Blog: Dismantling the Barriers that Exclude: Lessons in how students react to challenging stories

By Katie Kuszmar 

I teach at a high school in San Jose, and we recently had the opportunity to meet Father Greg Boyle, who started Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles. Homeboy Industries is a very successful intervention and rehabilitation program for “homies” who want out of gangs. We read Boyle’s bestselling memoir, Tattoos on the Heart as a school, and he visited in October with Laura and Francisco, two married homies, who happened to be rival ex-gang members. Boyle contends that the reason why people join gangs is that they have suffered loss, and are running away from that loss.

As they walked up to the podium to face a dead-silent audience, Francisco and Laura personified this loss. Laura began her story by telling us that she witnessed a murder when she was nine years old, which triggered a progressively traumatic childhood. Francisco told us that he also witnessed a murder during his adolescence, which exacerbated an unbelievably abusive familial situation. Not until after he got out of jail as an adult, did Francisco hear the words, “I am proud of you.” Boyle was the first to tell him. As if in a narrative dance, Boyle then provided mystical reflections that helped to engage our sense of kinship in the midst of witnessing such struggle.

Boyle always brings a few homies to his public engagements because their stories are the center of his message, as he explains in Tattoos on the Heart: “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.” Boyle contends that after homies tell their stories, they inevitably realize that their lives matter, especially when the audience enthusiastically applauds for them. Despite the standing ovation that the students offered at the assembly, some students didn’t quite know what to do in the intimate presence of Laura and Francisco’s loss.

After the assembly, Father Boyle, Laura and Francisco came to a dinner that the school hosted for them and some of our student leaders, who were working locally on gang prevention mentoring programs. As we sat down to eat, I glanced over at the table where Laura and Francisco were sitting with a small group of students, and there was minimal conversation. The barriers of discomfort seemed to be growing between their dinner plates. Eventually, there was complete silence between them. I cringed. Laura and Francisco looked uncomfortable as the main characters in that day’s narrative focus. They eventually pulled out their phones to check in on their small children back at home.

As an oral history educator, I was perplexed by my students’ silence; however, this momentous post-narrative dynamic is not new to me. The stories that they told hours before the dinner put a human face on gang violence. Though the students at their table were not conducting a proper oral history interview, the challenge of Laura and Francisco’s stories somehow disengage the students, right at a moment when it seemed like it was the students turn to be vulnerable. To make matters more complicated, some other students not sitting at their dinner table ran up to them right before they left and asked, “Can we interview you for our oral history class on Skype?” Their desire to communicate on Skype was a very telling observation. In their oral history class, their teacher often conducts class interviews via Skype as a way to diversify their practice. In this case, I think the request to Skype evidences their interest to keep talking, but it also allowed them to avoid reacting to the reality of the stories that so challenged them.

The reason why I love oral history education is because students get the chance to practice plugging in to the human connection right before them. It encourages them to practice being present and obliges teachers to help them figure out how to react with compassion, engaging in the moment when the narrative is exposed. It would seem that when a narrator bears her soul, the listener/interviewer would be encouraged to warm up in mere gratitude, but the truth of the matter is, as many oral historians know, it isn’t easy to react. In this instance, though not exactly an oral history interview but close in context, my students didn’t have the capacity to grapple with climactic narrative in a timely matter, and I didn’t anticipate a lag time. I imagine that some of the lagging was exacerbated because the homies’ reality was either so disparate from their own safe childhoods or too close to home.

The exposure to raw narrative that often occurs in oral history interviews, especially at highly climactic moments of human struggle, impels students to figure out how to react to the narrator when the story gets intense. There is a great balancing act to consider in oral history education as far as “creating safe spaces” (as Cliff Mayotte, the Voice of Witness Education Program Director, calls it). Creating safe spaces can be a vital entry point to learning for many students who have access to stories that break silences of harsh realities. It is important to pay attention to the lag times and disengagement that might occur in our students’ projects, thus we need to revise our lessons in all the stages of oral history education to help our students figure out how to, “dismantle the barriers that exclude,” as Boyle says, even if the barriers are unintentional.


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