What I love about teaching is pointing students toward new knowledge and experience. As a teacher I am not supposed to be the centre of attention. Yet I stood before my students the other week and asked them to pay attention to me talk about myself.
Here’s the context: Grade 12 students study the meaning of hope and suffering. In our class we followed the journey of Ed Dobson, a Christian pastor diagnosed with ALS. He was brutally honest about the despair and anger he experienced, as well as the hard work he needed to do to accept hope in his situation. In response, I asked students a number of personal questions inviting them to reflect on instances when they experienced hope in the midst of suffering that they could connect with Ed’s.
We did not share in class because I could not make a safe enough space for my students to express to each other what I was asking them to call to mind. As a teacher on the front line of widespread social problems, I know some of the burdens they carry and marvel at them. A general, open discussion in class would not honour the depth of their stories.
So I told mine.
I intentionally shared some of the most vulnerable moments from my life, seeking to provide a living human being that my students could connect to their lives and Ed’s life. The great lie of suffering is that we are alone. The best I could offer was the assurance that in spite of my professional (mostly) appearance, I too had suffered.
Some of my stories told of the hope I had finally seen fulfilled; some told of hope veiled.
I knew my students could have reacted in any way to my stories: indifference, cynicism, ridicule. I didn’t think they would, and they didn’t. But they could have. I offered anyway.
In fact, the story, our stories, my story, became an important and revered location for each of us to make meaning of our lives that really matters. Because storytelling is the quintessential human activity, it became the place where we experienced human connection.
Sometimes I get nervous about opening the classroom to students’ lives. Besides the work involved in creating and maintaining a safe space for students to volunteer their stories, I fear the temptation to share superficially.
Or, I fear we will become so drawn into personal experience that I fail to provide students with the “big picture,” the ever-unfolding dramatic history of salvation, experienced in the specific human lives of today and always. We can get so locked up in our first-person point of view, we can forget the Author of our existence has revealed the origin, destination and meaning of each of our lives.
From the very beginning we have told stories to each other — the genesis of liturgy and Sacred Scripture — of seeking and finding that continuing action of he who made all that is. We cannot find him any other way than in a progression of events that has its own integral meaning — through a story.
So, we have always told stories. From cave paintings to Grimm’s Fairy Tales to last weekend’s exploits to the data of the scientific method, we seek the meaning of our progression through events. Where religious education provides its irreplaceable value is in its capacity to weave the individual and social stories of today within a loom that holds an eternal tapestry.
I finished my story for the day. My students paused and absorbed it. Within them, they had the opportunity to find where their stories of suffering and of hope brought them belonging, and not isolation. They had the space to look at and care for their own stories. Ed’s and my faith, broken and limping as it is, shows them trust and gratitude is possible for them, for all.
As the young mother with incurable cancer in Oregon who chooses to live puts it, “A story’s end changes the meaning of every page.”
Oh, right. I never was at the centre of attention.
LeBlanc is the author of Clarifying the Confusion of Purposes: Religious Educational Objectives and the New Taxonomy of Learning. He can be found at BigPictureSmallSteps.com