Why I tell stories

Published on
April 25, 2012

I used to be a language teacher (English & Portuguese) before I became a journalist. And with each story I tell, I see how not-so-far-apart my present and former professions are.

One of the highlights of my language-teaching career was teaching English to the seamstresses at a midtown Manhattan garment factory.  Two days a week, the ladies – about two-thirds of them Hispanic and the other third Chinese – got to knock off early with pay and come to the breakroom for English class.  These ladies had been working together on the same sewing room floor for years, decades some of them. They'd been sharing the same breakroom and bathroom, and attending the same company Christmas parties, but it didn't take me long to realize, they had never spoken to each other before.

Like their sewing machines back on the sewing room floor, the Chinese ladies clustered together in our breakroom English classes, and the Hispanic ladies, on the other other side of the room, did the same.  Each only spoke to those who shared her native tongue.  But my games and canned dialogues forced them to interact with natives of the other hemisphere. And end-of-semester parties had them breaking bread together – breads made in the homes of their classmates with exotic ingredients they'd never heard of before.

In the first weeks of that class, I was met in the breakroom by a roomful of women silently awaiting my arrival.  Later though, I would follow the din of laughter and gabbing to the breakroom and be forced to quiet them so I could start the class.

In one of the final classes of that first semester, a Colombian woman named Doris stopped me after class. "Do you know what I learned in this class?"  "What?" I asked, expecting to hear a new word or previously unknown verb tense.  "The Chinese ladies are nice," she said.  I laughed, a little puzzled, and said, "Well, of course they are."  Doris shrugged and said, "Well, I didn't know that because we could never talk to them before.  But yesterday, Lee [a Chinese lady, who always brought goodies to work] brought some candy, and she came over to my table and gave a piece to me. She never did that before."

Doris said she had learned that "Chinese ladies are nice," but what she had really learned was that the Chinese ladies are just like her.  And if a third of the class had been Hungarian or Indian or Dutch, I think Doris would have learned the same thing because she and her co-workers now had a common language through which to make that discovery.

Storytelling has that power, too.  To show us that we are more alike than we are different. To show us that someone with cancer, herpes or HIV is just like me.

Last weekend at the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists, speaker after speaker reminded us that we medical journalists shouldn't lead with the numbers that quantify the reach of a disease or its cost to taxpayers.  We should lead with the face of someone who lives with that condition. Show our readers that she's just like them.

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter implored journalists at the meeting to tell stories about highly respected individuals – doctors, lawyers, CEOs – living with mental illness to help reduce the stigma.

The blog I edit (one of my many roles as a freelance writer and editor) also tries to reduce stigma through storytelling – the stigma of choosing to be a primary care doctor rather than a high-paid sub-specialist. The blog is a collection of first-person stories written by medical students and health care providers about why they chose careers in primary care. The hope is that even just one medical student, perhaps one whose professor has told him primary care would be a waste of his intellect, will read a story and think, "These people are just like me."

Storytelling, like a common language, has the power to do that.

While most speakers at my journalist meeting last weekend told us to put a human face on our stories, to tell readers "They are just like you," the example that resonated most didn't have a face.  NPR's Gregory Warner gave a workshop on using multimedia to tell stories.  He showed us a video by Philipp Batta from his series Tangerine Conversations: "Teresa 3/200."  We never see Teresa's face while she tells us her story – that she has undergone several surgeries and that she had always been different growing up.  When Teresa meets a girl who has been through the same thing, she says in the video, "I had no idea, until I met her, what a relief it was that someone had had the exact same experience."

What a relief, indeed. That is why I taught languages. That is why I tell stories.


Oringinally posted on www.sonyacollins.net.