In my memoir course, my students’ first exercise is to write down a small story that they often tell people about their lives. I like reading these little paragraphs – they are often about getting lost in foreign airports, mislaying precious items and realizing that material things don’t matter, buying liquor while under age. But there are always one or two students who tell me things I don’t want to know.
This term it was Michael. Michael (not his real name, of course) wrote a story about being punished when he was around six. It’s difficult to follow the timeline, but it seems that his parents left him alone while they went on vacation, and came home to find the house a mess, so they beat him and sent him to his room. The description of the beating is perfunctory, but that of his feelings is quite elaborate: the fear that they would find out, the terror during the beating, the remorse as he recovered, and so forth.
I think it’s possible some facts of the story are less than accurate (his parents left him home alone for the weekend when he was six years old?) Nevertheless, there is clearly something unfortunate going on here. I wrote a note at the bottom of his assignment saying that the story made me sad and asking him to come talk to me about it. Instead, when he rewrote his story he added a paragraph at the end that went something like this.
Yes it is a pretty sad story but I know people who have had been threaten even worse. I find that it was tough but I know a very important star who had problems like that in his childhood and in his career they had a pretty tough time even and a lot worse than me. I think it’s the shock my parents had that made them do that but I understand my parents because if your them and you don’t know that there are mess everywhere when you enter your house you can take it pretty bad so at the same time yes and no it is and it is not a sad story
Here is my reply.
Michael: of course, it is your feelings about the incident that are most important. Are you aware that we have counsellors here at the college whom you can talk to if you are ever feeling bad about things that happened in the past or are happening now? Let me know if you would like more information.
Like many of my students, Michael is over 18. I am therefore not under any legal obligation in a situation like this (according to counsellors I’ve spoken to in the past about similar stories students have written.) I have no intention of chasing him down and making him talk to me about anything he doesn’t want to. That said, I wonder if there’s something more I should be thinking about doing for him.
Every year, I consider avoiding personal writing assignments. Every term I ask myself: do I need these close reminders of the general badness going on out there in the world, in my students’ lives? But I know I will never eliminate them – the assignments, because I won’t, or the badness, because I can’t – so I need a clear strategy for dealing with the stories that rear their heads.
What do you think teachers, especially teachers of older students, should do when faced with stories of suffering, abuse, or trauma? Have you faced this issue yourself? If so, what do you do?
Image by Brenda Otero