Student stories

7 Dec

I stand in my dimly lit journalism classroom, pointing toward the yellow-lit, pull-down screen bearing the typed words of a student from six years back, in the fall of 2005. As the students of 2011 listened, I praised the qualities of Danielle’s narrative lead, which starts with a boy at a local school telling her, “I had a dream about you last night!”

Danielle’s heart expands, expecting a “profession of love” so common from kindergarteners, and asks what the dream is about.

“You were a goat!” the kid tells her.

I tell my students that I’m still troubled by the paradox of the story: If she was a goat, how did the kid know it was her? Still, such problematic implications don’t diminish the power of these community service stories to amuse, or to move in more earnest ways. I share a few more examples, such as the one past student who was afraid that merely writing letters for Amnesty International wasn’t going to sound immediate and exciting enough in class (she overcame that fear), or the other overwhelmed by hordes of children at a Halloween Festival. If I had time, I’d share the one about a student at Heifer Project being knocked down by an over-eager hog during feeding time, or the one about the student who, on her first day in an after-school program, had a little girl volunteer, “My daddy grabs me by the shirt and yells in my face.”

These stories, and so many more, are part of the final paper in my Introduction to Journalism class at Assumption College. The students volunteer 25 hours at a local agency, then write an extensive profile of someone who works at that site, using the personal story to also illuminate the work of the agency and the social problems it seeks to address. A few years into teaching the course, it hit me that I’d spent all semester training them never to use first person – in the process never giving them the chance to tell the story of their own volunteer work. Enter the first-person column, telling the story of their semester of service, hopefully making some deeper point in the process.

Of course, the first-person stories pale beside the third-person profiles of the service veterans about whom the students have already written. Some have seen a childhood full of pets translate into an adulthood of saving abandoned animals, leaving them blessed with a wealth of dog and cat stories. Some interviewees have come from economic circumstances as difficult as that of the children with whom they are now working, if not actually worse. Some have barely survived genocide in Africa to reach out to fellow African immigrants in Worcester. One or two have gone out and created the organization where they now work, driven by a sense of both a community need and an imaginative vision.

But while 25 hours at an agency pales besides 25 years, this semester, as always, the students have come away with stories of their own. One talked of giving manicures to elderly women at an assisted-living facility, how one woman at age 92 keeps telling her what a good life she has, while another always falls asleep, letting her fingers go limp in the hands of the student, who simply continues her manicure. Another student at the same facility writes of how when this fall’s snowstorm knocked out the power, but not the bingo game my student calls. As my student writes, the residents sat “in near darkness with only the emergency lights on and barely any heat, forcing us to wear our puffy winter jackets. I was literally yelling out numbers with no microphone and getting waves of ‘Was that 53 or 63?!’ Yet, not one person complained as the game ran long, my voice tired and cracked, and the room grew to near darkness.” My student was even more impressed when, as the power outage continued, residents declined the offer of their families to pick them up; this was home, one said.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, came the child who learned how to swim courtesy of a journalism student. As the writer towed him across the pool, he began yelling, so she “held him and tried to figure out what was wrong. He told me, ‘let go, let go! I can do it! I wanna to it myself!’ So I held him by the hands, let go, and he started to swim towards me, as I backed away, inch by inch.”

And of course as we head into Christmas break all my students must back away, must let go, for at least the time being.

But not without their stories.

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