Monday, April 4, 2011

The Power of Personal Story

In my adult life, I have given very little thought to the lives and experiences of teenagers. Until recently, I perceived all teenagers I did not know personally, and some I did, as self-absorbed, superficial beings who used truly irritating behavior to navigate their struggle between youth and adulthood. I realize that this viewpoint lacked compassion, tolerance, insight, and love, yet I held it all the same. In the past month, I had the true pleasure of spending four days at Everett High School teaching 4 lessons of storytelling-based curriculum to high school juniors. This experience has altered my perception of teenagers forever.

These kids have stories. In small groups, one-on-one, and as told to the entire class I was introduced to lives rich in experience. A young man told of looking in the mirror at the folds of extra flesh hanging off his frame and wanting to look differently. With his brother's guidance, he learned to exercise regularly and choose healthy foods. Fit, healthy, and eighty pounds lighter, he proudly shared his experience.

Another young man woke up one day to find his brother leaving for a rehab facility. Until that day, he had viewed drug users as "losers". After that day, he saw individuals with addictions as people who had made mistakes and needed assistance to turn their lives around. Now, he abstains from using drugs because he has seen the consequences of such behavior.

A young woman with perfect grammar and barely an accent told me how she relocated to Everett three years ago not speaking a word of English. Having no friends and unable to understand her teachers who did not speak French, she desperately wanted to return home. She persevered, built friendships, and dreams of attending college in this, her adopted country.

With great courage, these young students welcomed me, their peers, and teachers into their lives filled with heartbreaking loss and joyous accomplishment. Each of them withdrew the veil of their outward persona, for just a moment, and used words and gesture to pour their deeply personal experiences into the hearts of their audience. I saw them stand tall, with loud, clear voices, and proudly share what mattered to them most.

Through telling their story, they changed; and I changed with them. Transfixed by their vulnerability, authenticity, and bravery, I gained insight into their lives. Listening to them share, my heart opened with compassion and my mind softened with tolerance as I realized that the persona they share with the world is no substitute for the persona they hide inside their hearts. And I will never discount them again.

To learn more about the innovative StoriesLive® program developed by the visionary women of massmouth, a storytelling non-profit organization in Boston, visit


  1. what a beautiful piece! Thank you for writing it. WE all loved listening to our teens. They did expand our pool of knowledge and left us better for it.

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  3. Esther - you really captured the experience of so well. Even tho' I did not have the same lack of experience with teens, having lived with teens for last 15 years, I still was very moved by the amazing stories we heard in Everett High. Thanks for this.