Today, in the 21st century, our world has shrunk and become a global village through the magic of the internet and telecommunication. The storytelling traditions that worked within a local region, in a specific religion, or ethnic heritage might not make sense to other groups.
In fact, we are in a storytelling dilemma of conflicting narratives. Imagine a cross-section of your neighborhood, your apartment building, town or city, and listen to the narratives that contradict one another. These are told in the news, on placards, protest signs, social media posts, and digital platforms of all types.
In the face of a continuing global pandemic, and the social justice movement confronting racism, we are being challenged to tell new, inclusive stories. We cannot resolve the issues that affect us all without doing so.
We can begin to create new narratives by becoming storytellers to our own lives, through:
Journaling, self-examination, reflection, reframing
Memoir and personal narratives, revealing incidents
As you journal during these challenging times, think of these prompts:
- Is there a fear that you are facing during the pandemic? Who else might be experiencing the same or similar fear? Write a story for both of you.
- Is there a bias that you sense in your daily interactions? Who is on the other side of that bias? How did this prejudice begin—what is the story of origin? Write it and imagine the other hearing it.
- What in your background made you feel “better than” others? Write a story that demonstrated that sense of being “better than” and tell it to a person who would not agree. Reverse and look for a time when you felt “less than” others; tell it to a person who would not agree.
- What life story do you want most people to know about you, one that connects in the deepest way?
- How do you communicate compassion in your daily life? Empathy? Chronicle those significant experiences in specific detail.
- When did you bear witness to discrimination? What happened? What should have happened?
- Write a fable for our times and share it with your circle of friends, family, and post online for the writing community.
Memoir and Personal Narrative
In writing a personal narrative, consider your role today as a witness bearer to current events, the key issues we are facing:
1. Look at a timeline of your life; when did you experience non-discrimination? Through reflection, what did you learn from that incident? Be sure to use all the elements of a good story: No matter how short, write a complete narrative, with specific sensory details, setting, vivid language, characters, dialogue, and a clear story structure with a beginning, middle, and end.
2. Look at a timeline of your life: when did you experience or bear witness to discrimination? Through reflection, what did you learn from that incident? Be sure to use all the elements of a good story: No matter how short, write a complete narrative, with specific sensory details, setting, vivid language, characters, dialogue, and a clear story structure with a beginning, middle, and end.
3. Tell a story of reconciliation in real terms, one that transcends bias and discrimination. It could be a retelling of what did happen in the past or a newly imagined story line: No matter how short, write a complete narrative, with specific sensory details, setting, vivid language, characters, dialogue, and a clear story structure with a beginning, middle, and end.
Example of Non-Discrimination
Personal Narrative: “St Joan of Arc School”
In September 1947, I was sent to St. Joan of Arc School for first grade—a mission school on the Texas-Mexican border taught by nuns recruited from Ireland. I was eager to start school since I was almost six, but St. Joan of Arc was a scary place; the classrooms looked like large, metal ovens.
They were a series of low-lying Quonset huts set on packed dirt, semi-circular, arched buildings made of corrugated steel, with a small door on either side, and screened windows held open with a stick. The inside walls curved down at the edges in a non-insulated, cavernous room. Post-World War II, these lightweight structures were US Navy surplus and sometimes sold to the public. Good enough for a Catholic missionary school, they offered little shelter from the scorching South Texas sun. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into a strange, dark classroom.
The first-grade teacher, draped in a black veil, her face wedged in a white, starched headdress, quietly demanded our attention. The nun rapped her rubber-tipped, wooden pointer to a full-color image on an easel board’s oil cloth page. In her lilting Irish brogue, she held forth, telling of the Holy Family and their simple life when Jesus was a boy. I was fascinated by the thick pages as she turned each one, heavy as a tablecloth, to the next Bible scene. Each illustration was more beautiful than the last, with radiant people and bright halos, creamy white skin, rosy cheeks, and golden-brown hair.
Around me were scores of other students, all but one Spanish-speaking, stiff and obedient, packed wall-to-wall in our tiny desks. We would stand for hours in the stifling heat to repeat common prayers line by line, and sing hymns in English. We were wary of one another, crammed together, disciplined, unable to really communicate.
One day at recess, while I was alone at the chain-link fence, a boy with laughing eyes came skipping up to me. Coming even closer, he stole a kiss on my cheek. I gasped and smiled, felt my cheek, as he ran away to his friends. I was charmed: such bright, flashing eyes, so full of mischief and bold appreciation. He liked me, even if he’d been dared to steal a kiss. Across the yard, he saw me smile back.
In this missionary school, there was a larger context, spiritual, inclusive, non-materialistic, that saw all students as more similar than different. The dedication of the nuns who sacrificed many comforts to teach in a crowded Quonset hut classroom had the distinct purpose of preparing us all for a life of spiritual gain. I don’t remember indoctrination, more a sense of caring, anchored in an established, cultural, religious tradition.
If the sisters knew that I was one of two Anglo girls in the class, I’m not sure they remembered it. Though a minority in the school, I was no more, no less than my fellow students in overall status. Under the leveling eyes of the Irish nuns, we were all expected to live up to high standards of good behavior and learn our lessons. Looking back, it was the spiritual dimension of Catholic teaching while in a Catholic charity school that embraced us all.