By Stephanie Brooks (’11)
Why do we tell stories?
Since the beginning of civilization, humans have been sharing their traditions, their folklore and their values as a way of communicating and understanding one another. Storytelling can be a form of entertainment, a link between two people, a way to illustrate a point. But what is function of storytelling in the academic setting?
Kaitlin Vadla and Joe Albert, a graduate student and assistant professor respectively in the organizational leadership program, believe that storytelling can be used in the classroom and the workplace as a way for people to inspire and stimulate change.
Last fall, Vadla and Albert set up a storytelling forum for Gonzaga students, faculty and staff. The theme of the night was “untold stories,” a topic Vadla hoped would illustrate the importance of storytelling.
“One of the reasons the event was so powerful was that the storytellers were people you see every day but whose stories you had never heard,” Vadla said. “It was like seeing them in a whole new way and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are and where they’ve come from. “
The story tellers, along with an academic panel, set out to understand the meaning behind these stories and their impact on the audience.
One member of the panel, Assistant Professor Kirk Besmer of the philosophy department, was interested not only in the stories themselves, but why we, as storytellers, tell one story and not another. Why are we drawn to certain moments in our life and not others?
“I’ve always been fascinated that there are innumerable series of events that take place in your life and when you tell your life story, they all get left out,” Besmer said. “What is it that allows you to go to one of those events as meaningful and skip another event as not meaningful?”
Vadla believes that we are attracted to storytelling because it helps us to rediscover our past and to create meaning in our own life.
“Storytelling takes one to the center of oneself, to the root of one’s motivations and to the unexplored areas of one’s life.”
Below are three of the stories told that evening.
The Inner Streets
By Haris Asari
I remember this scene every time I think of the story. I’m sitting my bed in the Marriot in Islamabad, Pakistan. It’s winter break of my junior year of high school. I’m sitting next to my dad, my sister is crying and my mother is comforting her. No one has talked in this room for a solid hour. Not a single word. My dad turns to me and grabs me and goes “Now you know why I left this country 20 years ago.”
Two hours before this, I had been on a plane. I had been so excited to go to Pakistan; I hadn’t been there in five years. It is where my parents were from and we were going to do some work at an orphanage my mom sponsored. And we were going to see family and eat food like haleem and vindaloo. So I was extremely excited.
All of a sudden I was awoken and the pilot came on and said, “Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated in Rawalpindi,” the city right next to Islamabad where we were going to land. He said, “When you land make sure you know where you’re going to go. It’s going to be bad.”
As we get off the plane, everyone runs to this little Marriot help desk. We call and ask for a shuttle to come and in this time we meet another couple and two shuttles arrive.
My sister’s screaming. As we’re coming onto the on-ramp I see this huge mob of people shaking cars, lighting them on fire, ripping tires off, lighting them on fire and throwing them in the air. Clearly, we couldn’t go that way.
Our driver takes a shortcut: “We’re going to go through the inner streets. The ghetto.” I had no idea what to expect. We started to through those streets and I remember seeing poverty like I’d never seen before. At the beginning I felt fear – fear of what was going to happen – to but all of a sudden I shifted towards sorrow and empathy. We were going through these mud roads with metal and mud brick homes. People are standing on tops of their roofs, throwing rocks. Just because this is a time they can express themselves. This is a time they can release all of that emotional buildup from living on these streets covered in garbage. There are beggars and these beggars have been maimed- limbs cut off- disfigured. They had to live with that.
I remember we looked forward and the couple we met earlier was in the car in front of us. A mob had come down from a side street and they started to shake their shuttle right in front of us. And that was a moment when that fear came back in. I didn’t know what was going to happen. That was my home, how could this happen in my home?
So we took a side street and went deeper and deeper into this impoverished area, into this labyrinth. The driver realized he didn’t know where to go anymore. He was lost, too. So my dad, who hasn’t been back to Pakistan in 20 years, told him how to get through these old streets that he lived in years ago. And he directed us all the way to that Marriot.
I’ve always said I loved my country. I’m not an American, I’m a Pakistani-American.
By Rudy Mondragon
I went to Southgate High School, a school that was overpopulated and a predominantly Mexican-American immigrant community. With 50 students per teacher and a lot of the attention went to the high achieving students and the at-risk students. I fell in the middle of the bell curve, so a lot of time the attention wasn’t on me.
The only time I actually got attention was when I was playing soccer, which I excelled in. I earned an athletic scholarship to play on the men’s team at UC Irvine. Had it not been for that, my grades weren’t going to take me anywhere but to a community college. So I got to UC Irvine with all these insecurities – not really confident about my academic ability, more so with my athletic ability. And I always fronted – meaning, I put up a façade for people. I always fronted that I was high achieving so people would ask “What is your SAT score?” and I would be, like, “Oh, I got a 1600, perfect score,” when I really got a 700. That was my coping mechanism. I would lie to people because I had this fear that people would say I didn’t belong there, which they sometimes would tell me because I was an athlete and came from Southgate.
