I am an English teacher so…yes, I should know something about writing but outside of my life, in the classroom, I often questioned whether I had a right to write. When I had the opportunity to teach high school freshmen about writing memoirs, I realized that we all have the right to put our stories on paper and to share them with others. I felt proud when my students would get to the publishing stage with their stories and the experiences they shared ran the gamut. Some told of the memorable championship basketball game, while others recounted the loss of a dear relative. There were stories about unforgettable family vacations, being heartbroken and about moving away from their homeland. Throughout our shared experience with that unit, I reminded them that “we all have a story to tell”.
The irony is that despite that experience with my students, I still questioned the validity and relevance of my own story. Maybe popular culture convinced me that only the most outrageous and extreme experiences are worthy of writing about. But I realize I was allowing fear and doubt about my own value keep me from sharing my story. When Khalilah suggested I take part in the Kamaria Circle, a women’s leadership development group, I really began to understand that my story is the only one that matters. And since that experience I have been committed to getting my narrative out and on paper or onto my laptop, making it tangible and not just living indefinitely in my head. So as fate would have it I signed up for a memoir writing class last week. I had no idea what to expect but I figured it was the push I was seeking.
I live in Brooklyn and this class takes place on the upper west side of Manhattan. My first time making the hour-long trek to the class I thought, “What were you thinking Cat?” When I finally arrived at this unassuming building with multiple buzzers that didn’t seem to work, I was met by a slender and mature Black woman, who let me in after waiting outside for several minutes.
I tried to mask my annoyed attitude and said “good evening.” I followed her directions down to the class in this rather old and dimly lit basement. My attitude began to shift because I was happy to just put my stuff down and get to the nitty gritty of learning about writing memoir.
Our instructor/facilitator was a broad shouldered Black man named Michael with the voice of an 80s era radio announcer and the warmth of a seasoned professor. His teaching style was grounded in storytelling and he peppered his tales with important points about the craft of writing. He shared stories of his years as a journalist at nationally known newspapers and magazines, as well as his own experience writing memoir. His stories were funny and poignant and he was masterful in the way he used them to illustrate key ideas and concepts.
He had me feeling optimistic about my experience.
And then came the surprise. I turned to my right and I saw Dr. Marta Moreno-Vega, the renowned educator, spiritual elder and head of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. She sat alongside another woman, Alice, who worked throughout Africa as an ambassador. I listened attentively to her tell details of her background and her experiences traveling all over the world. I was in awe being in the presence of these fascinating individuals.
Michael then causally led us into the sharing and feedback portion of the class. Two women in the class read portions of their memoirs already in progress. It was such a privilege to listen as Sandy read about her experience in Lagos, Nigeria the same year I was born. Then Alice shared the story of losing her beloved. To say I was overwhelmed by that evening in a basement on the upper west side is putting it mildly. I was so honored to be in a room of Black folks of all ages and backgrounds learning and supporting each other in telling our own stories.
I left there wondering why I ever doubted myself or my right to share my voice and experience. The crazy thing is that despite my many years of education, I still questioned myself because somewhere along the way I was lead to believe that as a Black person, my voice does not matter.
That lie hasn’t stopped with me.
It continues to be told to so many of our Black and Brown students. Yes I am glad that I taught my students that they have a story but I left out the part about the need for their…for our stories to be told. We not only have stories to tell but the world needs to hear our stories and we need our stories to be heard. Bringing our experiences and perspectives to the forefront is something that is at the core of making our classrooms more liberating and equitable spaces.
But first we must acknowledge that our experiences matter for us primarily and as a means of self affirmation. Next, we must recognize that our stories deserve to be shared widely and regularly as part of the collective human story. Our classrooms can be the perfect spaces to allow students to feel safe and supported and be seen as full human beings. Our viewpoints and experiences have relevance in every imaginable facet of life and as educators we must look for ways we can infuse that into our daily practice.
After all, the stories of the oppressor permeate every fiber of our practice.
Whether you are teaching about the chromosomes or characterization, our stories belong and will enrich our students’ learning. I still have seven more sessions with this intergenerational group of writers and although I will be learning about writing, I have a sense that I will learn a great deal about good teaching too. I look forward to bringing forth a new story–one that only I can tell and hopefully share with you as well.
To tell your own story is one of the greatest honors we have. Let’s embed this right in all of our classes for our students in all the many forms great story telling comes in.
Peace and love good people.