I had the distinct privilege of attending an amazing panel discussion on Saturday, November 22nd, just two days before the verdict in the Michael Brown case was released. The incredible nature of this event stemmed not from the size, location, or even the notoriety of any members on the panel, but instead on the diverse voices present. The reason I left so full of thought and inspiration and with a sort of hopeful skip in my step was because of the unique perspective of each person on the panel, the varied background and experience, the opportunity to lean in and really listen to others with education in their minds, distinct experiences from myself, and peace in their hearts. In short, it was the stories.
For the last few years, I have had the following sentiment on my teacher website:
“Life is all about stories. It’s our story and other peoples’ stories and the stories that have been written and told and recorded since the beginning of time, all weaving together in this beautiful tapestry we call life, and it’s our job to read as many stories as possible, hear as many stories as possible, and write and tell and paint and photograph as many of our own stories as possible in order to see how it all weaves together. What joy we will have telling our stories this year!”
In fact, those sentiments were part of my interview at my new teaching job and have been since the beginning of my teaching career eight years ago (part of my first day spiel to kids). “Listen, guys and gals, you have a voice! You BELONG! You have something to say. You matter.” One time, I was so wrapped up in saying this to my students on the first day of school, that I locked eyes with students, one by one, and what I saw there was surprise… and hesitancy. Surprise that I was inviting them “in” on the very first day of school? Calling for connection, validating them? Perhaps surprise that I wasn’t explaining a syllabus and putting them to sleep? Hesitancy, it seemed, in whether this would be true in the future, or if it was all just lip-service for this first-day, first impression. As I locked eyes with these kids and repeated, “You matter. You do. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise…” I felt my voice crack. I smiled, paused, cleared my throat, stood up, and fought back the tears as I transitioned to our next activity, a community-building game with sixth graders.
I have always loved stories. Maybe that sounds childish. Or naive. Romantic? Idealistic? Sure. I’ve fallen into those categories many times in my life. However, today, I’m placing myself in the category of Bleeding-Heart Realist. I make no apology for my big heart, my profuse tears, my deep well of emotion that often rises to the surface when I sense hurt or injustice in my life, the anger that rises up in me when I hear stories of someone I love being hurt or mistreated… even the inability to fight back tears at every stinking baptism I’ve witnessed since the age of twenty. I’m a feeler. Deal with it. Or, more gently, as my husband would say, “Don’t apologize. You have a huge heart; you were made that way.”
So, let’s get back to that Bleeding-Heart Realist idea. What do I mean?
Well, I mean stories matter. Experiences matter. In fact, they are the only equalizer and anger-diffuser that I have found in my short thirty years of life. In my story, in my experience, I have had the honor and privilege to teach students of very varied backgrounds in Saint Louis, Missouri. I have taught Jewish, White, Black, Indian, Hispanic, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Christian, Hindu, Atheist, straight, gay, curious, wealthy, middle class, poor, homeless, prominent, marginalized, liberal, conservative, independent, moderate, and indifferent. Take your pick. And in my humble experience, I have heard stories. I have experienced. I have created stories with my kids, with their families. My heart bleeds often from these varied experiences; it does. Yet, if I’m being real, which I usually am, I would have to say that the bleeding heart is good. It is, my truth told, the only way I have heard people stop spouting opinions and say, “Oh…” or have I stopped repeating my same tired words and settled into, “I didn’t know…” or had an angry parent after a difficult day of teaching her daughter move from telling me, “I just don’t think you know how to teach people who look like us,” to her student bounding up to me with a bear hug later in the week, and even a full two years later, sitting on the steps with me in front of the school, her ebony skin wet from tears of the day. “Mrs. Simpson, you don’t know how this teacher treats me,” and because of our shared stories, I can respond gently, “Hey, sweetie, do you remember how mad you were at me two years ago? What if you’re just misunderstanding each other? Maybe you two should talk, like we did,” and she says, “Maybe…”
Do you want to know how we healed? I started the conversation. She told me stories. I listened, and I responded. She cried. I cried. We hugged. We healed.
Allow me to be real.
We need to listen to stories.
Because you matter. She matters. They matter. Because you’re human. She’s human. They are human. Because you’re alive. He’s not. They’re protesting.
And, sure, it’s about Mike Brown. He’s the impetus for the movement. But even past that, it’s about life. Specifically, black life, in this moment, in this city, in this country. It’s about American life. About human life. And lives matter. They do.
I’m trying to listen more. It’s difficult… much of the time. I really stink at it, especially when I’m already armed with my own ideas and justifications for my beliefs… but it’s important. It matters.
The question, “What do I say?” in response to any person experiencing pain and anger may not actually be the needed question. I, slowly and painfully, am having to realize that whether it is my coworker sad and angry about the verdict, someone I love who agrees with the court’s decision, or my friend miscarrying her baby (which I received another two emails about today), my words will not always give answers. In fact, sometimes, my words hurt, even unintentionally. So, instead, I’m trying to focus on stories. Who else’s words can I share? What stories of sadness and hurt do I know by heart? By tears? Or perhaps, even, I throw the words aside, tuck them away in the folds of my brain for another day, and I just am. There. Here. And I listen.
Perhaps that’s what I say. Or don’t.