The importance of life stories cannot be overstated. By life stories I mean the process in which a child, young person or adult tells in some consecutive or coherent age-appropriate way the narrative of their life to date. And implicit in this is the fact that someone who cares about them unconditionally has listened to and received their story.As my lecturing has developed over the years (I began teaching at Spurgeons College in 1978 and have continued in various places around the world ever since) I have come to see the value of modelling what I am trying to communicate. So the way in which I welcome members of a class, and how they seek to welcome me, is a vital part of the whole process. Likewise with farewells…and everything in between!
It was an American colleague who first suggested to me the idea of what he called “reaction” or “reflection” papers written by students at the end of each day, and handed to the lecturer at the outset of the following day. The content of the papers and the responses of the teacher are confidential to the two people concerned, and constitute therefore a continuing personal correspondence over the course of the module.
During the first day of a course I indicate to every student the fact that I would very much welcome anything that they would like to tell me about their life story. I stress that this is an invitation, not a directive. And a universal trend has become apparent: all students tend to welcome this opportunity to share with me something of their background. I never refer to any of this material in class, but it helps to provide useful contextual information as I teach and observe the dynamics of the class as a whole.
A substantial number of students have troubling, sad, and often traumatic backgrounds, and this is a sobering reminder of the need to tread carefully in all things and at all stages.
But in addition to this I now allow time for the students to divide into pairs (of their own choosing) so that they can share their stories with one other person, and more importantly model what it is to listen actively, and to respect the confidence of another person. So it was that this summer on a three week lecturing tour of the Far East I divided a class into pairs and found that because there was an odd number of students, I needed to become active in the process. As the whole week was being translated into another language for me, I chose to be with a student who was very competent in English.
We sat together and she elected to tell me her story first. It took some time (as always) to interpret what she meant by her facial expressions and her body language. It was not long before I realised that her frequent smiles were unconnected to the nature of her story. She was the third of five children, and because there was an age gap between the siblings nearest to her she always felt the odd one out. Before she reached teenage, her grandmother needed support and care, and it turned out that she was the one chosen to live with her and to provide this help. She only realised this when she and a sibling went to stay with her grandmother for a night. The next day the sibling returned home, leaving her with the dawning realisation that she had been left alone with her grandmother without warning or notice!
She felt betrayed and rejected. And as the days passed she came to feel increasingly alone, lonely and depressed. She did her best to help her grandmother, and to do well at school, but nothing could ameliorate her inner distress and sense of loss, and lack of self-worth. So it was that the day came when she decided to commit suicide. It was carefully worked out. She would go to school for the day, and on the way home, she would make her way to the harbour-side. She planned to walk to the end of a pier and throw herself into the water. Because she couldn’t swim, she assumed that she would die by drowning.
As I listened to this harrowing narrative I was trying to keep an eye open for what was going on in the rest of the class, but it became increasingly clear that I was being entrusted with highly personal information of great personal significance. I felt constrained to “abandon” the rest of the class and give all my attention and person to the student. If you had been observing how she was speaking without hearing her words I do not think you would have been able to detect the way she was speaking from the depths of her being.
She told me that she left school and walked to the pier, but on the way (she recalls the exact spot where it took place) a thought came into her mind: “What happens after you die?” For some reason she had never thought of this before, and it wasn’t long before she realised that she had no idea. Neither her family nor her school had taught her anything about life after death (or its absence). She was afraid. In fact she became more afraid of what might happen after she drowned than the act of throwing herself into the harbour. And so it was that she eventually stopped, turned around and walked back to her grandmother’s home.
She talked to some Christians associated with a church she knew, and that was the beginning of any information or beliefs that she recalled about death and the beyond. She knew she was looking back to the pivot, the hinge, the turning point of her life.
Later (and after I had shared my life story with her) she drew me a sketch or time line (with illustrations) of her whole life story including her university education, her career, her marriage, and her plans with her husband to establish a Christian university in the capital of the country in which they were living. But instinctively I looked for the way she had represented this unique and turning point of her existence and life story.
Throughout the class and when meeting her husband at the end of the module (discovering in the process that we were both pianist with a passion for the works of Bach) she had become a special person to me. Listening to her life story had changed our relationship. Again and again I found that I was listening to what happened through the week “over her shoulder” as it were.
There was one session when the class explored the seminal work of Martin Buber, I and Thou. And I knew that she knew that I knew how imbued with meaning this exercise and role-play was for her. We distinguished between “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships, and considered how the relationship between two empathetic and respectful human beings was something like a third party in the conversation and process: I, Thou…and Relationship. And she and I knew that both of us carried our relationship into each part of the course.
I do not know what others shared in their pairs, although I came to know several other life stories during the week. But it seemed to me likely that a similar dynamic was at work between others. Not only was a student reacting to material through her own life-story, she was also doing it through the life story of another.
Then it occurred to me that had we not done this “listening exercise” I would have had no way of knowing how the course and teaching might affect her. And this led me to widen the implications of this line of thinking. What of others I met in a range of social situations, board meetings, training, work settings, church and the like? Without such knowledge of each others’ life stories were we not a bit like ships passing in the night?
On to the situation of those children and young people who have suffered trauma and separation, many of whom are living away from parents and extended families: how can we possibly know what is going on in their minds and hearts unless they have shared with us something of their life stories? How can we be a genuine support and comfort to them, a resource, unless we know something of their stories in their own words.
It is possible of course that there are some basic details of their stories in case files, but that is of a different order. The critical and irreplaceable element was that a particular person was telling her story at a particular moment to one other named person who was actively listening. So let’s not confuse things by assuming that case notes fulfil the role of the telling of and listening to life stories. And while on that subject perhaps we could note that it is perfectly possible that the notes comprise jottings by others, possibly without the consent or even knowledge of the person concerned. (I recall going through the Local Authority case file of someone who later came to live at Mill Grove: “It doesn’t seem like my notes” she commented…)
More relevant and more pressing is a review of the way we do things in a number of institutions. What store do we set by life stories? The longer I am involved in teaching and the care of children, young people and vulnerable adults, the more important the sharing of life stories becomes. How many cases of chronic abuse might have been prevented or at least arrest if there had been someone with whom a child felt able to share her life story?
You will recall that in the exercise to which I referred there were two stories told: my student’s and mine. What she made of mine, and how it affected the way she understood what was happening during the course I do not know. But I would not be surprised if my story had affected her too, even though there was nothing remotely comparable to that harrowing moment in her childhood between school and the harbour.
Keith J. White