Friday, February 24, 2017

All I Have Are Stories...I Know It Is Not Enough - Telling in The Schools of America

I am often unaware of the stories going on around me until they slam into me in such a way that I cannot avoid them.

One lovely spring evening in my early twenties, I was sitting in my apartment in Evanston, Il;  knitting. I used to do that quite a bit. I was listening to a Broadway album, and drinking tea. The phone rang. It was my mother. My parents lived in South Korea at that time.

Mom: (Panicked) Are you okay?

Me: Yes. Why?

Mom: Why?

Me: Yes. Why?

Mom: You aren't caught up in the riots?

Me: The what? What are you talking about?

Mom: The Riots! They are burning everything down! How could you not know about this?

Me: (Laughing) Mom, I have no idea what you are talking about. There are no riots.

Mom: This is about Rodney King!

Me: Who?

Mom: Turn on the news!

Me: I don't even own a television.

(This was before the internet)

Two days later a television arrived in the mail. That turned into a story.....but I don't tell it on stage. 

One lovely fall morning I was sitting at the table with my almost two-year-old daughter. We'd dropped my son off at pre-school, and we were playing language games at the kitchen table. The phone rang.

Aunt Anna Fae: (Panicked) Where is your father?

Me: What?

Aunt Anna Fae: Where is Milton? (my baby brother) Your mom?

Me: I don't know. Why don't you call them?

Aunt Anna Fae: The lines are all down.

Me: Well, I haven't spoken to them in a few...

Aunt Anna Fae: Doesn't your father work in the Pentagon?

Me: Yes, but....

Aunt Anna Fae: (Calmly) The World Trade Centers have come down, and a plane hit the Pentagon.  Where are your father, mother, and brother? Are they safe? Are they alive?

It took my two days to reach my family members. That turned into a story...but I don't tell it on stage.

I have become much more plugged into the world since my children are older. I follow politics, get involved in local events, and I often have an opinion or two about events both national and international. 

Even so, I am not always ready for the moments when what I know from the news intersects with the actual world.

This last Thursday I left my hotel, headed out to a school in Charlotte, and met my PTA contact. I set up in the gym. While I was waiting for the three hundred fifty kindergartners, first and second graders who were going to spend forty-five minutes with me, I asked a standard question about the population.

Me: What can you tell me about your kids?

Principal - We have a very diverse school. Over half of our children have undocumented parents. We also have a high population of refugees. I have some babies who came here from Syria, but I guess we won't have the opportunity to save any more of those precious children. Our school has over twenty-five different languages. Almost none of the students have English as a primary language at home. Most of them will become polyglots just so they can converse with their new friends. They are learning quickly, and most of them are doing really well with English. By fifth grade, they are ready for middle school. You'll see some kids who you might assume are African American, and they are, but all of them are Somalian, most of them just got here. We have only a smattering of children who were born in Charlotte, and they are speaking other languages too in order to make new friends.

I looked out over a sea of little faces. They were laughing, talking to friends, wiggling, just being kids. Every possible shade of human skin was sitting in front of me. Every type of hair, every type of smile, eye, and body shape. 

Me: How are they doing with what's going on in the current administration?

Principal - Not well. The children are so stressed. The teachers are also stressed. Anytime a policeman comes to the school, the children cry and shake. They come to school with their coats even when it this warm because they are afraid they are going to be taken away, and they want to keep some of their things with them. If someone is absent, they are scared that they will never see them again. What is happening now is the worse thing that could be happening to these babies. They are terrified.

The principal thanked me for coming and told me that even though the children might have some trouble with the language, they were going to love it. 

Before I began, an older white lady came into the gym where I was doing the telling. This one group of kindergartners went crazy when they saw her. They waved, started bouncing up and down, and couldn't contain themselves. She came to the front of the room. The entire class got up and swarmed her under with hugs and patting. 

I wondered who she was. Maybe she was the ESL teacher? I went over and asked her.

"I'm just the assistant in the classroom. I love my students and they love me. I've been out for a couple of days. I'm very attached to them, and they are very attached to me."

She looked fierce.

I don't think I've ever started crying before a set. I wanted to hold all of them in my arms. I wanted to say, 

"I am so sorry that we are failing you. I am sorry that we have created a country in which you are not safe. I am sorry that we have created a country in which you are not able to just be children. I am sorry that we have created a country that makes you afraid, turns you away, and marks you as "less than". You are just children. We are failing you."

I don't have anything to give anyone. 
I can't promise them that their families won't be ripped apart. 
I can't promise that they won't be sent back into war.
I can't promise them that they will be able to become part of the story that is America.
I can't promise them that bright future that America is supposed to stand for.

All I have are stories.

For forty-five minutes those children laughed. 
For forty-five minutes nobody in that room was scared.
For forty-five minutes the horrors of the lives they fled were forgotten.
For forty-five minutes there was nothing to do but be children and play with language and be silly.

That's all I have to give.

It isn't enough...but it is all I have.

I've often thought that instead of History it should be called Ourstory. 

To love that fiercely, to share with passion, to hold onto the best of what we can be, to face a child who is afraid and say to them, I will fight for you if you let me...that is what it is to be part of Ourstory. 

That is what it is to teach.

I didn't really know anything about what was happening with the Rodney King incident. It happened all the way across the country and didn't really know anyone involved in it.

I became aware of 9/11, but there was nothing I could do to stop that. I was across the country. it was over before I knew it had happened. 

What about now? What can I say now?
All I have are stories.
I can share them
I can make safe space for a little while
I can help build some community
I can offer comfort for a little while

All I have are stories....Ourstory

Despite how hard some things hit me....they never end up on stage.

I hope you find someplace to share your stories.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

― Emma Lazarus

Tell Fiercely!


  1. Tears...and deep respect for you, your work, and your words. Thank you Donna for finding the courage to put your thoughts on virtual paper. May they take flight and land at the feet who need to read them the most. We must not fail these children, their families, for in doing so, we fail ourselves.

  2. Thankyou Donna,

    Tender, inspiring, fierce, gentle and beautifully written. I am still reeling! With your permission I would like to send it to everyone I know - even those I don't know!
    In the midst of our outrage, we can never lose touch with our hearts.

    Bob Reiser

    1. Yes, please share it. I feel like we need to remember that words like illegal, and migrant, and refugee aren't about some abstract adult somewhere, but families and children and real, vulnerable people.

    2. You have penned down your emotions so beautifully. I also tell stories and can understand what all happens when children are just listening the stories.

  3. . . . excellent post. A reminder for the times when we forget that what we have is a gift - if we tell - someone will hear - so we must tell.

  4. Thank you Donna, you're so right! Every adult i n the world must fight in their own way for the children! It' not right for them to be afraid. Sometimes there are no words..Let's All do what must be done and share ourstory!

  5. Powerful! #ToAllMajorNetworkMedia . . . and the swamplands of D.C.

  6. Oh Donna, this blog is fabulous, like you. I'm still crying. You have touched my heart and soul, as you do to so many others. Thank you. I look forward to being with you in St. Louis. Much love, Leeny

  7. So beautiful. I need - we all need - stories like this so that we have the strength to go out and face each new day. Thank you.

  8. As an ESL teacher and storyteller, your words reach deep into my soul.
    Thank-you for posting this, Donna.
    Jean Hale