“Man—let me offer you a definition—is the storytelling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker buoys and trail signs of stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there’s a story, it’s all right. Even in his last moments, he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.” ~ Graham Swift, Waterland
Have you ever had difficulty conveying a sentiment? It happens to me all the time. Please allow me to share a story of one of those times and what I did to remedy it.
The school I worked in was the answer to a life-long prayer. The prayer was simple: Please allow me to teach in a school where I love the students, families, community and staff.
In every way the prayer had been answered. I loved them, and they loved me.
The love is what made it excruciating to leave.
One June, I sat in my classroom, Room 212, with my email open. I was composing my farewell letter to the entire staff.
As you know, I have taken another teaching position. It is with a heavy heart that I write this…
When I paused to collect my thoughts, a thousand memories danced before me.
I saw myself kneeling beside Riley as she finally understood long division, her smile bright as the sun. Then Kevin, when he came in after recess with his play-by-play of the greatest game of four-square ever. At my desk, when Johnny confided in me about his parents’ divorce. When Sally shared about her dog who had been put down the night before.
All the games of silent ball, the birthday celebrations, the thousand acts of kindness that bloom in a classroom—all of it—and now it was over for me in Room 212.
I shut down my computer and realized this farewell letter was not going to work. There were too many memories between these four walls, too many stories here.
Then I remembered my guiding tenet of writing, a lesson I had taught many times and one I internalized as a writer:
The best way to deliver any message is with story.
So, I drove to my favorite coffeehouse and turned my farewell letter into a farewell story:
(The original version I sent to colleagues and shared with my students.)
Trees carry the spark to ignite a shiver when united in a seamless canopy, thick enough to turn back the sun. It is not the dark that does it, but the biting cold born by it. Standing at the perimeter, where a carpet of green grass bows before a brown needle mat, cold waits patiently until at last, it pokes a wet nose, delivering the shiver promised by the dark.
“Mother, has a bear ever gone in there?” He said, pushing deeper into the warmth of her coat.
“Yes.” She replied, cold stinging her black nose.
Squinting into the bite of the cold he pushed her, “A bear from our territory?”
“Come, cub.” And she swung her heavy head into the warm air of the meadow, away from the chill, toward home, with her relieved cub in tow.
An intrusive season stirred their meadow. Grasses relented and withered. Salmon schooled in the ocean. Gray clouds bumped each knoll. Berries dropped. Lessons had been gifted from mother to cub underneath the canopy of time.
Rambles to the edge became frequent.
Then, on one particular afternoon, curiosity rudely replaced fear and the cub, looking much less like one now, froze at the edge of the thick wood and squinted anew. The chill met him still, but the poke had morphed to a pull. He stepped forward, placing one paw on the brown needle mat.
Today the cold sparked memories. The first ramble with mother came first. Foraging berries, catching salmon, and grooming pushed their way to the front. Then the scent of her fur after a warm rain, the tug of her rough tongue, her playful growl and the deep brown of her eyes.
A shiver scurried up his spine, flanks shuddered, interrupting a memory, causing him to move a second paw to the mat.
Something strange appeared in his soul. A seed, germinated by the love and kindness of home, poked at him. It bore a bittersweet fruit, a prodding to move into the cold. In that moment he embraced the deepest desire to stay, but an undeniable force to move loosed the grip.
Discovering a brown needle mat underfoot and a tear in his eye, he swung his heavy head into the cool air beneath the canopy, away from home, with a bittersweet taste in his soul.
When I emailed Home to the staff, it felt right. It delivered the exact message I intended.
We have the language of story woven into our DNA—in our souls, even.
Elie Wiesel wrote, “God made Man because He loves stories.” We are story. Consider the great literary works of religion and philosophy; they are all story. Story is the surest way to deliver any idea, sentiment or message.
Story is an open door to our hearts.
Maybe, story is the only way to say the deep things?
Allow me to encourage you to try it, if you haven’t. The next time you need to deliver a message, do it with story. Perhaps a Mother’s Day card with stories from your childhood, a birthday card replete with stories or even the ordinary events—like when you leave your job—do it with a story.
Author: John Geers
Editor: Toby Israel
Image: Adam Willoughby-Knox/Unsplash
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