Strong Values Make Marvelous Memoir, and Lives

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Decades ago when I was a student studying to be an art teacher, one of my teachers told us that we should strive to be value neutral as teachers. I never spoke in class, but this statement disturbed me so much that I raised my hand and asked, “How can anyone be value neutral? Simply showing up in the classroom communicates that you value being there enough to come.”  The whole class joined in the debate, but we were a bunch of art students, without sufficient debating skills to sway anyone one way or the other. Suffice it to say that I remain unconvinced that anyone can act in a value neutral way. When we act, we communicate our values whether we know it or not. All of us act on values at home, at work, in our social lives and in our volunteer work.

Reverend Gail Seavey’s story struck me to the bone. I applied neutrality, just teaching content, as I was taught to do, my first year teaching. It was easy; I taught English Language to students K-10th grade, and they had similar values: learn English, make friends and support each other, and make a better life for themselves. It was a great year that was not repeated. My second year teaching I was privileged to teach World Literature to high school students.  We read Saki’s short story Open Window together. A teenaged girl convinces a guest that she’s an orphan – when he sees her parents arrive she reacts as if they are frequent ghostly visitors. The guest flees and only then does Saki reveal the teenager has played him; it was all a successful joke.

I asked my students how they would feel if such a trick were played upon them. How would they react? As I recognized student after student to speak, I kept my face neutral. This is what I heard:

“I would kill her.”   “I would beat her black and blue.”  “I would stab her.”   These outspoken young men and women seemed serious. I called on Henry, who always had thoughtful responses. I held my breath invisibly as he stood and uttered, “I would ask my uncle to kill her; he’s part of a gang in Philly.” Some of the class were watching me, silent. One or two could not meet my eyes. Did they feel the same way? Were they under too much peer pressure to reveal what might be perceived as weakness? It was a revelation in cultural conflict, in how one culture, in this particular setting, dominated public expression.

In hindsight, was it a joke on me? It didn’t seem so at the time. I was stunned. I recovered with an alternate point of view and went home that afternoon to rethink my whole teaching philosophy. Yes, each point of view has validity. These reactions were developed by watching role models respond to life’s blows. I too must offer a point of view that expressed my life experiences and values. Humor, mercy, laughing at oneself, tit for tat rather than a sledgehammer — they seemed to be values that were new to some of my students. I would be teaching more than literature this semester. From then on, I must not only demonstrate my values, I must state them. Sometimes this would be the only exposure to these particular values that my students would get. Meanwhile, as the “Great Communicator”  (“Rapport opens students to learning.”), I would continue to listen to expression of values that confused me. And we would explore it all through acclaimed stories.

Isn’t that the point of great story? To transform our perception into that of another person? To cultivate the most human of emotions?

When writing memoir and family history, include your values. Recall how you came to have these, and how you put them into action. Were there turning points in your life where a value affected the future? Did you struggle with that decision? Show, don’t tell, is often achieved through exploring decisions. As Robert Frost said, “The road not taken” sometimes makes all the difference. Explore your choices and your values will pop off the page. Use a short, masterful quote from another writer to introduce your chapter or subject.

Thanks, Reverend Seavey, for sharing your self and your work in values through the newsletter today of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville.