What do I do? Let me tell you a story about it . . .

by Mr. Sheehy

“What do you do?” As usually stated, the question is a tad insulting. If you answer it straight, without qualifiers, your response sums up too much.

“I haul furniture.”

“I answer phones.”

“I sell copiers.”

Sure, that may be what I do to get paid, but is it what I “do”?

But now I’ve got an answer. And while my answer is likely no better than any other I’ve ever given in that it doesn’t summarize me in any helpful manner, I am going to try it out. Who knows – maybe it does more than I realize.

You see, I teach story.

I teach high school students, and I teach my daughters, and I even teach Sunday school once a month, but whoever and whenever I teach, more than anything else, my subject matter is story. Or maybe I should say, Story, with that boldly capital S – though I haven’t figured out all the reasons why I want to capitalize it.

Buddies from the beginning

Every year my lesson plans after Christmas break take a hiatus while I insist that students stop and tell me their stories about the break. The first thing they want to do when they reenter the school is tell each other their stories – why would I watch a heart-of-the-plate fastball pass by? They’re finally itching to tell a story, and if I seize the moment correctly, I can help them craft the story rather than simply tell it. Maybe they’ll even learn something about English through the process.

Hey, let’s throw another if-maybe on top of this Sundae: if I can convince them that it’s important, maybe they’ll even learn to be more interesting.

“What do you do?”

“I teach people how not to be bores.”

I suppose I should teach myself a few tips. Instead I’m tapping away at a blog I hope you don’t read. Did I say that? Yes. I’m an anti-promoter; the world is too full of wonderful content to read this edge of the Internet. Today a colleague spotted me with a copy of My Sister’s Keeper.

“I just read that. Have you read it?”

“No,” I responded. “And I won’t.”

Maybe I’m cold, but I’ve begun The Gulag Archipelago. On the to-read list: The Idiot and Bleak House. I need a proverb here, how about: The man who spends all night watching “Sex and the City” has not spent all night reading Dostoyevsky. It’s not so memorable, but then, you’re not supposed to be reading this, so why am I concerned with being memorable?

So here’s a lesson for my students: insist upon quality, read great stories, and tell your own to the people who want to hear them.

During my planning period, I want to hear them. I do. I just don’t want to have to grade every one of them and turn myself from the reader (and the fan of young minds’ work) to the judge and the worst kind of critic. It’s the worst kind of critic because I’m under a deadline and because I have no readers to reject my opinions if I’m wrong. Sure, the student can question my thinking, but few possess the boldness required to challenge the teacher’s opinion, and the ones that do are usually not challenging the opinion but wheedling for a better letter. And here’s a secret: with my back to the wall, I give in; I only give the grade because I have to give the grade.

Ellen sat in the living room tonight while I finished eating and she “read” from her Winnie the Pooh storybook collection (A collection of insipid tales that don’t get better with time – but don’t tell her I said that. I’m just tired of reading Tigger’s amazed declaration that there is a whole new year: “You mean there’s a new January? And February? And March? And a new April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, and December? Wow! Have we hit the required 30 pages yet?”). She runs her fingers along the words and tells the story as she remembers it. I know that kids memorize books, but does that make it any less insane to hear it? We haven’t touched that collection in a month (very purposefully) and she’s over there spouting off everyone’s lines: “But when Tiggers see blocks, they think blocks are for bouncing and . . . ‘Tiggeeer!’ Christopher Robin said sternly.”

I’m sorry, did you just say, “sternly”?

Later while getting ready for bed Ellen and I distracted ourselves into productivity by looking at a Pottery Barn catalog. We began looking at shots and telling the story. I started with the story of the two people who had been in the kitchen but then entered the living room and sat on the sofa for some tea.

PB Sofa

One got cold and wrapped up in a blanket (isn’t that an odd fur pelt?). The other left (find the empty glass) and the remaining person read a magazine, still curled up. Ellen continued it from there: “And then she got up and went back into the kitchen and then went to the bathroom to poooop.”

Not surprisingly, we turned to the sink collection next. Eventually, we ended up at a desk.

Pottery Barn Desk

Ellen claimed it and explained that she sat there and wrote notes to people to tell them that she loved them. And Christmas cards. While listening to music. Gramma got her those flowers, and the little one she picked while walking in the forest. And she looked at that clock so she knew when to eat lunch, and breakfast. Of course I naturally wanted to know about the people in the pictures all around the room.

“That boy there. I love him. But he died. A couple hours ago . . . That’s why I’m so sad.”

A lunch smile

Tell me a story, my dear child, for you’ve already begun, and I want to hear them.

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Image Attribution:

Pottery Barn Home Office: http://www.potterybarn.com/gift/thm/thmhoflib/index.cfm

Pottery Barn Living Rooms: http://www.potterybarn.com/gift/thm/thmlivdrp/index.cfm

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