A few weeks ago I gave my students a writing assignment out of Christina Baldwin’s book, StoryCatcher. One of the options in this particular assignment was to “describe a time when language inspired you.” Students could draw from a speech, a letter, a book or a conversation, and then talk about why they found these words inspirational.
On Wednesday, I spoke at a lunchtime faculty sharing session about my interest in the role of story and storytelling, my classes here and my writing. Following my presentation, one of my colleagues asked what I thought I would take away from my experience here in China. I knew the answer immediately. The stories my students have shared with me.
The next morning, the assignment to my students about the inspiration found in language, and the question from my colleague, found their connection like two powerful magnets. Right now the language that inspires me is found in the stories shared by my students.
Some of their stories are light-hearted and humorous and others are profoundly moving. The very first writing assignment included the option of describing a relationship with a grandparent or elder. Most of these students either have or have had very close relationships with their grandparents, many of them having lived with their grandparents while their parents were getting started in their careers. A later assignment encouraged them to record a story that had been handed down within their family and with this topic I seemed to have hit the mother lode. Their grandparents’ generation witnessed more changes in China than any other time in this ancient country’s history. I have heard terrifying stories about the Japanese occupation, the Great Leap Forward and the resulting famine that took the lives of an estimated 30,000 people, and the cruelties and horror that occurred during the Cultural Revolution. Embedded in these stories of brutality, are the stories of backbreaking work, bravery, pride, survival and hope. What this generation survived and accomplished, so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives, is nothing short of miraculous.
For many of my students, the so-called “little emperors” of the one-child policy, the process of recording and sharing these stories is very transformative. They realize their privileged positions in these legacies, and take very seriously the responsibility of being the only link in this generational bridge to the future.
David Isay, a documentary radio producer and founder of StoryCorps, identified the following premises when launching his wildly successful oral history project in 2003.
That our stories – the stories of everyday people – are as interesting and important as the celebrity stories we’re bombarded with by the media every minute of the day.
That if we take the time to listen, we’ll find wisdom, wonder, and poetry in the lives and stories of the people all around us.
That we all want to know our lives mattered and we won’t ever be forgotten.
That listening is an act of love.
Those four points are reaffirmed for me time and time again, as 47 students and I share in what novelist Ron Carlson described as the “radically fundamental” act of sitting together and listening to stories.