Whose story is it anyway?

Nor and Bec reading

Children love stories.

They love being read stories and beg for them to be read, over and over again.

Equally as much, if not more, they love being told stories, especially stories of their own lives. They beg for them to be told over and over, listening attentively and with wonder as their own stories (her story and his story) are being revealed. They commit these tales to memory so that eventually it is difficult to distinguish the genuine experiential memory from the telling. Even as adults they seem to not tire of hearing tales of the cute things they did when they were little, or of shared experiences.

They also love being told stories of their parents’ lives. These are the stories that help define them and their existence: how they came to be. The stories tell of times gone by, and of how things used to be. They marvel that their parents were once children and try to imagine how that might have been.

My daughter would often ask for stories about herself, her brother, myself or other family members. One day when she was about six, she asked again, ‘Tell me a story about when you were a little girl.’ Before I could respond she jumped in with, ‘What were the dinosaurs like?’ She was teasing, of course, and her comedic timing was perfect. A story was created, one that has been shared many times.

History is a story, though at school I never saw it as such. Had it been a story of lives, as its name implies, I may have been interested. But history at school was a list of wars and dates, and kings and queens to be memorised and regurgitated for a test at the end of the term. There was no story, no human emotion, no semblance to any narrative that may have lured me in.

I hope that today’s students of history are not required to commit sterile lists of facts to memory without the stories that would give them meaning and significance, some human element to help the information stick.

History, as a subject, had always been relegated to high school. It was not a discrete part of the primary school curriculum, though aspects were explored in other subject areas such as ‘Social Studies’ when I was at school, or more recently ‘Studies of Society and Environment’. With the introduction of the new Australian Curriculum, History is now a stand-alone subject.

As an early childhood teacher I was a bit terrified that young children would be required to memorise lists of seemingly random facts and dates. I’m pleased to say that, for the early years anyway, this is not so. Children in the early years start by exploring their own history and the history of their family, considering similarities and differences between their lives, the lives of their parents, and of their friends.

I applaud this as an excellent starting point. I believe, when working with children, connections must always be made with their lives and what they know. What better starting point than investigating the traditions of their own family and culture.

In Australia, as I am sure it is in many other places, a great diversity of cultures is represented in each classroom. Encouraging children to share similarities and differences of traditions with their classmates helps to develop understanding of each other’s traditions and beliefs, which in turn fosters respect and empathy. For this purpose, I developed some materials to make it easy for children to share their traditions. These are available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

Whoever you areMem Fox has written a beautiful picture book Whoever you are that I love to share with children when discussing their cultures and traditions. It explains in a simple and beautiful way that although children around the world may live in different houses, wear different clothes, eat different foods, for example ‘inside, their hearts are just like yours.’ Mem Fox explains the story on her website.

I also like to sing I am Freedom’s Child by Bill Martin Jr.; and in Australia we have a great song that tells about our different beginnings, I am, you are, we are Australian by Bruce Woodley.

Heal the World by Michael Jackson is another great one for appreciating diversity and fostering inclusivity.

What got me thinking about history in particular for this post is the flash fiction prompt posted by Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch Communications. Charli’s challenge is to In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that considers history, near or far.

 

This is my contribution:

washing 1949

Washing day

Her freckled, calloused hands were red and chaffed as they gripped the wooden stick and stirred Monday’s sheets in the large copper pot heating over burning blocks of wood.

The children played in the dirt nearby, scratching like chickens, hopeful of an interesting find.

The dirt embedded under her torn and splitting fingernails began to ease away in the warm sudsy water as she heaved the sodden sheets and plopped them onto the wooden mangles.

The children fought to turn the handle, smearing dirty handprints on the sheets.

She sighed, and hung them over the line. One chore done.

 

I welcome your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of the article or my flash fiction piece.

 

 

 

 

 

23 thoughts on “Whose story is it anyway?

  1. teagankearney

    Eliciting such great responses is a testament to the passion you show for your subject, Norah. I agree with you that hearing our parents stories and learning our family history as we grow up is important as it helps us develop a sense of our own?) identity.
    I think you make a great point about the way history is taught as a list of dates of war – I always refer to that as ‘his story’ (not banging any feminist drum here). Biographies of cultural and historically influential people is a far better way to arouse the interest of children.
    I enjoyed how your flash fiction conveyed so much of a life in that one scene – very evocative. For most women in westernized cultures modern technology makes living like this is part of the past, but for a great many women in throughout the world, life continues like this, if they are lucky enough to access to basic necessities.
    (Did you say you sing to the children, Norah? Can we look forward to a video clip like Annie’s?)

