Nestor Gomez says he is the last person you’d expect to see sharing personal stories in front of a large crowd. “I used to stutter badly,” says Gomez, one of 10 storytellers who will perform at the annual Moth GrandSLAM Championship on Oct. 19 at the Barrymore Theatre. “My mother used to sell clothing to the neighbors and send me to collect the payment. I used to stand outside the door rehearsing what I was going to say.”
But Gomez figured it out — and then some. The Chicago resident has won 35 Moth StorySLAM contests, and is a three-time GrandSLAM winner. The Moth is a national organization based in New York City with dozens of national chapters, including one formed in Madison in 2016. In addition to live events, the group releases a weekly podcast and The Moth Radio Hour, which broadcasts on more than 400 stations. At live events, like the ones that take place the second Monday of each month at the High Noon Saloon, attendees vie for a chance to share a story (under five minutes, no notes allowed) on a theme.
After immigrating to Chicago with his siblings when he was 15, Gomez, who was undocumented, felt held back by his status, his English and his stutter. But he married soon after high school and became a father; he pushed himself to talk to people, hoping to work his way up the corporate ladder at a fast food restaurant. On the side, he wrote poems. One day at a poetry event, he noticed a flier for The Moth. “I remember telling my girlfriend I wanted to try it and she was like ‘maybe?’ says Gomez. “I almost gave up because I thought people wouldn’t understand my English.” He told a story that night about coming to the U.S. and hanging out with Mexican kids whose Spanish was very different from his. And he was completely hooked.
Gomez’s story, “Undocumented Journey,” puts you in the shoes of a terrified 15-year-old, told to keep silent for days as he and his siblings, including an infant, fled the civil war in Guatemala. By the end, the listener experiences the joy of Gomez’s reunification with his mother and finally being able to speak.
Gomez says the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies make it crucial that we understand the impact of policies on the human beings who live and work here. “A lot of people don’t have any idea about the immigration experience,” says Gomez. “Some people think you just apply for citizenship like you apply for a license. There are so many different levels to the immigration process.”
After his success with The Moth, Gomez launched a traveling storytelling show dedicated to immigrant stories, titled 80 Minutes Around the World. The show features a diverse cast with varied experiences. “It has always been important, but it’s even more important now to tell the stories of immigrants because the immigrant community is being really attacked,” he says.
“I never thought I would be a storyteller,” says Gomez, “but it took over my life in a positive way. There were times in my life when I went through really bad times and I thought I would end my life. Now I know we should never give up because we never know what life has waiting for us.”
As I sat down to grade my Short Story final exams at this Spring semester’s end, I knew for certain two things: I needed to be at home when I read them and I needed a quiet space to myself. I needed a private space not particularly for the concentration that I need to read them or the silence I require for making critical comments on the writing, but for the space to cry, because each year I do. I cry because my high school students so beautifully express what they have learned about the power of stories and so elegantly articulate what they have discovered about themselves through all of our story activities. They express revelation, joy, truth, and wonder at what stories can do for them and what new meaning their lives have because of story. Some moments of beauty from this year’s exams include:
“The more I heard people share stories about themselves and the more I shared stories about myself, I learned to love, appreciate, and accept who I really am.”
“Far from existing in an anti-social vacuum, a truly great story needs to be circulated, pumped like fresh water, amongst people. The more it does so, the more Enchanted it becomes, finally capable of expressing what is a truth to me and what is a truth to others.”
“Maybe thinking about my life just as a story takes away the severity [of living], because most stories end well, and even the ones that don’t end well are still good stories.”
And all I can do is cry as I read about the beauty that my students have found in their lives through stories.
