta turned Israeli immigrant, and the girl who moved home with her father believing she should save him in the situation of bracero program history and current Latino politics.

Still, I spend a great deal of time searching for my bio in diverse book reads. (HINT: Margarita Engle is a favorite author. Also, I refuse to read books where dogs die at the end.)

As an educator, I found a practical application of Gornick’s two categories when creating book lists. Lines around identities and nations are too often knives and wedges. The lists we construct are based around the universal human story; these are the lines between. My collaboration with a former colleague to complete her Multicultural Storytime curriculum and library diversity book lists, reflects this search for a connection versus a division.

These book lists were built around topics such as food, celebrations, colors, counting, peace, environment. These are contexts, situations we may have in common.

The classroom practice of designing book selection around an essential question is a similar practice.

Some examples are Decisions/Actions and Consequences, Influence, When is the restriction of freedom a good thing?. These are the common human stories that can take place across a variety of contexts.

In 2019 I participated in a diversity book challenge that I built around the central idea of being a witness. Sometimes I started with a theme in mind, but often times I read my most recent stack of books and a particular story or situation surfaced.

My themes were as follows: Tales my Father Never Told Me, Bitter and Sweet, Retold Tales, What Happened Next, A Mother’s Love, If I Hadn’t Been Born to You, In a Foreign Land, I am. . ., Hope, Family, (Your) Fight and Witness.

If you read between the lines of my bio, you might notice that I have been both a language teacher and a language learner as well as teaching and learning how to write. While sitting in those classes, often times it can be as daunting to know what to talk about as how to say it. Not only do teacher and learner lack a common language (situation), but they also lack a story in common. My favorite activity to create both language and story was use photo albums during lessons. That is the strength of story, story in common, universal human story. It bridges the situation, provides space for learning and understanding, and with enough practice, fluency. If using the ideas of “story” and “situation” appeal to you, below are some further opportunities for practice.

· Ask yourself: What stories do you tell about your day? Or retell about family, friends, histories? Why?

· Pick a book you are currently reading or a beloved one you bought. Why did you select this book? Do you identify with the story? Or, the situation? Can you think of another book that also shares the story? (HINT: Learning to cook is always a favorite of mine.)

· Search for an anthology. Here are some examples:

Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America edited by Ibi Zoboi

Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh

The Hero Next Door edited by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Fresh Ink edited by Lamar Giles

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

Our Stories: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment and Growing

Up Female in America edited by Amy Reed

Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Love and Food edited by Elsie Chapman

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