Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Would You Like To Hear Some Stories?

I have the great honor today to hand over the writing to my sister in law Katherine Powell, who is director of the First-Year Experience Program at Berry College in Rome, GA. She made the following address to students beginning this term, and thankfully has allowed me to reprint them here. Take this as some proof of the quality of education available to a student in the South today, as well as a mark of her excellent storytelling and writing. Berry has a fascinating history, which is where this story begins:

"
Would you like to hear some stories? That’s the question that Martha Berry asked the mountain children that she found peering into her window on the day that we cite as the beginning of this institution. I think it’s interesting that she didn’t ask if they wanted to learn something or if they wanted to hear some scripture. She read them some Bible stories, among them Jonah and the Whale. And we’ve been telling stories here ever since.

You could argue that Berry’s success is largely due to Martha Berry and her predecessors’ ability to tell compelling stories about the work that was going on here and the great need that still existed. And because the students who came here went back and told their stories in their homes and communities and in the world.

When you came to college, you brought a lot of stuff; I know because I spent my morning lugging some of them up the stairs in the Ford buildings. Some of the most important things you carried with you are your stories. Stories that you’ve probably already begun to exchange about your family and where you’re from, what you’ve done and what you hope to do.

So I want to talk with you about stories. The ones you bring with you, the ones you will encounter here, and the ones that you’ll be creating while you are at Berry.

The best stories are complex. The very best stories are those, like Jonah and the Whale, or the history of Berry College that seem simple on the surface and reveal their complexities the more you look at them. One of the things that you may find happening to you at Berry, is that some of the simple stories you brought here with you become complicated as you gain more knowledge and perspective and insight.

Let me illustrate that point with a story. My mother is a master teller of a particular kind of tale: I don’t know its formal title, but its purpose is to terrify small children so that they will behave themselves. One that I remember was told to me on a family outing to the zoo, when I was about six, and I kept trying to reach into the cages and touch the animals. My mother warned me against such behavior by telling me about her cousin, Gisele, who put her hand into the monkey cage at the zoo and got bitten by a monkey. This was an interesting anecdote, but I was equally interested to learn that my mother had a cousin Gisele, because I had never met, never even heard of her before. I asked my mother why, and she told me, “Because Gisele died.”

My mother never said that the cause of death was monkey bite. I’m sure she didn’t mean to imply that. But that's the simple narrative my six-year-old mind imposed on the facts. I kept my hands in my pockets for the rest of the day. I didn’t think much about Gisela after that, but I carried that version of her story with me into my twenties, when I finally added what I knew about my family history to what I knew about Gisela, and I understood, she didn’t die of a monkey bite. In fact, I’ve since learned, no one knows how or where or even if she died. The last thing we know about Gisele is that she resided for a while at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia that was for most of the people who passed through there, the last stop before the Auschwitz.

I said the best stories are complex, but it’s not always easy to live with complexity. A cautionary tale about a girl who got bitten by a monkey is a lot easier to live with than a complicated narrative about a girl who disappeared in the crucible of World War II and whose fate will probably never be known. But just because you carry a story around in your head for years and years, doesn’t mean it’s right. And I’d rather have the complex story because even with its incomplete ending, it tells the truth. We like simple stories because they are easy to understand and their lessons are clear and easy to follow. Complex stories make us work to discover their meanings, if there are any, and their implications for our own lives can make us uncomfortable.

Here’s a simple story—Jews are the cause of all our trouble. We must get rid of them. Here’s another simple story—Nazi Germany was an anomaly in history; nothing like that could ever happen here. Here’s a complicated story, one of Martha Berry’s greatest benefactors was Henry Ford. He built the beautiful Ford complex, including the dormitories where some of you are now living. He shared Martha Berry’s belief in the nobility of hard work and he supported it with his dollars and his name. He also believed in an international Jewish conspiracy bent on world domination. In the 1920’s, at the same time that he and Martha Berry were exchanging letters about architectural plans for the Ford buildings, he was also publishing his anti-Semitic views in a series of 91 articles in the Dearborn Independent newspaper. They were widely read and later collected in a book called The International Jew that you can still find circulated and defended as truth on the Internet. Among Ford’s readers and admirers was Adolf Hitler, who in 1938 presented Ford with the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle. This is the same Henry Ford who changed the country by manufacturing cars that ordinary people could afford to buy. This is the same man who gave a fortune so that rural children around Rome, GA, and African-American children in both Alabama and Georgia could receive an education. The very same man. Nothing is simple, is it?

