When I was 15, my family took a cruise: it was the first and only time I have been on a ship. In the 1980's, cruise ship entertainment was mainly limited to stage shows and circus-like acts: I don't recall there being non-stop activities for toddlers and teens. Left to ourselves, my brother and I walked around the ship, people-watched, played Uno, sun-bathed, swam, and talked. Then we got sick of each other, and at some point, got bored. On a random walk on deck, I ran into one of the actors in the vaudeville-like show my family had watched the night before. He might have been in his 60s, I guessed: white hair, wrinkled and jowled, and a stoop to his shoulders, he seemed friendly and approachable. I asked him if I could interview him.
I happened to have my journal with me, and--I remember his name, because we talked about its origins--Richard Mulligan--and for some reason, he humored me. We spent an hour talking: rather, I asked him questions, and he gave me sage wisdom.
It was the first time I realized that there was merit in talking to strangers.
Everyone has a story to tell, and I think I've dedicated my life to hearing as many as I can. It's why I love reading, love teaching literature, love working with teenagers, and love people (with a soft spot for the elderly). It's why I wanted to bring the Listen To Your Mother show to Rochester, why I listen to The Moth and StoryCorps podcasts while I'm folding laundry, and why I continue to engage with total strangers in the supermarket.
StoryCorps began in 2003 with a small, sound-proof booth, rigged for recording interviews between anyone who entered it from the busy hubbub of Grand Central Station. Just two years later, the organization launched two mobile interview booths, and now, people everywhere can listen to these short, but profound, exchanges through NPR, the StoryCorps app, or their website itself.
Now, StoryCorps has asked teachers across the United States to have their students participate in The Great Thanksgiving Listen. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, students nationwide--include over 70 of my own students--will interview a family member or friend who is over the age of 50. Once published on the StoryCorps site, those interviews will be preserved for posterity in the Library of Congress.The purpose of The Great Thanksgiving Listen is to capture the wisdom of a generation. Of course, there is great potential beyond simply capturing these voices and stories: our kids will be engaged in truly listening--an anomaly in the age of "blip culture." They will have to look at another person (hopefully, someone who loves them) for more than a few seconds at a time. They will have to communicate, verbally and non-verbally, that they hear/understand/are curious/have more questions. With luck, time will stand still. Words will build bridges.
I will never forget Richard Mulligan, who so generously gave me his time, and indulged a random kid in a meaningful, life-changing conversation. He is most likely no longer alive: but his words and wisdom live on in my teaching practice.
We live in scary times: politics are divisive, terrorism is rampant, and culturally, we are at risk of losing our humanity. Maybe with the stories our kids charm from their conversations, we can all learn a little bit more about what it means to be good, to be a part of a bigger family.
Happy Thanksgiving, all!
Happy Thanksgiving, all!