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Teagan,
      It’s always lovely to hear from you. It is interesting the way gender preference (e.g. for ‘his’story or ‘man’kind) is so prevalent in our language and so insidious that it goes unnoticed unless attention is drawn to it. Some of these words need to be replaced in entirety, and I’m not certain that using the male noun to include female (e.g. actor) is totally acceptable either. Some derogatory female words e.g. mistress, have no male equivalent; which is further testament to the gender bias in our language, a bias which needs to be eliminated. (I’ve taken up banging the drum!)
      I take your point about the bias towards westernized cultures in my flash piece also. The bias is there in all my posts. I am aware of it, but not sure how to address it. Is a disclaimer required at the beginning of each post, or elsewhere on my post? I think it is a bias shared by most blogs I read.
      I don’t sing to the children. Sometimes, poor things, I sing with them. I usually play recorded music for them to sing along with. 🙂

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      1. Teagan Kearney

        Thanks for replying, Norah. I didn’t mean my comment to sound as if I thought you had a bias towards western culture. In fact I hadn’t thought that at all! I think it’s perfectly natural to draw on our own cultural and personal experiences for realization.
        I just see so many disparities in the world today, and your flash fiction was so poignant, it simply made me wish that those times were in the past for all women, and was in no way meant as a criticism. (Maybe if I’d put it as a separate paragraph, it would have read as it was meant – a thought going off on a tangent!)

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        1. Norah Post author

          Hi Teagan, thanks for coming back and extending the conversation with another thoughtful comment. I support your wish for an end to hardship in the world. I didn’t take any part of your comment to be criticism, just a continuation of the discussion If we never consider issues such as these how can we progress, on both a personal and a societal level? And I love thoughts going off on a tangent – I do it all the time! Thanks for sharing. Your comment is a gift I appreciate. 🙂

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  2. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Great post and flash Norah.. The visual picture that you created of your Mum on washing day became even more vivid for me as my memories of the copper and fighting to turn the handle of the mangle came rushing back.
    Social Studies in primary school was possibly the subject that I have retained most information from as I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    I think your children are totally normal with their desire to hear stories of themselves and their family. Memoir has been around for years in the oral tradition and it is believed by Paul John Eakin and others to be less concerned with literary genre than with identity formation thus having a powerful role in developing identity and personality. (“How our lives become stories: Making Selves” Eakin). At the very least the telling of memoir (not that many people write them yet they are almost universally told) confirms that you have a life, an essential part of being human.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your lovely comment Irene. I like the idea of memoir having a role in developing identity and personality. Because so much of memoir is told orally rather than written, much of it will be lost to future generations. Many people don’t develop an interest in the lives of their forebears before reaching a certain age or life stage or having a family of their own. Many are not inclined to record it to share with others.

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  3. Pingback: From Dirt to Words « Carrot Ranch Communications

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for your comment. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it. Michael’s words, “Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race” have been playing in my head ever since I linked to the video. I have always loved that song, and do my best to enact its important message.

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  4. Lisa Reiter

    What a lovely post Norah. I love how you link the themes of sharing stories and discovering what we have in common with each other. It sounds fantastic that it’s such an integral part of early years teaching in Australia. I am sure the very mixed boroughs we have – such as the amazing example Geoff describes – are also rather good at that but I’m not certain how much effort happens in areas where all the kids are white middle class. I can’t comment with any certainty – I just don’t remember Max doing more than the minimal understanding of key religious festivals.

    That thought ties nicely with Geoff’s most recent post and Britain’s amazing history of tolerance that others would undo rather than build upon. http://geofflepard.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/upcycling-buildings-if-only-it-was-as-easy-with-people/

    On a personal level I try and focus on what I might have in common with someone – there always ends up in some learning for me and rather more fun and pleasure anyway. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to be the other end of the spectrum seeking out the differences. Dare I ask if that is surely the ‘less evolved’ form of human, as our environment has changed with the movement of peoples around the globe?

