November Bench Talk: "Thanksgiving Stories"

Today, I am going to finish the Bench Talk that I delivered on October 4, 2013. The talk was about the importance of telling stories. Since you are all heading off to Thanksgiving vacation, I thought that it would be a good time to revisit that talk, because it focuses on the importance of hearing family stories. Here are a few from my family:

When my wife was eleven years old, she tackled a neighborhood boy and sat on him until he promised not to bother her little brother anymore.

My wife is the second born of four children, three girls and a boy. As the second child, she was less cautious than her older sister, and more protective than her younger sister, so when Jimmy Woods began taunting her little brother, she took the matter into her own hands even though she was only in fifth grade. As Jimmy pedaled his bicycle past her and her little brother, she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and pulled him from the bicycle so quickly that the riderless bicycle kept going down the street. She then sat on Jimmy Woods until he promised to stop being mean.

Mrs. Caldwell is not a particularly violent woman. She is the kind of person who will shepherd a spider out the door rather than step on it. She is quite loving and nurturing, but when a moment like that arises, she is ferocious, and that day she taught Jimmy Woods a lesson he would not forget. 

Our children love the story of my mother, who once pulled her mattress out the window onto the roof of her dorm so that she could watch the stars before she fell asleep. I think what fascinates our children the most about this family story is that my mother was a 10 year-old at a boarding school when she did that.

Of course, not all of the family stories are about heroics. Some are about enduring hardship, which is its own form of heroism. Our children know the story about my wife's brother who developed mental illness when he was a senior at Yale, and has never been the same since, but he has endured. They know the story about my sister who died of cancer my first year at MBS. They know many stories about my father who has slow-growing lymphoma and is the happiest 90 year-old alive, still planting his garden, still brewing beer, still skiing, still writing letters to the editor to tell them his opinion on...everything.

While these family stories may seem incidental, Professor Duke of Emory University would argue that they are not at all inconsequential. In fact, he has done years of research on the effect of family stories, and he argues that children who have strong family narratives, that is, children who know the good stories as well as the hard stories about their families, develop a stronger sense of self and resilience because they know they are part of something larger than themselves.

But it is not only the information in these stories that is important. The context in which the stories are told is crucial.

Professor Duke says this about his research: 

"In order to hear family stories, people need to sit down with one another and not be distracted. Some people have to talk and some have to listen. The stories need to be told over and over and the times of sitting together need to be multiple and occur over many years. The most convenient times traditionally have been family dinners, family trips in the car, vacations, and birthday gatherings."

So why am I talking about family storytelling?

Because most of you will be gathered around family dinners during the Thanksgiving break.

Our sense of identity and belonging begins with our family stories. They embody not only a piece of our collective past but also some version of how we feel about it because we express our values through the stories.

I am going to give you a test on how much you know about your family history. Professor Duke designed this test to investigate the knowledge children have about their extended familiesDon't worry if you don't know the answers to the questions, but I hope at some point this year, you ask your relatives to tell you these stories.

I am going to use Professor Duke's "Do You Know" scale, and I am only going to give you a sample of a few questions.

Are you ready? Raise your hands if the answer is "yes."

1. How many of you know how your parents met?
2. How many of you know where some of your grandparents grew up?
3. Do you know where some of your grandparents met?
4. Do you know the source of your name?
5. How many of you know which person in the family you act most like?

I can see that many of you already know some of your family stories, and that's wonderful. I hope that you find a way to continue telling these stories or finding out more about your family's narrative.

I will end with a story that is one of my children's favorite tales. 

When I was in kindergarten, I used to walk to school with my friend Becky Shore. Becky had bright red curly hair, and I loved walking to school with her. To get to school, we had to walk about three-quarters of a mile down a dirt road, through a cow pasture, down a gully and over a little footbridge. 

One day, however, we could not cross the little footbridge because every time we moved down the gully and towards the bridge, the cows on the other side moved aggressively towards us. We would retreat, and they would hold their ground. We would venture down again, and they would move towards us, blocking our way. They would not let us cross. We did not know what to do.

So what do you think we did? 

This is where I ended the bench talk six years ago. So now I will tell you how the story ended.

We were stuck – neither of us, as kindergarteners, felt brave enough to cross that bridge and risk being head butted by the cows into the muddy ditch– there were quite a few of them.

The gulley stretched the entire length of the field, so finding another way through the muck was not an option. 

We waited and we waited.

Suddenly, we heard screaming and yelling coming from our little red schoolhouse. All of our classmates plus the kindergarten teacher came piling out of the building wielding sticks and waving their arms. The cows, seeing the crowd, scattered, and we walked safely and happily to school surrounded by our kindergarten classmates. 

I have never forgotten the story, and I bet Becky Shore hasn’t either. Perhaps over Thanksgiving, I will see her and ask her. 

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.


More News from Morristown-Beard School