Tomorrow We Tell Better Stories

For the past few months I have had a wealth of experiences from my new adventure as a teacher that I couldn’t wait to share with the world, but I have been aboard the struggle bus headed nowhere fast in trying to organize my thoughts into words. Tonight I am jumping back in because there are too many good things to share.

Every classroom has a culture. If you execute it well, you can develop a strong, positive culture through the vision you set for it, both with yourself and with your students. My classroom vision is grounded in four simple words: I am a story.

‘I am a story’ means that each person is telling a story with their lives. From the words we say to the choices we make, we are telling a story about ourselves every hour and every day. If we truly believe that each person is a story, then we also believe that every story is worth telling and that every story is worth telling well. We cannot throw out the story of ourselves because we don’t like the chapter we are currently writing; it is up to us to turn the page and start writing a better plot line.

Our stories are also no one else’s to tell. I tell my students that they don’t have a story, because having a story implies that it could be lost or taken along the way. To believe that you are a story is to believe that you are the only writer with the power to pen your story. Your past does not dictate your story; your reaction to the past does. The people in your life do not dictate your story; the way you choose to live like or unlike them does. But each day, you are given the opportunity and responsibility to write a better story than you did the day before.

After four weeks of teaching, I have already seen a number of remarkable stories from my students. I won’t share them all here, because I would love to give them their own space to be told, but I did see one today that inspired me to write again.

On the third day of class, I had an “Investment Day” with my students, where I spend time investing them in the vision of ‘I am a story’. In my Language Arts class, my students wrote down the stories they were telling in their lives right now and then hung them on the back wall of my room. These stories were to serve as reminders to my students that they are the authors of their lives and the stories of their lives are as good as they choose to let them be. 

Many of my students, however, in writing real stories, did not tell the story they were most proud to tell. Many of them, burdened by the weight of past losses, recurring mistakes, and lifelong grief, wrote stories about how hard life has already been in their 12 short years. I am proud of them for being honest with me; the task is for both me and them to find ways to write better stories over the course of this year.

One of these real stories was from a girl that was having a hard first week. “I hate everybody,” she wrote. “People spread rumors about me already and I want to leave.” When she turned this story into me, she whispered, “This was the only story I could  think of.”

The sad reality is that sometimes the only story we can think of is the one someone else gave us. The rumors that float down the hallway, the family drama and pain that follows out the door on the way to school, the death that we never really learn to live through–all of these stories can become ours when they are all we can think of.

I wanted to talk to this girl.  I wanted to find out what I could do for her to make these rumors stop, or to help her ignore them altogether. I tell my students I do not tolerate unkindness at any time, and I needed to practice what I preached.

My intentions never became actions. I never found the right time to talk to her, or too often I got caught up in a million smaller worries and forgot about her pain. I’m not proud of this; it’s something you must learn as a new teacher or as a human being in general, to focus on what matters most.

Despite this, I saw signs of hope in this student. She made friends in the class quickly, and does more than well on all of her work. Perhaps her darkness was being replaced with hints of light.

Today that flicker of light became a beacon. At the end of class, I noticed her standing at the back of class near the stories. She was reading one of them, and then quickly ripped it down. Just before I could reprimand her for taking a story down, she brought it to me.

“This is a failure,” she said. I looked down at the story, recognizing it as her own.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s not a very good story,” she said, ashamed.

I was hoping this was headed where I thought it was. “Well, you can always write a better story tomorrow,” I said.

She smiled, and handed me the story. “Would you like to write a new one?” I asked.

“I’d like that,” she said, and bounced out of the class, seemingly lighter without the weight of that story she used to tell.

Today we may have failed in telling good stories. We may have found ourselves caught up in tasks that don’t matter. We may have lost our temper with the ones we love. We may have taken the words others said about us as a death sentence.

It’s okay.

Tomorrow we can always tell a better story.

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