Learning to Listen to Stories

Mrs. Payne was my third grade teacher.  She presided over an orderly classroom: neat rows of wooden desks, bulletin boards dotted with the class’ best work, spotless blackboards.  Well-worn textbooks lined the walls.  We sang all three verses of God Save the Queen and O Canada every morning.  We sat in alphabetical order.  This was the kind of space in which teaching and learning took place in the 1960s in Ontario – the heartland of what was considered faithful, patriotic and true at that time.

After lunch each day, Mrs. Payne read aloud from the Wizard of Oz series of books for fifteen minutes.  No questions were asked nor assignments given during this time.  She read.  We listened.  This daily ritual turned me into a great lover of stories and storytelling.  It also turned me into an attentive listener.

Listening for the voice of vocation

In a circle of leaders engaged in social change work many, many years later, I rediscovered just how much I love listening.  Some of us were teachers.  Others were doctors, social workers, lawyers, managers and fundraisers.  Like me, some resisted any attempt to define their profession with a single word.  In this circle, we listened.  We were encouraged to let our lives speak and to listen for the voice of our vocations.  “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.  Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent,” writes educator and activist Parker J. Palmer whose thinking has inspired the formation of these circles across the United States and Canada.

A home for our stories about work and vocation

Since the 60s, we’ve created spaces for teaching, learning, talking and listening that are very different from Mrs. Payne’s classroom.  Cyberspaces, in fact, where blogs like this one reside.  And intimate circles like the ones to which I owe my renewed sense of purpose and vocation.  With this first blog entry, I’d like to dedicate this new virtual space to the stories of our lives – and of the organizations and communities to which we belong.  Love them or hate them, they are ours and we are theirs.  You are invited to participate in the conversation as a teacher, learner, talker and listener.  And to notice how we are becoming the change we wish to see in the world through our work.

The Leader Renewal Project

This cyber conversation is one of many on vocational, organizational and civic renewal that I’ve been having thanks to the Metcalf Foundation.  As a Metcalf Foundation Innovation Fellow, I embarked on the Leader Renewal Project in 2007.  My views are my own but the foundation’s board and staff leaders are listening in to learn more about the needs of leaders and organizations in the nonprofit sector.  Their mandate is “to enhance the effectiveness of people and organizations working together to help Canadians imagine and build a just, healthy and creative society.”  They are loyal friends of the arts, environment and community at a time when we really need them.

Stories, storytellers and storytelling places

Whenever I start thinking about the power of stories to build the kind of society we envision, the epic stories, storytellers and storytelling places of my childhood come to mind.  My grandmother’s story about teaching in a one-room schoolhouse and her dining room table.  My Sunday school teacher’s story about Jonah, the whale and a town called Nineveh, and the nursery where we sat cross-legged in a circle.  And, of course, my third grade teacher and that classroom where I first discovered Dorothy and her trio of friends on the road to Oz.

The end of the beginning

When Mrs. Payne read the last chapter of the first book, I remember that I was inconsolable until the next day when she pulled the second in the series off the shelf.  Up until then, I had no idea that the ending of one book might mark the beginning of another adventure with a collection of familiar and new characters. 

I loved these strange worlds inhabited by the witches, dwarfs, wooden men with jack o’ lantern heads, flying monkeys, and other extraordinary beings found in subsequent books.  But mostly, I was fascinated by the girl who walked the razor’s edge between loss and opportunity, the unknown and home, crisis and renewal. 

In all weather, Dorothy kept moving forward.  Each encounter or event took her to a new place and set her on a path with no clear destination.  There were traveling companions with whom she laughed, cried and celebrated — and who became trustworthy friends.  Everything that happened was unpredictable with one exception: she always found her way home to the place where the story began and would begin again.

(Here is the staff of Armour Heights Public School in East City, a neighbourhood in Peterborough, Ontario circa 1969.  Mrs. Payne is the fourth from the right in the back row.)

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