The Solidarity of Storytelling


Tasha Burgoyne -Solidarity of Storytelling3

We sat around a rectangular table. There were 12 of us, maybe 15. Our professor was the last one to join us at the start of each class and always came in with a tan file folder in one hand and an army green thermos in the other. Without fail, he greeted us with a smile and kind eyes. His everyday class attire was a plaid button up shirt with a cardigan. He combed his graying brown hair to the side just like my grandpa.

We waited for him to settle into his seat, open his thermos and pour a cup of tea into the lid-turned-cup. We were college students taking a class on memoir. We read memoir after memoir. Some I couldn’t put down and one I couldn’t finish because the rawness was so raw my mind couldn’t bite into it without feeling ill. We took turns leading our class discussion on the books we read, all the while preparing for our final assignment: to write and share our own piece of memoir. Our professor was seasoned in his work; he was unimpressed by what we knew and lit up with childlike curiosity when we were willing to bring a piece of ourselves to the table during discussion.

If I was comforted by my professor’s unexpected warmth and unassuming wisdom, I was intimidated by most of my fellow classmates. I remember two in particular. One was a young woman who wore black-on-black to every class. With jet black hair, darting eyes and a sailor’s mouth, she was ready to question every book we read and every comment another classmate made. She offered her own critical comments as quickly as she darted her eyes. Another classmate with dark brown, unruly hair and big brown eyes that hid behind his glasses had just as many opinions and comments, though his words and body language had softer edges.

All of us were ridiculously different. Together, we peered into other lives through the art of memoir. We argued about what we read and what we understood, though we all read the same words. Our own diverse stories brushed up against the lives we read about. The pages we read brought us together and highlighted what brought us apart.

I couldn’t understand the girl with darting eyes and wondered if she had an ounce of compassion within her almost every time she spoke. The boy with unruly hair brought up topics that made me uncomfortable. Neither of them were people I would have naturally chosen to sit with at a table. Our professor listened to them and to each of us with the same graceful, curious eyes, responding to each of us with words that were like a string, pulling at what was beneath our top layer of questions and opinions. His example was a mirror to my unspoken judgments.

As we moved from reading other memoirs and finished attempts at writing a piece of our own, our professor gave us a verse from Ecclesiastes to guide us:

“Cast your bread out onto the waters, for after many days, it will come back to you.” –Ecclesiastes 11:1

The day we began sharing, everyone was unusually quiet. In the next few weeks, one by one, I listened to my classmates, entranced as they each threw their bread onto the waters. The girl with darting eyes, wearing black-on-black, shared part of her story and I held my breath while unable to hold back my tears as I listened. The boy with unruly hair cried tears as he read his story and had to stop in places because they were too difficult to voice aloud for the first time. We all waited and listened through those long stretches as he hunched over with our professor’s hand on his arm, a non-verbal message of support and solidarity beyond our differences.

I went last, facing the realization of how tightly I clutched my story. My voice shook as I began, and I was tempted to take out lines of my own story as I read; all of it felt too fragile to throw onto the water. But water not only thrashes, it also soothes and can move us to new places. I had no idea how I had needed to share my story with those different than me. My classmates listened as I shared, making room for my quivering voice to increase, even the ones I had initially been so intimidated by. Waves of solidarity caught the bread we tossed. Heavy opinions sank and we finally saw one another.

The experience of this class has continually reminded me, years later, that vulnerability is worth the risk. When we show up vulnerable and offer our stories, there is a good return, though it may look different than what we imagine. Led by grace, vulnerability is the starting point for true solidarity. 

God was at that table with us. We began as a diverse group of college students in a memoir class. For a semester we became bread-casters and waves, finding solidarity in the collective courage of giving our stories away.

What if the people who seem the most different from you are the ones whose stories you are meant to be shaped by?