The Use of Stories

Honors students enjoy one another's stories in class.

“What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?”

Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories

Snow is falling hesitantly, halfheartedly over Kandern this Sunday afternoon. Our living room is the picture of calm, complete with soft Christmas music and my sister, Holly, cutting out snowflakes while Emily’s brother, David, writes emails. I compare Finals Week at BFA to running down the stairs in the dark; I always run out of stairs before I run out of momentum, bringing me to a sudden, almost unsettling halt. Three days later, I’ve caught my breath, slowed to the quieter pace of a Christmas break in Kandern.

With the luxurious prospect of reading books for fun looming large ahead of me (The Guernsey Literary and Potatoe Peel Pie Society, and finishing Gilead) stories are on my mind today. Stories also colored the last month of school, as each of my students spent considerable time and energy crafting short stories of their own. As both regular and Honors classes have just finished reading different Mark Twain novels (Pudd’nhead Wilson and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, respectively), it seemed like a good time for them to jump into the grand tradition of American storytelling.

With charming alacrity, my students plotted and characterized, building tales out of mystery stock characters and literary archetypes, filling drafts with estranged families, chilling disappearances, blood-stirring quests and moving resolutions. Then they turned them in, these masterpieces, where they formed a great tower of fiction on my desk, over 500 pages of it. For a week I carried them around, puddle-jumping gleefully into these wells of imagination.

The joy they took in writing the stories didn’t surprise me–I’ve both experienced and observed teenagers’ remarkable capacity for telling truth by making up worlds of their own. What surprised me, I suppose, was how much they loved hearing one another’s stories.

I’d concocted an elaborate scheme of nominations and voting to turn it into the kind of contest that high school students like. For the last week before exams, we spent the first 15-20 minutes of each class hearing one story, then at the end of the week voted on the best in each class. In the end, the voting and winners didn’t matter; what they wanted to know was who wrote each story. They filled the air with guesses, diving into the truths they knew about their classmates to conjecture who would have imagined what. When I told them, there were sighs of understanding, squeals of surprise.

I’m impressed, once again, by the willingness of our students to know and be known. Whether it means venturing a guess aloud, defending a controversial opinion, competing in a debate or sharing a mystery story, English class this semester has been a parade of risk-taking by my bold students. I never pretend that it’s easy, what we do. Between the dark truth of the American literary canon and the soul-searching topics they elicit, we’re all asked to think in class, to bring our whole hearts and minds into the endeavor. My students challenge me with their courage, the way they are willing to invest love and imagination as they develop mind and soul. It’s an honor to be involved, even just as the voice reading the stories from the front of the room.

“After this, the stories aren’t so clear,” I told one of them a few days ago, “They don’t resolve the way we want them to. Sometimes the hero doesn’t make it back in the end, or the crime doesn’t get solved. It’s not so easy in the 20th century.”

The questions will grow trickier, closer to home as we bring our literary studies up to the present in the second half of the year. I’m excited for the journey, praying for the wisdom and the courage to meet my students in their adventurous intellectual curiosity, thankful always for the God that directs all of our steps.

A Merry Christmas to all from Kandern!

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