Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Telling Our Stories

. . . Registration for our local Adult ESL and Family Literacy classes has begun. To help one of the program directors, I went on Monday night to do assessment testing at a new Family Literacy site in the area. Family Literacy is set up like the usual Adult ESL classes, except that once a week, the students bring their small children with them to class so they can learn together and do joint fun, language-building activities. Unfortunately, in that program the classes start and end much earlier in the day than I am able to attend, so I wouldn’t be able to teach those, but I think I would love the challenge . . .

Anyway, I got there on Monday night, having to leave a bit early from work, and I met with E, the program director and teacher, and B, one of the teachers at the day care center where the new site was located. The three of us women sat at waited for the potential students to arrive. However, since it was a cold, rainy night, and because the social worker who is based at the site was out sick that day, reminder calls weren’t made to the parents about registering for classes that night, so no one showed up for the entire two hours we were holding registration . . .

Normally, I would have been quite annoyed, but I didn’t mind just hanging out at all. The three of us passed the time, just talking about this and that, until the small talk fell away and we talked about the importance of telling one’s stories.

B was born in Cuba, the only child of a mother and father who were both the youngest of very large families. She talked about growing up in Cuba until she was 14, when her family came to the U.S. in the late 60’s, fleeing the Communist regime. She talked about how when she was little, her large extended family would sit on the porch and tell each other the family stories long into the night. B said she was glad that she stayed and listened to the stories, because after they moved to the U.S., they did not see much of the family anymore, and the older members began dying off. Now that she has her 4 year old twins, she is happy that she will be able to share some of the old family stories with them, and hopefully the history will continue to be passed down.

E grew up in this area, and has a lot of family here, but lamented the fact that her family does not talk much about the past. She said her grandfather fought in the Pacific during World War II, but never talked about what he did. Only now that he is very old and ill do some facts come out, but she is afraid that she still does not have much information about her background. E got engaged over New Year’s (yay!) and is starting to think about family and kids and all of the related stuff, and wonders what she will be able to pass on to her family . . .

Mr. Random’s family certainly knows how to document their stories . . . both Mr. Random’s great-grandfather on his father’s side and his daughter, Mr. Random’s grandmother, wrote books about their lives. Mr. Random’s grandfather (on his dad’s side) was an artist and some of his work resides at the Library of Congress. He also typed up an oral history of his family tree that Mr. Random’s uncle updates every so often. On Mr. Random’s mother’s side, their history is strictly oral, but does go back several generations.

For my family? Not very much . . . Neither side likes to talk about the past. My father and his siblings had a very difficult upbringing and they like to dwell on that, but beyond their parents and a few aunts and uncles, they don’t touch a lot on anyone further back. My mom’s mom’s family lived in Philadelphia for many generations, but my grandmother was the very youngest of a large family and her brothers and sisters were all grown when she was brought up. She doesn’t like to talk about the past either, no matter how much I prompt . . .

I am afraid sometimes that when I have children, they will be wowed by Mr. Random’s history, but I won’t have much to share from my side. I am trying to rectify that, but it is hard work, and I can’t compete with several authors, a missionary, and an artist. I know it is not a competition, but sometimes it feels that way . . .

On Monday, we talked a lot about the importance of telling our stories, knowing where we came from and how it makes us what we are today. We spoke about how important it was to share our histories with our children, so that they know that they are not alone, they are not different – that their great uncle was a little prankster, that their great-grandmother was a tomboy who was the first woman in the village to own a motorcycle, as B related to us . . .

If we are not connected to our stories, how can we describe who we are and who we came to be? How can we show that hard times are not permanent, that people get through them and move on, that we are made of stronger stuff that we think? How can we show that there is beauty that eventually comes out of even tragedy? How can we show that change is constant and we are all part of a cycle of life larger than just ourselves?

I guess that is the great thing about blogs . . . we can hear each others’ stories and gain knowledge from those, even if we don’t have the family stories to guide us . . .

1 comment:

Tobia Hawklyn said...

Even the age-old story about your parents or grandparents having to walk uphill, both ways, through the snow for miles to reach school has a certain significance. I often regret that I never wrote down the stories my grandmother told me about her life, something I intend to remedy with my mother's help soon. When I think of the things she told me, living through and fleeing from her home during World War II, I realize that few things I may encounter in life will be as bad as all that. It is also comforting to know that she was able to laugh about some of the things that happened, like having Superman for a father, from when he saved the family's solid oak table from the dining room when their house burnt down. It's quite huge: They had to reinforce the floor of their new house to accomodate it. So, before I ramble completely off the path, here, I have to say I find the family literacy classes an interesting idea. A lot of reading and attention disorders run through my roommate's family, and they're related to three-quarters of the town here, so perhaps it will be a welcome idea.