“Tell Them Stories” by Jenn Risser
This tattoo sums up everything I’ve ever gotten right in my life. It embodies every facet of my little existence: even the guts it took me to finally walk into the tattoo parlor and let someone mark me forever.
But this is the power of story. Story is what sets us free.
The great Philip Pullman wrote these words in The Amber Spyglass. In order to pass into the light of the afterlife, the ghosts in this book are instructed to, “Tell them [the harpies – and gatekeepers] stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.”
These lines not only struck a chord in me, they marked me forever. During this time, I was struggling to become a mother, was beginning to believe that I might never experience bedtime stories with my own biological children. It was then I decided that as a teacher there would always be children with whom I could share stories – in fact, I argued with myself, some who needed my stories more than I did. So, I’d make it my mission to make every single one count.
After a few years, I was blessed with children of my own, and I began to realize that stories are how their young minds interpret the world. It’s how they process what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s in between. I then vowed to tell them all the stories I could to help them grow up wise and kind. To help them become whoever it was they were meant to be.
But the most powerful way these words marked me is the one where these two halves of me combined. The one in which I was no longer just a teacher or just a mother. The one where I cracked open my shell, and told my own story. My own true story. The one that turned me into a storyteller.
As teachers, we know we’re supposed to model for our students. Model reading. Model writing. Model learning. Model caring. And yet, truly exposing ourselves as vulnerable human beings is scary. We feel as though we might lose some of our respectability, our authority, our glimmer. However, I have never experienced more respect, authority, and yes, even glimmer as I did when I dropped the curtain and let my students see inside the real me.
I shared with them my true story. I spoke about it. I wrote about it.
The one in which this happy, smiling face wasn’t always truly happy or smiling.
The one in which that very same face used to break down in her closet, too terrified to get dressed and begin the day ahead of her.
The one in which that face couldn’t gulp down enough air to take the next breath because panic was the only way to survive.
The one in which that face finally went to get help because she realized she didn’t have to do this alone.
The one in which she realized that she didn’t have to fight so hard each and every day to be normal, because everyone is fighting this same hidden battle.
We’re just too scared to talk about it.
Too scared to tell our story.
Sharing my true stories with my students broke down barriers to learning I never thought possible. My students began sharing their own stories, their truths, and our classroom became a place much like heaven. Amidst stories of abuse and heartache, addiction and identity, my students found a place of safety and honest existence I’ve never before experienced in my lifetime – let alone within the four walls of a public school classroom. I watched students empathize with each other in ways they never would have in the hallways or the cafeteria. Places where others might see them. I saw students encourage and motivate each other to work on their writing and push it to the next level with praise and awe. I saw students engage with text in a way I thought only possible in teacher training videos. And when this particular group left my safe little middle school classroom for high school, I was devastated.
It was then that I bit the bullet of permanent ink and finally got the tattoo. I wanted this reminder visible to me each and every day. Not only to remind me of the power of stories, but to remind myself that this dream is achievable. In this world of standardized testing and political uncertainty, I can look at the future and know that we’ll be okay – because those students know the power in their words, their thoughts, and their actions.
They’ve got us.
Our stories – our truths – are alive and well.
Jenn Risser is a teacher / mother / storyteller in an 8th grade classroom in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She spends every waking moment reading, writing, and sharing stories with anyone who doesn’t run away in disgust. She often pretends she’s the heroine of a mighty tale in order to get through the most dreadful tasks in her days: toilet cleaning, data meetings, and picking up Cheerios off of the kitchen floor.