"We all have a story to tell."
These are the words that will greet my new elementary students as they enter my classroom this year.
I will tell them my story: who I am, what I do, when I was born, where I have lived, why I am a teacher, how I came to our school.
I will tell them this story: When I was their age, I carried a tattered journal, a Papermate pen, and a pocket dictionary everywhere I went. I wrote about the people, places, and things I saw with my eyes, heard with my ears, smelled with my nose, tasted with my tongue, and felt with my hands. I put down on paper the ideas and feelings that were floating around in my head and my heart. I was nerdy (and still am) ... but I was me!
"Will you tell me your story?" I will ask them.
I have heard many stories — real stories that didn't come out of any book but right out of the lives of children — in my six years as an elementary school teacher.
"Mr. Barton, the thing I want to be when I grow up is a high school football coach," said Shenice, a 9-year-old girl in one of our third-grade classes. Other people told me she was obstinate, disruptive, and incorrigible, but I wasn't interested in their stories about her. I was interested in her story about herself. By the end of the year we were running up and down the playground, blowing a whistle, practicing calling out offensive and defensive plays, and planning the steps she would have to take to become the first African-American, female high school football coach in South Carolina.
Isis, a 7-year-old girl in one of our second-grade classes, wrote, "I am from Honduras. I loved my home. But I was afraid there. My dad carried a gun. I was always afraid we would be killed." Other people told me she was a child from an undocumented family that lived in the shadow of my community, but I wasn't interested in their stories about her. I was interested in her story about herself. By the end of the year, we were reading the book Amelia's Road by Linda Jacobs Altman and Enrique O. Sanchez and building her road that she would need to become a doctor for migrant children in South Carolina.
And then there was James, a 10-year-old African-American boy in one of our fourth-grade classes. "You won't believe this, Mr. Barton, but I'm going to be a writer." Other people told me he couldn't read, was a slow learner, and could never become an exceptional reader and writer, but I wasn't interested in their stories about him. I was interested in his story about himself. By the end of the year, he was writing moving and sophisticated poetry, scoring proficient in English Language Arts on the Palmetto Assessment of State Standards, and making his way toward becoming a new Langston Hughes for his generation.
Langston Hughes told his own story in a poem called “Aunt Sue's Stories.” In the middle of the poem he writes:
And the dark-faced child, listening,
Knows that Aunt Sue's stories are real stories,
He knows that Aunt Sue never got her stories
Out of any book at all,
But that they came
Right out of her own life.
I am a reading and writing teacher at my school, and a storyteller by nature, education and, training. As I start a new year, though, I understand that not only am I Aunt Sue telling stories to my students but also the dark-faced child, listening ... listening to the stories of my students.
Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Image: Vintage typewriter, Bartek Zyczynski/ Shutterstock.com