The Chrysanthemum Moment: Making Short Story Into The Power of Story
When I inherited the teaching slot of the Short Story course in the Spring 2007 at Moravian Academy, during my first year teaching for this small independent school in Pennsylvania, it was a literature survey course of short fiction. We read stories. We discussed and wrote about those short stories. I had mostly second semester seniors who were more or less (and mostly less) interested in doing the reading, discussing the stories, and caring about the class. In my third Spring semester of teaching Short Story, I was beyond frustrated. I asked myself over and over: Why do students not care about stories? Stories are so integral to life! Stories flow through humans as our life-blood! Stories reveal our values and desires and open us up to sharing ourselves to others! There was a great disparity revealed to me each day as I faced the apathy of the seniors. These seniors, supposedly at the top of their academic game, claimed to be interested with the goings on of school, but each day I was faced with disinterest, apathy, and the stubborn unwillingness to engage with the class. I often thought of how these world-weary seniors might have acted in first grade, listening to stories, beginning to read, starting to form words on paper…. Where did the wonder go? Where did the appetite for story end up? Where were their imaginations? Were they gone? I began to fixate on this idea of re-animating these seniors’ imaginations and desire for stories in their lives.
The re-animation and re-igniting of the senior’s interest in stories happened as we were reading D.H. Lawrence’s “Odour of Chrysanthemum” and John Steinbeck’s “The Chrysanthemums.” I was so desperate for someone to care about the two stories that I gave them an experiential assignment to fill out a worksheet that required the completion of a sensory exercise about chrysanthemums. The worksheet required action. Over the weekend, go outside, it said. Find chrysanthemums. Talk to florists. Look at your flower. Taste it. Smell it. Paste the flower to your worksheet. Answer the questions. Then, come back and report. When Monday arrived, the seniors were the most animated that I had ever seen and they brought back stories of their mis/adventures. Did I know that chrysanthemums really were in season in the fall? Get this: a florist told me that he once did a wedding with chrysanthemums…and so on.
The seniors not only had stories to tell me about their difficulty in getting their flower specimens, but they also had stories about the important flowers in their lives, stories about how flowers had marked special occasions, and stories about a special ‘flower moment’ in their lives. I was flabbergasted. And, I listened to their stories. With five minutes left to the class, I brought our discussion back to both of the assigned stories. Now, I asked them, what do you think Lawrence and Steinbeck had in mind when they chose this particular flower? Almost everyone started talking at once. There were many ideas out there: the autumnal nature of the flower, the long stems and the dense and many-petalled nature of mums, the connection between death and autumn, the mum’s serenity and loneliness, and on and on. The bell rang, cutting off our lively discussion, and I promised the seniors that we would continue our discussion the next day. It was at that moment that I realized what I needed to do to make students see the power of stories. I needed to increase students’ investment and engagement with stories. I needed to make them care about stories, and the way I needed to do that was to involve students with other people in experiential story activities.
The Three Acts of Our Lives
In the fall of 2009, I proposed my idea to the Upper School Director, Joe Chandler, for re-visioning the course. When I sat down with him to chat, I started with that this course re-imagining would be radical. I would still assign works of short fiction and we would still discuss them and write about them, I assured him. But, I would organize the course around three acts which mirrored the path of our lives and add in story fieldwork for each act.
Act I would focus on our childhood, and we would read fairy tales, folk tales, and children’s literature. We also would read and prepare folk tales for storytelling to an audience. Our Act I story fieldwork would be working with Moravian Academy first graders for five sessions in February, and we would create a collaborative story with pairs of Upper School and Lower School students. Act II would revolve around our personal narratives we possess right now – our lives at this moment. We would have a professional storyteller visit and give us a two-day workshop. We would also invite other kinds of storytellers, artists and authors to show us their creative storymaking process. Finally, Act III would have us work with the residents of Country Meadows, a retirement community situated right down the street from our campus. During five sessions in April, we would cull the life stories of the residents in student-resident pairs, and at the end of our session work, we would have a final celebration at which we would present our partners a creative project that represents them and their stories.
Without hesitation, Joe Chandler said yes. Although the scheduling for the course’s experiential story activities has always been challenging, my director made it work and always supported the ‘re-telling’ of Short Story course with its new title, The Power of Story.