    Finally, back to the excellent flash – How absolutely amazing that you have a photo of your Mum from 1949 doing something like washing! It says a lot in itself about the person on the other end of the camera, to use a shot to record an every day task. The rare few photos I have seen of relatives from around that time are all stiffly dressed and posed for special occasions.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Lisa, Thank you for your lovely comment. It may be easier to teach about diversity with a diverse population, but there is no reason that it can’t be learned about in a more homogeneous group. However I think within any group there will always as much diversity in thinking as there is similarity in emotions and responses. Individual families have their own family traditions e.g. just thinking about birthdays: when the gifts are given, if they are wrapped, type of cake, type of celebration etc. It might deal with family rules and chores, holidays and favourite restaurants. My Mum ‘always’ made me a marble cake for my birthday. That was my tradition. I ‘always’ make a strawberry torte for birthdays and at Christmas in my family. That’s our family tradition.
      I agree with you about Geoff’s post. His message of ‘getting along’ is very important and one we should all take notice of (that’s the collective world ‘we’). I also agree with you about focusing on what we might have in common (see I do agree with you!) I’m not sure about the ‘less evolved’ human.
      It is pretty amazing to have a photo Mum doing the washing (before I was born!). I was hoping there would be one of the copper, the mangle and the line as well, but I couldn’t find any. It’s interesting that we fail to photograph these moments which make up such a big part of our daily lives and focus on taking photographs when we are ‘stiffly dressed and posed’! I love your memoir prompt about dressing up and the responses it has brought. 🙂

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  5. Charli Mills

    Another thoughtfully framed and connected flash! That is so true about children wanting to hear stories about themselves or others in the family. As they become adults, they often tell the stories despite having no direct recollection. And then, there are the stories that families make up to hide behind. Sometimes it is out of shame; while we can share stories about the rigors of wash day, some who lived that story don’t want to remember the reality of those hard times. My father’s family were great inventors of false stories. It caused much angst for me when it came to comparing my own recollections to their stories. I tried to find “proof” which wasn’t always available. In an odd way, that led me to research the family in order to expose the truth. I began to connect to history in a more compassionate way as I grew older and discovered that truth is not so black and white. There are reasons for generational shame and I became interested in those historical events that seemed to be defining moments–why did one person choose a certain path over another? Did everyone react the same? Was someone defiant? What stories grew out of the incident? I’ve discovered an answer of sorts in your reflection. I really just crave those stories for identity. And identity is what cultural diversity is about, too. And whether we accept or deny the stories offered, we are all connected by what drives us to live as human beings. Even in diversity we are similar which is what your linked stories and songs remind us. It’s a strong flash that you tell–part memoir, part fiction. Stories always are a mix. We do our best to use them to shape who we think we are. Great reflection, getting us in that learning frame of mind!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Charli,
      Thanks for your great comment, and for getting me thinking some more. I am always amazed at the depth of thinking that occurs in response to my posts. It is always taken much further than I expect. (Which is just what a teacher hopes for!) You have raised some interesting questions concerning family history and I am particularly interested in the differences in perspective of those sharing the “same” experience. Though no experience can ever be exactly the same for any two people – there is always someone else in it! And their attitudes and responses will be different. I find the idea of ‘false’ stories interesting. Some may begin unintentionally. Some may be embellishments to make it sound all the more exciting. Others may be to hide a truth which may be too painful, or indeed shameful, to share. I am one of ten children and I know that while we share similar thinking about some parts of our childhood and later lives, there is also quite a variation in responses to and thinking about some events and situations. I like what you have said about identity; and I guess we are always striving to figure out who we are and our place in the world: an ever-changing out-of-reach illusion. Just when I think I’ve figured it out, something comes along to surprise me. It’s a good thing we go on growing.

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  6. Diane

    Years ago, I realized I couldn’t recall the story of how my parents met, how they chose the profession they did and other tidbits of their lives before my sister and I came along. I wrote a list of questions and asked them each to answer them into a tape-recorder (yes, it was a while ago). That tape-recording of their voices telling me “stories” is a prized possession now. Thanks for another great post, Norah.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing these experiences, Diane. What a wonderful thing it was for you to record your family’s history that way. I know the recordings will always be priceless and treasured – a family heirloom. Years ago I gave my father a cassette recorder so that he could record thoughts and ideas while he was working away on bits and pieces in his shed. He did record a little and it’s lovely to still be able to hear his words in his voice. He hand-wrote many stories and poems, mainly about his war experiences but some about his growing up years. I typed all of these for him, compiled them into a book and made some copies which he distributed to various members of the family. Last year when my Mum celebrated her 90th birthday, I made a slide show using over 300 photos of her life. Whenever we looked at the photos she would talk about them at length. I thought it would be very easy, using the computer, to capture her narration of each of the photos. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. The technology (or user) failed in the attempt, and Mum thought she had nothing to say when she was being recorded. Sadly now Mum has passed on and the opportunity no longer exists.