One of the most important things that higher education can do is train you to recognize and make sense of the complex realities of every simple story. The two stories I've told you today are too complicated to extrapolate some obvious theme or easy lesson, but in some ways, they are both still cautionary tales. They remind us of what happens when individuals and nations accept simple stories to explain complicated problems. They're tales about what happens when we don't listen to other people's stories, when we refuse to acknowledge the web of stories that binds us together, when we fail to consider our stories from any perspective but our own.

So I hope you've come to Berry expecting us to complcate your lives. It'll happen in the classroom for sure, but some of your most complex challenges will come outside of the classroom.

For example, the simple narrative you’ve been imagining in which you become lifelong best friends with your college roommate may be complicated by the fact that while you like your roommate very much, you find his or her living habits . . . disgusting. The story you’ve been writing for your future life as a doctor or accountant or teacher may be complicated by the discovery that you actually hate Biology or Numbers or children. Those discoveries can be painful, and it’s painful too to have an idea that you’ve always held to be true bump into somebody else's equally sacred but opposite truth. But just as there are benefits that come from working your way through an intricate calculus problem or seriously engaging with a difficult work of literature, struggling to resolve rather than gloss over or run from the complexities of your own life will leave you stronger and wiser and better prepared to face the next complication that is sure to arise.

And the good news is, that you don’t have to do it all alone. Some of the best resources on campus are right here today: your first-year and transfer mentors. They know a lot about Berry and have already worked through some of the challenges you’ll face, and they are committed to helping you succeed, and so are your academic advisors. Your professors not only understand the complexities of their disciplines, they'd love to talk about them with you and help you to sort your way through them. And there are many other people and offices to assist you, including the Office of First-Year Experience. My door is open to you anytime you need some assistance or just have a story to tell, and I know that Dean Bumpus’ is as well.

One reason that Gisele’s story so hard to carry around, for me, is that there is no ending. Was she murdered at Auschwitz? Did she die of disease or starvation? Did she survive the war? She would have turned 80 this year, just like my mother. Might she still be living, somewhere, not knowing that anyone even remembers her name? Although we have searched for information, I don’t think I will ever be able to end her story, but I can try to make sure it isn’t forgotten, which is one reason I’ve told it to you.

That’s another function that stories serve. They connect us to the past and they connect us to each other. The stories we choose to tell about ourselves, about our homes, our families, our adventures allow us to find common ground, and to see past religion or race, gender, sexual orientation or a slew of other surface differences that separate us. At the same time, because we are different, in significant ways, stories also let us see the world from someone else’s perspective and maybe be a little more humble, a little less certain of the rightness of our position.

I look forward to hearing your stories in the days and years ahead, and I if I can assist you at all as you set about creating what I hope will be complex and rich narratives about your time at Berry, I hope you will call on me."

3 comments:

The Editor said...

That was so wonderful, Joe. Pass on my kudos to Katherine. My MFA thesis is based on stories told and the complicated truth of history turned into myth. And I always love a good story.

Anonymous said...

Great story, complex and extremely relevant. I was just curious to if a check of Gisela was made thru the Holocaust Museum in D.C. as to her outcome.

Katherine Powell said...

I checked the Holocaust Memorial archives when I was there in '97, and I also checked Yad Vashem's database a few years ago and turned up nothing. After reading this comment, I checked Yad Vashem again, and found this:
Gisela Herz was born in Koeln, Germany in 1925 to Hermann and Ellen. She was single. Prior to WWII she lived in Koeln, Germany. During the war was in Koeln, Germany. Gisela died in Minsk, Belorussia. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 27/09/1999 by her researcher, a Shoah survivor.
How amazing to finally have some information. Thanks Joe for posting this story, and thanks annonymous for suggesting another search.
Katherine