On Friday, October 23rd, Cameron Middle School students were greeted by several new visitors. With smiling faces and helping hands, these friendly visitors came with one mission in mind – to help students find stories.
The class divided into two groups and joined these determined helpers as students listened to their stories, intently and without interruption. First, I sat with the group visiting storyteller Nancy Hawthorne, and we began our time together describing our favorite ice cream flavor. But next, a remarkable thing happened: we practiced our active listening skills as Nancy shared why she thought asking people questions and conducting interviews was incredibly fascinating and life-giving.
“What was your favorite thing to do as a child?” one student asked Nancy.
Nancy answered and then returned the same question to the student, which she followed with a one-word response: “Running”.
“Do you remember what the ground felt like beneath your feet when you would run as a child?” Students were taken back. The question had obviously surprised them with its unique depth and texture.
Next, Nancy asked the student if she experienced any bad falls or skinned knees during her runs. Nancy then explained to the group that asking questions about skinned knees and scars are incredible story-openers. They inspire special memories and emotions during interviews, she told us.
“As a child, did you like school?” another student asked Nancy. A third student stated in a long exhale and a shrug that he wished he could interview God.“What would you say to God?” Nancy asked. Questions bounced around the table as students jumped in sporadically with heavy anger, curiosity and humor. “Why did you create spiders?” one student asked, and the group erupted into a chorus of laughter.
As I watched, I began to take notice: For perhaps the first time in this noisy pilot program full of weekend-ready students, light bulbs were going off and students were seeing the power of asking those deeper questions and story-structuring.
Next we sat around a different table with two additional storytellers, Othman and Hussein. These two had come to the States to learn English and were reiterating an important truth spoken again and again throughout the One Voice Nashville program: When you listen to someone, you are telling them they are important, that their stories matter.
More than anything throughout this conversation, however, students wanted to learn about the place these storytellers came from: Saudi Arabia.
“What’s the biggest difference between here and where you came from?” one student asked.
“What’s your family like?”
“Where is your family?”
Stories were exchanged, questions were answered, but more than anything, students felt connected to that deeper thread of life, depth, and meaning being shared across the table.
There were two groups this day, three storytellers, two facilitators, and twelve eighth grade students. But what was flowing through the classroom on this late Friday afternoon was a newly awakened love for story.
A voice of love, connection, empathy, and courage.