Who Gets To Tell Your Story?
My instinct was trained to find and finesse emotion as a student journalist and later, as a working reporter/features writer.
Front pages, if you wanted them, were built out of gore: if it bleeds, it leads; but for Sunday magazine or feature covers, if it causes tears, it sears (the emotions).
People remember other people’s pain.
I cut my feature-writing teeth on anonymous writing for our paper’s annual Christmas fundraiser, leaning heavily on my learnings from 19th-Century novels about how to create and sustain empathy and sympathy in service of donations.
Even then, as my borderline-exploitative prose drove donations to a record amount, I knew I was dangerously close to crossing over into using other people’s pain for my own ends.
The little Jiminy Cricket voice of conscience in my head was easy enough to drown out with the bullhorn bass of my big, fat orangutan of ego celebrating what we’d now call “metrics.”
I kept skirting the line, wondering if someone would call me out as manipulative or exploitative.
No one did.
Then I began teaching. And then writing about my classroom and speaking about teaching.
My models of classroom discourse tended toward those of the “white savior” genre that we all know from famous “teacher movies.” I could see myself in those white ladies who just applied pen to paper — and presto! — poverty and structural racism were erased (along with students’ actual lived experience).
The temptation to exploit my students meant I might get as famous or gosh! get a movie where Michelle Pfeiffer or Hillary Swank acted as *me*.
Or gracious, what if I got a New York Times bestseller for a snappy presentation of my teachin’ rules? Or set up my colleagues as pawns in a form of multi-level marketing of teach-spirational books for my own profit?
Wouldn’t it be worth it? an envious fishhook-shaped demon whispered from behind the squat figure of my ego. You’d make bank.
Sorting Empathy From Exploitation
One of the hallmarks of great educators is a gracefulness with empathy, with connection. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to slip right past empathy into exploitation.
Anna Holmes puts it succinctly:
Empathy is the ability to respect and maybe even understand another’s point of view, revealing larger truths about ourselves and others. Exploitation is the use of another’s experience for personal gain. Empathy requires self-awareness. Exploitation is marked by self-interest. Empathy is about deepening connections. Exploitation, about filling one’s pockets, literal or figurative.
But I know that I can’t be trusted to always know the difference because I’m extremely good at rationalizing and justifying my actions.
This is where editors and critical friends will save you from yourself.
Thank God for every editor unmoved by my self-righteous arguments, every friend who suggested I might want to think a little more before I sent *those* words into the world with my name attached to them.
And I wouldn’t have said this a year ago, but I thank the Universe it took me three solid months of work to create a folder of written permissions. My publisher required a personal release for every photo, quote, shared protocol, and paraphrased idea used in my book.
That meant I had to actually reach out to people — especially former students — and show them exactly how I was going to tell their story. That also meant that they could push back — and some did — to rework the story to make it more authentic to what they remembered.
Owning Our Impact
Those of us who want to blend our students’ stories into our own need to rethink how we talk about them and ask ourselves if we have the right motives. Are we telling this story to put a face on a critical issue? Or are we telling it for attention? Or for shock value? Or to get a form of sympathy or martyrdom?
Maybe we should redouble our focus on helping them share their stories. To pass the mic to people who never get asked to speak. Who never get the help to craft their own narrative.
We’re so used to the voices of “edu-inspirers” (and God help me, I’m one), that we forget those voices are far away from classroom experiences. Our energies need to be used to extend our hands back to theirs, helping those who are actually living the experiences in communities and classrooms to pick up their own pens and write their own stories.
This is how we will begin to change the expectation of who we consider an authority and who we build conferences with and for.
Rethink Your Social Media Shares
As Lulu Garcia Navarro recently wrote, all of us make editorial choices on social media.
Every single decision you make through social media, when you click on a story and you decide to share it or you like somebody or you follow somebody, you are making these editorial decisions, and you have to assume the responsibility for that…You make decisions that frame how things are being reported, that frame people’s understanding… And so everyone needs to take responsibility for the content they read and the content they share.
Just because it’s not illegal to co-opt stories and selfishly frame narratives, that doesn’t make it ok. Because people get used and some of them can’t fight back. Worse, the people we most need to hear get silenced. Their suffering gets sanitized into safe, “positive” posts that allow us to stay comfortable and others to profit.