Knowing all that, I enrolled in a remedial writing class because I hadn’t passed the requirements to make it into the first writing class that every first-year student had to take. I thought, “This is going to be easy. Hopefully, I’ll get a C in the class and pass and keep playing soccer.” The professor told me my writing was all right, but she wanted me to see a writing instructor.
I can’t remember the instructor’s name but I remembered what he looked like: an elderly man in his 60s or 70s, white beard, bald, white male. At that time I was scared of white people. When I met with him I was very intimidated. He looked at my paper, and the red pen came out. He said, “Rudy, you don’t have a thesis statement, your body paragraphs are too long, your conclusion is weak. I want you to go back, re-write the whole thing.” He didn’t know I put my heart and soul into that piece of writing.
I re-wrote it and the following week I met with the writing instructor again and he re-read it and said the exact same thing. “Your thesis is not there, your body paragraphs are too long, and your conclusion is weak. Am I saying something you do not understand? Do I need to tell you in Spanish?” And that’s when I made the decision to never, ever go back to get help. My pride levels went up, and I said I’m doing this all on my own.
So I went through the remainder of my undergraduate experience kind of alone and not asking for help. I had people in the residence halls tell me “You shouldn’t have a scholarship. You shouldn’t come to this school just because you have athletic ability. I had a higher GPA and higher SAT score, I should be the one with the scholarship not you.” Those were things that would put me down and made me resist the help that the school offered for first-generation college students like me.
I was resistant to all that until I met my mentor my senior year. That person empowered me. I remember the first thing she told me when I wrote a paper was, “You’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for me. I don’t want you to write for me, I want you to write for you. “
That experience informs the work that I do now. I could have easily gone and done something different but I do the work that I do here at Gonzaga because I like to point out contradictions. I like to point out injustices, and I like to point out when things like that happen to students, so I can be an advocate for them.
The reason I tell this story now is because I have finally learned to embrace it. I can control the situation, and say this is what happened to me and I don’t want it to happen to other students.
Second chance on a street corner
By Dr. Eric Kincannon
My grandfather’s earliest memories are of an orphanage in Philadelphia. He doesn’t know how old he is because he and his sister were just dropped off. At about 10, he couldn’t stand the abuse from the sisters anymore, so he ran away. He joined a gang that would travel through Philadelphia robbing and breaking into warehouses for a place to stay.
One day when he was about 15, my grandfather was waiting for his gang. There was a printers shop on the street corner. The printer came out and said,” I know you, I know what you do. I have a cot in the back of my shop. You come in, you can stay. I’ll feed you. I’ll train you to be a printer.”
My grandfather said he just cussed at him. But the guys never came by, and my grandfather thinks he will go in the shop and get a cot and some food and in a couple days he’ll leave. But he went in and didn’t leave. He apprenticed with that printer and eventually became the head printer of The Baltimore Sun. This was at a time when newspapers were very important and my grandfather had a very important job at the newspaper. After everything was ready to go to press, it was his job to make sure that that morning edition was out on time.
He was a real stoic. One of the amazing things that happened to him was this: When retirement came, the union was supposed to have money for him, and it was gone. Every penny had been stolen by unscrupulous investors and others in the union. Grandpa had nothing for a lifetime of work.
His reaction was “What am I going to do?” He said to himself: “I’ve got Social Security. I’ll talk to the guy down the street at the market and he’ll let me stock shelves part time. That’s what I’ll do.”
He wasn’t a saint. And like all good blue collar men in Baltimore he drank. After his retirement, Grandma would put on the kitchen counter a large glass of whiskey, and that’s what he was allowed for the day. She told me several times, “Your Grandfather has real control. You’ll notice he’ll only drink that much and you’ll see it go down as the day goes on.”
One day I came to the kitchen and the glass of whisky was there. Grandpa is in front of it, and he looks down at me and asks where Grandma is. She’s out in the garden. He drinks the whisky down, picks up the bottle and partially refills it. He looks at me says “There is no reason for your grandmother to know about this.”
I never saw him lose his temper. He became upset at things but he never became overemotional. However, one day when I was about 13, he got a phone call. The printer had died. And this bear of a man – who raised himself from nothing, who went through all those tough times with a family of six – he just disintegrated. He fell down and screamed out my grandma’s name. It was terrible to see.
Grandpa had lost all his money and said “I’ll find something else,” but the loss of the printer was too much.
It’s a great good what this printer did. An extraordinary bit of Christian charity. And what do I owe him? Nothing. What I do is I somehow become mature enough where I can accept that gift. He did this unbelievable thing by taking in this criminal into his house and giving him a chance. And that’s my grandpa’s story.