It is easy to teach my students the basic elements for the art of storytelling. The beginnings, the middle, end. All stories derive from this stem. The conflicts. The resolutions. The characters. It is accessible because the students can find themselves as a character on the continuum. Oh, I see Ned! So it’s like when my stepmother moved in, when the berating, beating and alcoholism began and when my father finally manned up and got his second divorce. Sadly, yes. Oh, or like when I realized my father left with no one knowing his name, when I found out I am not a registered member of my tribe because of this and when I committed myself to anger and depression.
Of course, these students never actually speak up like this. But I can see their wheels turning. But I know when I ask them to connect their learning to their own life, a critical element of transference at our school, I am likely opening a recently healed wound or adding the salt as most teachers unknowingly do. Most students have experienced trauma at some point of their lives before they set foot in my classroom.
A bit of perspective for this is a tale my aunt told me. My cousin was in fourth grade and his parents were seemingly happily married. His peers, at least the majority of them, were from the often mislabeled ‘broken home’. He innocently asked his mother, why aren’t you and daddy divorced? Why are we different? The confronting of such childhood tragedies is not uncommon. In fact living in a household with two parents led my cousin to question why his family was an outlier. To note, they have since divorced and now my cousin can add foreshadowing to his understanding of how a story is told.
I have been trained to know that something so commonplace, such as divorce or parental estrangement, can give a child Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We see this played out in our schools and doctors offices and prisons each day. Young people misplaced, misled and misdiagnosed.
So I decided to help them write their way through their drama. We teach our students to introspect slowly over the four years they attend Vista Grande. And in doing so we hope they graduate as a somewhat realized individual. By their senior year, a Vista Grande should be able to communicate at a highly mature level with people of all ages and background on a variety of topics. They understand the politics of education. The culture of borders in our community and abroad. The opportunities for sustainability in Taos County. The consequences of mining our planet for consumer products and energy and monkeywrenching that system. The power of their voice when they see themselves as experts on the nature of substance abuse and dependence in our community.
But most importantly they know themselves. With the help of existing curriculum before I taught Senior English and the unique study of Plato’s Apology from Codman Academy in Boston, I have created space for my students to envision their life as a path and themselves as the author of their story.
For two years I have been teaching students about Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey. We talk about what the word journey means. We envision ourselves as heroes called to fulfill our destiny. We know there will be descents into darkness and aid from the people we would least expect it. There may be fear, missteps, deceit and tragedy. But we learn, on this journey, in this life, we have immense worth and power. We are meant for something. And anything that has occurred in our lives, whether it is from our doing or an instance outside our control, can be used to transform us.
By studying Ancient Greece and the Trial of Socrates, we know there will come a time when our truth will be questioned. When the cosmos conspire and the spotlight is on us. We are called to defend ourselves. How we have acted. Why we have hid. What our scars represent. Eventually we must answer for who we are. For why we love how and what we love. For why we would have the courage to corrupt the youth and help them shape their stories.
So my students answer the writing prompt: What has made you who you are today? Who is responsible for this human being before us today? Where are you headed? What darkness have you seen? What light have you fought like hell to keep shining? What demons are still at your throat? What heroic powers do the next classes of Vista Grande students need to make it out of teenage hood alive?
If this were the only class I taught, I would be an eternally fulfilled teacher. I have received songs of joy. The litanies of regret. The poetics of young love. The chaos of substance abuse. The passions of murder. The cold eye of distrust. The childhood bruises of fear and the resilient healing. So many stories to carry with me. This should be mandated curriculum for all high school seniors.
These students have become my teachers in what it means to be a hero. The retelling of a girlfriend witnessing her boyfriend shot and killed. Her struggle to realize she should not have joined him in death. That he will forever be her story. Her strength aided by grief groups and counseling. Her commitment to love in all its crushing absence. She is a hero.
Or the young girl passed between foster families and her journey of self-acceptance. The orphan boy who learned to trust and then love his adoptive father. The sixteen year old on the path toward drug addiction empowered to get clean despite the withdraw and trauma of drug related loss. The Pueblo boy caught between two worlds that, like his elders, leaves wisdom in what has not been said.
This process of owning their stories through writing them is the most beautiful accomplishment I have made as a teacher thus far. They have turned personal tragedy and trauma into strength. They are my heroes.
The tragedy of teaching, in this context for me, is the yearly release of these young people. Those whom I have come to love now walk away. My participation in their formative years has ended. They are closing chapters. They are scripting fresh beginnings. All ready and emboldened to live their life as a journey.
And teaching is the greatest instructor of humility. Ultimately, they are ready for something greater than myself. I can bear that happily. Though the sadness is not knowing whether I will ever learn of their heroism again.
Good luck to the 2013 graduating class of Vista Grande High School. I love you and you will be missed!
(additional reading for all teachers…Will My Name Be Shouted Out by Stephen O’Connor)