Stories tell the “softer side” of people
One student on this year’s exams described the stories we share with one another as really showing her the “softer side of a person.” This phrase perfectly encapsulates what happens when we share stories with one another – at whatever age you are. In Act I, when my students interact with the first graders, they see the child’s perspective of life, are reminded what they used to be like as a child and rediscover what joy and wonder there is to life. When working in these first grader pairs, my students’ behavior changes – they have fun again and they do not worry with their preoccupations of senior year preparation and studying. I observe them caretaking and caring for, helping, guiding and mentoring the first graders. I see a tender and sympathetic human being surface and it is marvelous. I see the dynamics of the pairings evolve as they color together, eat together, share giggles together, write and illustrate their stories together. There are always eager and cheerful faces greeting each other as we begin an activity and there are always hugs and sad goodbyes when they part from one another.
In Act II, we share true personal narratives with one another in the class. We work on exploring the subject of the personal stories and work to expand or stretch out the important moments of those stories. This is where we really see the ‘softer side’ of students emerge. Every personal story told illuminates that student’s personality and values. In the moment of the telling of the story, the listeners are privileged to see the world from the teller’s perspective. About mid-way through the course, this Act II storytelling begins to transform the preconceptions of the students. I hear phrases like: I never knew this about him/her! Wow, I went through the same thing! You know, your story reminded me of something… Students give feedback to the teller on little squares of colored paper, and then we talk about the stories. What was your favorite image? Why do you think he/she tells this story? What is important to him/her? The students begin to put together the experiences of the course thus far and begin to have a growing awareness of what stories can do. They begin to understand that not only stories are important to children, but also can be important to themselves at this time in their lives.
In Act III, this awareness of the significance of stories in a person’s life becomes acute and very real as we embark on our life-story culling sessions at Country Meadows. By now, students have been primed to be sensitive to the nuance of physical gestures, expression and tone of the teller – and of the reason why we might tell certain stories as people retell and reminisce about events in their lives. At Country Meadows, we work with residents at every level of care: independent living, assisted living, nursing and memory support. The pairs (chosen randomly) always end up having some kind of serendipitous connection with each other, despite the wide gap in years and experience. Each year I marvel at the coincidental connections two complete strangers have with one another. It always seems that the pairs were destined for each other and have a lot to teach one another. The final celebration, at which we present the students’ creative projects, is truly special and has a lasting emotional impact on both senior citizen and high school student. Partners are swept up in the poignant last moment of their time together and sense the philosophical import of this shared story fieldwork. Students have sung songs, danced, created works of art, written poems and plays. They used their imaginations in countless ways in order to represent their Country Meadows partners and to communicate how special their shared time was. Tears flow at these final celebrations and memories are created that participants will cherish for the rest of their lives.
Over the years, with our class’s fieldwork with children and with senior citizens, I am amazed at the serendipitous connections that are made between students and their partners. Each year, I marvel at these serendipitous moments that occur with our totally random pairings. The common threads the students find with their partners is nothing short of serendipity. Serendipity is the only word I have used to describe this awesome accidental connectivity between people who are thrown together randomly to share stories.
Some pairings over the years stand out in my mind: John and his Country Meadows partner John – two souls who were perfectly matched and viewed life much in the same affable and unconcerned way. Dani and her Country Meadows partner Aggie – the two women who spoke from their hearts and whispered their dreams to one another. The beautiful trio of Shane, Justin,
and Maya – I initially felt bad about saddling Maya with two high school boys, but then I was told she was really happy about Shane and Justin because she was reminded of her new blended family. Italian exchange student Anna and her Country Meadows partner Joe – whose families originated from the same Italian town! The (young) senior duo of Alex and Matt and the Country Meadows duo of Dave and Ray who played Wii games during their sessions. Jacob and his Country Meadows partner who listened to violin recordings. Shane and Ryan; Shane considered little Ryan to be a teacher in his life. The list goes on and on. How does this wonderful happenstance of connection and comfort, these serendipitous pairings, occur as people share stories with one another? Is it accidental? Is it pure luck? Is something else going on? I call it serendipity.
Serendipity is defined as a knack for making fortunate discoveries by accident or just plain good fortune and luck. It is serendipitous that our class is so lucky to be paired with such lovely humans. But, we ourselves are doing something to make those pairs work. We are listening to our first graders, to ourselves, and our Country Meadows residents. We are open to discovery and want to learn more about our partners. We spend time with our partners, invest a lot of energy in the interaction, and then we reflect on the experience through our writing.