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  7. Annecdotist

    Love this, Norah, both your introduction and the flash. I understand now about your aversion to dirt under the fingernails, and I also recall washing day and putting the clothes through the ringer. Your reflections on children’s needs for stories about themselves and their parents also rang bells for me in a number of ways, one being it helped me to decide on my own response to Charli’s Flash fiction challenge for this week. I have a scene in my novel Sugar and Snails where a child asks the protagonist for a bedtime story about her own childhood which proves problematic for as yet undisclosed reasons (signal portentous music). Your piece is a great reminder of how we can learn so much about how to be human through story.
    I also enjoyed the comments on this post has elicited, both Geoff’s description of his involvement in the mentoring project and the lovely conversation between you and ( the very funny and very clever) Bec.

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    1. Annecdotist

      Forgot to mention yesterday that I loved the song, it must be great to sing with children as they contemplate their various origins. And it reminded me of Kate Grenville’s trilogy that starts with The Secret River about a family transported to Australia for some kind of trivial transgression. Wonder if you’ve read it?

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      1. Norah Post author

        It is a lovely song Anne, and the children sing it with such enthusiasm. I haven’t read Kate Grenville’s trilogy. Oh when will I make time to read! It sounds excellent. We are very fortunate to have a wealth of Australian historical fiction to choose from. I’m sure it was a trivial transgression. That seems to have been the way of it.

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    2. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne,
      Thank you so much for your very supportive and encouraging comments. I’ll be popping over to read your flash response shortly. You have made me realise that I must read your novels. I so much enjoy your short stories and flash. I really need to make time for more lengthy fiction reading. Just have to figure out how to fit it in! I enjoy the comments also. We have a lovely group of very supportive writers. I love reading and commenting on what they have written, and enjoy the comments they make on mine. I think you were the first I connected with and it has blossomed from there. You have become a very important part of my circle. And of course it wouldn’t be the same without Bec. She is my staunchest supporter. Though I must say we don’t always agree on everything, but support each other nonetheless. 🙂

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  8. TanGental

    Hi Norah. Your posts always get me thinking and this is no exception. The flash is, as ever, perfectly pitched and evocative but it was the piece on children and bringing out their different backgrounds in a way to how they are, under the skin, the same. I found myself involved in a pro bono scheme some years ago mentoring Head teachers at inner London schools – the idea was that heads, almost by definition, have no one at their level in the school to bounce ideas off and sometimes that can be isolating – so BITC (business in the community brought in business people who ran their own businesses to interact with the heads – on the basis we shared some of that isolation and could learn from each other). I did this for about three years, working with three heads for an academic year each. One, in all honesty was a struggle because there was and remained a distinct lack of trust and belief in the scheme (why they participated beat me) but the other two were fascinating and jaw droppingly eye opening (awful mixed metaphor!) The point of tis long intro is the school in Greenwich south east London, a school of about 900 children who, between them, had 51 different first languages. In about week two or three I was invited to sit in on a Wednesday assembly that was curated by the year six children and took one of the children’s history as their start point – geography, language, religion, food, cultural norms, population all sorts and for 15 minutes a power point was shown by the children of what they had discovered. But the interesting piece was a sort of survey they had done where they looked at others and found similarities. As far as I could see they all wanted to have a turn and be involved. Maggie (the head) spent a lot of her time having to work on some basic issues around integration (often the children were the only members of the family who spoke English for instance) but fundamental to her approach was to let the children embrace their own history without it distorting the core idea that we are all at root the same with the same hopes aspirations fears and issues. I would go back to the office understanding two things – I could never do what Maggie and her team did, and, the medical profession apart, teaching is easily the most important job on the planet (I also knew I was overpaid by comparison but that is another story). Thank you for reminding me of those fulfilling two hour slots.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Geoff, Thank you very much for sharing this story. I was not aware of a project like that. It sounds very valuable. Obviously you did some learning, and I’m sure the principals benefited from your input also. Fifty-one first languages represented in a school sounds an incredible number; but I guess when you realise there are about 2,800 known languages, it is not that many! It can make effective communication quite challenging though, but it sounds like there are/were good programs in place in that school. Thank you for valuing teachers. They are often an easy target and the media’s scapegoat for all of society’s ills.

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  9. Bec

    Hi Nor, what a great post! I love the Mem Fox book you described. I also was entertained by the story about your daughter enquiring about your childhood… She must be very funny and clever !!!! But as always you are so right about history. What a rich and lovely fodder for thought and learning we have – the past. I very much enjoyed your FF this week, too – I felt like I could have been there! Great imagery.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Bec, You’re right of course. My daughter was, is and always will be, very funny and very clever!! I’m pleased you enjoyed the flash. A little bit of my history there.

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