Storytelling - FamilyEducation


August 18,2008

On Saturday we had one of those perfect dinners where the kids ate like normal people, and no one threw food, and we had an actual long conversation where everyone lingered over their meal and didn't catapult out of their chairs the minute they felt full (and with those little kid tummies, that usually takes five seconds around here). The conversation started with trying to help L. process two "bad" days he had last week--bad because he had different substitute teachers on Thursday and Friday, never a good thing for L. But before too long, the conversation shifted into storytelling mode, and Scott and I spent a good 20 minutes telling stories to the kids about our own elementary-school ups and downs.

One of the (many, many, many) things that took me by surprise about having a child start down the elementary school road, a few years ago, is that it has prompted me often to reminisce about my own school days. I'm also constantly surprised by how little I remember about elementary school. There are a few stand-out things I do remember--like vivid snapshots almost, frozen stills of me at 6 or 9 or 10 years old. Sometimes I feel bad that I don't remember too much from what supposedly are key critical years in any child's life, but I also comfort myself with this when I anguish about my son's own elementary school experiences. When I worry about teasing and bad days--those days that seem just so big and ugly in the here and now--I think about how time will take the size and edge right out of those experiences, and that L. himself will probably not remember half of what we will remember years from now.

I also didn't realize that I would, through my son, relive my own elementary-school years again. I think I had elementary school buried pretty deep in the recesses of my memory (but not as deeply buried as middle school--who wants to remember that?). But every now and then, Scott and I will pull out stories from those days and hold the kids captive with them at the dinner table. They will listen, L. amazed to imagine that we were once like him, navigating through the messy landscape of school, homework, recess, and teachers. We pull out anecdotes, hoping they will help L. feel less alone in his own school experiences. In telling my school stories, I am often surprised to remember that I also hated lunchtime in the cafeteria, and that recess often made me feel lonely and anxious. And how could I have forgotten that time I got hit in the face by a ball during a playground dodge ball game? Or the time I walked behind the fifth graders at lunchtime and got inadvertently bopped in the eye by an older kid who raised up his hand to ask for more milk? But I forgot these things until my own child started school, and then something about eating lunch with him in the school cafeteria, and dodging soccer balls on the playground at recess, and meeting with teachers and helping with homework--all brought the memories flooding back.

Scott and I often tell people we met in elementary school, which is mostly untrue. As it turned out, we did go to the same elementary school, but because we're one grade apart, we didn't know each other back then. We knew some of the same people--well enough so that we could joke about so-and-so, and marvel at what they had done. When we first met, and found out our lives had crossed paths in elementary school, of all places, we were truly blown away by the coincidence. But even though we have this context, this frame of reference we share so well, I am always amazed by how different our individual memories of school are. While I remember that a poem I submitted to a school contest during the Iran hostage crisis (remember that?) was read out loud over the school's PA system one morning, my husband remembers being the school's "weatherman" and being picked to read the weather out loud to the entire student body.

It's amazing to me what a symbiotic give-and-take remembering all this is for our family. We tell our stories and not only help L. put his own school experiences in perspective, but doing so connects my past with Scott's, and vice versa. These memories make up the landscape of a time that could easily have been forgotten--years that were fraught with plenty of ups and downs and anxious moments--worrying about whom to sit with at lunch, or where to play at recess. Elementary school was, for many years of my grown-up life, just a half-remembered time.

I didn't know my husband back then, but I can almost see him--a happy, well-liked kid with blue eyes and freckles, just like T.'s. I wonder if he heard my poem read that morning at school, or if I heard him read the weather over the PA? I wonder if I ever sat next to him in the auditorium, or passed him in the hallway? And when we get going talking about those days, as we did the other night, pulling out story after story, the kids listen, wide-eyed. There's something about the storytelling that feels like a legacy, something incredibly special handed from us to our kids--missing pages to the story of who they are, and where they came from.