This year in particular, we’ve had our share of serendipity: Tom and first grader Faust play for the same club soccer team – different age divisions, of course; Griffin and his educator Country Meadows partner Judy, who likes things just so and who arranged an incredible meeting with Cornell alumni – the school at which Griffin was accepted; warm and family-centered Sarah and her Country Meadows partner Laurine who vacation in the same town each summer! We have like-minded partners – the creativity and imagination of Noah and first grader Parker, the high-spiritedness of Avery and first grader Finn, and the philosophical depth of Brandon and his Country Meadows partner Carolyn. We’ve had also the fortunate Country Meadows pairs that just work so well – of calm Cavan and gregarious Julie, kind Andrew and serene Audrey, and of flexible and unflappable Jade with first Erika, and then Anna.
The connections we make with others when we share stories is more than serendipitous. It’s just wonderfully human. We are all human after all, and not so different as we may believe. And the way to understanding who we truly are, and the way to express and show our ‘softer sides’, is through the sharing of story.
So to return to my grading those final exams I began this story with, I conclude this story with one student’s essay in particular that did something no other Story student has done before. His essay made me honestly confront myself and account for my own stories. During the semester, I told the students several personal stories, and one in particular captivated them. I told them about an old friend and about the last time I saw her, which was a very devastating moment for her and her husband: the death of her one-year old daughter. My students wanted to know the rest of the story about my friend, and I had to tell them that I had lost contact with her. Then, I sadly corrected myself, “The actual truth is that I couldn’t bring myself to talk to her. The loss of her daughter seemed overwhelming and insurmountable in my reestablishing contact with her. And the longer that time went by, the stupider I felt about it.” My cheeks burned with embarrassment and tears welled in my eyes. As I admitted all of this to my students, they were absolutely stunned, but their faces also showed compassion and respect of my exposed vulnerable self.
This story had a huge impact on my students because weeks later they would ask me out of the blue if I had yet contacted my old friend. I hadn’t. And I felt bad about it. However, the year ended and exams were taken, and I hadn’t given my story about my old friend much thought, yet, if I am honest, that story is always with me. As I read Avery’s exam, I was shocked. He made my reluctance, inability, and fear to contact a good friend central to his essay that summed up his experience with the class.
He began his essay with this introduction: “This year, I came to this course thinking that it was going to be easy and I was going to go in and out and be done. I was wrong, a phrase I rarely use. I didn’t just walk in and out. I made friends with people I never thought I would, I learned that I have a story like everyone else, and ultimately, I changed my perspective on how I look back at the past.”
Avery went on to discuss how, before this course, his “Plan,” was to live his life not wanting to get close to others or forge connections with them because, ultimately, what use would it be? He described going off to college and making his way in the world -and what use would his family and old friends be then? However, Avery then realized that because of this course, he saw the value in making connections with others – little first graders, other peers he had never dreamed of getting to know, his Country Meadows partner – and affirmed that connecting with people “isn’t such a bad thing.” Avery concluded his essay with, “I wouldn’t have realized all of these things without this class or without Dr. Moore. I hope that she takes some of what her class taught me to help her and that maybe she’ll even email her old friend.”
After wiping away the tears, I wrote an A+ on Avery’s essay and emailed my old friend. This is the power that stories have. I am grateful to be able not only to share stories with my students, but also to have the privilege of listening to and learning from them.
Dr. Catherine Moore is a Moravian Academy Upper School English teacher and has taught t Moravian Academy for nine years. In addition to holding a Ph.D. in English Literature, Dr. Moore has a Master’s degree in Theatre from Northwestern University and a Master of Studies postgraduate degree in Research Methods in English Literature and D.Phil. coursework from the University of Oxford. Dr. Moore has transformed the short story anthology course with its traditional narrative study to an experiential ‘story laboratory’, filled with blended learning, collaborative activities, and story fieldwork in our community.