I love stories. I love hearing stories, I love telling stories, I love reading stories; stories like “To kill a mockingbird” with Atticus Finch, who in 1932 asked his children to really get to know people, that they had to walk in their shoes and climb in their skin.
C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know we are not alone.”
Hi, I’m Martha Swindler, and I’ve been teaching English Language Arts here at Barnstable High School for over 20 years.
Often, people have said, “How is it that you connect with your students?” For the first part of my career, the answer was easy: I teach English. Literature lends itself to the human connection and with journal questions, and discussion questions, it was easy to connect, because I often say to my students that I would never ask them to share something that I am not willing to share myself.
So I tell them my stories.
But the question becomes how do you teach them to connect with each other outside the classroom?
About 12 years ago, my life changed again. Challenge Day came to Barnstable High School, and they still come every year, and luckily, our freshmen for the past five years it’s been a freshmen workshop, so all of the students in our building can say they have been invited to Challenge Day.
These cool, hip, California facilitators come and create a safe environment where teachers and students become real. The day culminates with a small group, your family. In that family, everyone is given two minutes to share who they really are, and the small family listens.
If that listening is active, and if they are in the moment, then you have walked in their shoes, and you have climbed in their skin. Two minutes is all it takes of listening.
Listening is a ripple, it’s often overlooked because it appears to be too passive, but listening, especially to the youth, empowers them. They become more resilient, and in turn, they listen to others, and the ripple goes on and on.
When I was young, I am amazed to tell you that my father met Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1976. They were at a global convention of the Anglican Church. My father is now a retired Episcopal bishop, and as you may likely know, Desmond Tutu is the first Black Archbishop of Cape Town, and the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
But before any of that, in 1976, my father was chosen as Director of Saint James Church at Madison Avenue in New York City, and Desmond became Bishop Tutu of Lesotho. My father arrived at the congregation and wanted the parishioners to know about the abominations happening in South Africa that he had heard from Desmond.
They bonded over long probably boring meetings in Trinidad and Tobago over some tasty rum drinks. My father listened to his stories and wanted these people in New York City to know what was really happening in Apartheid.
So he raised money and brought Desmond to Saint James Episcopal Church at Madison Avenue. I am blessed to say that I heard that man speak many, many times. He talked to us, these ordinary, albeit wealthy people about how we could send ripples of hope halfway around the world to South Africa.
He talked about love, and understanding, and our connectedness: Ubuntu, as he had learned as a child; “I am because you are,” “I am because we are.” He made us feel important.
I used to share with Desmond. He would come to visit, and he would stay in our apartment. Most of the lessons I learned from Desmond were not from a pulpit, they were in my own home. He would listen to me as I would share stories about New York City and American culture.
I remember one time when he was coming to visit I videotaped in one of those old school VCRs, for you young people, and I videotaped Michael Jackson’s “The man in the mirror” because Desmond didn’t even know he was in the music video. So I paused to show him, and I remember hearing him laugh and say, “Look, look, I am on MTV.”
He listened. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the great changer of change, listened to me. One of my favorite stories is that he came to visit at the same time my parents were having a fundraiser for my very small, independent elementary school – this was about 1980, I was in fourth grade – and my teacher wanted to meet the increasingly famous Desmond Tutu.
So I told the Bishop all about her; about how beautiful she was, how smart, creative, and caring, and patient, and Susan Morgan was all of those things.
So I remember she arrived in my apartment, I grabbed her by the hand, and I took her over to meet Bish. He took her hand in both of his, and he shook her hand and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Martha has told me so much about you.”
Then he laughed his silly laugh, and I said, “What are you laughing at?” in my sassy way.
He said, “You never told me that she’s black.”
“I never thought of her that way,” was my response.
He went back to South Africa, and reporters asked him, “What do you want? What do you want for the future of South Africa?”
Bish answered them telling that story about me. He had listened to a chubby little fourth grade kid and made me feel important, like the way I thought was the future.