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  • Melissa Westemeier

the matter of voices and stories

The world learned yesterday about Toni Morrison's death. Tayari Jones shared her thoughts about Toni Morrison's contributions on NPR, and one particular line in the interview really got me thinking about the power of stories and the voices that tell those stories. "So this wasn't the first time I had encountered myself in literature. I think that's very important to say - that this wasn't just a triumph of representation. I do think it was the first time I had ever seen black girls taken so seriously, and I understood myself to be a subject of literature in a very specific way."

We tell the stories that matter to us: the stories about how we grew, realized, learned, lost, failed, loved, succeeded, laughed and cried. As students we get exposed to voices through the curated experience of a classroom. A teacher suggested whose voices mattered by what stories they assigned us to read. We grow up with an understanding of whose voices matter, and those of us who become teachers copy our elders by teaching those same voices. It's too easy to remain insulated as an educator and repeat the curriculum. "I learned to love Shakespeare in 1985 and studied Romeo and Juliet,. when I became a high school teacher in 1995, I worked hard to pass that love on to my students ..." Well, of course we do that. And as a result an entire generation of students leave school believing certain voices and stories matter. And the voices and stories students never hear? Well, the implicit lesson is that they must not matter as much, right?

Not all teachers are so lazy. Many of my colleagues are avid, voracious and curious readers. Like me, they read all kinds of voices and curate a curriculum that includes the best voices, sharing a wealth of experiences with students. This brings me to Toni Morrison. I wasn't exposed to her voice as a high school student or a college student. My teachers reinforced the importance of white, aged (mostly dead), male voices through the assigned reading. I studied Shakespeare, Milton, Walden, Hawthorne, Emerson, Twain, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Miller, Williams, Dickens and Poe. These were important writers, their stories worthy because they got included in the English canon--Important Stories All People Should Know.

But here's the thing about reading stories: stories allow us to experience other people's lives and develop empathy for their existence. And through stories you get to discover other people experience what you yourself have experienced and you feel acknowledged and empowered by knowing you're not alone. This is powerful stuff. I knew I wasn't alone in my confusion about girlhood and friendships and first crushes and getting my period because Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Maud Hart Lovelace, and L.M. Montgomery wrote about my experiences. And I read other books by other writers about other people's experiences--Sandra Cisneros, SE Hinton, and Scott O'Dell fostered more curiosity and a belief that these voices mattered, too.

After college I picked up The Bluest Eye and Beloved. Reading Toni Morrison (and Jesmyn Ward, Terry McMillan, Richard Wright, Tommy Orange, Jhumpa Lahiri, Yaa Gyasi, Walter Dean Myers ...) gave me a chance to hear voices and stories very different from my own personal experience. These writers helped me develop more empathy for people, understand their lives, and appreciate the value of their voices.

Toni Morrison's work is important. Her voice is important. Her stories are important.

Her legacy is inclusion--she worked hard in publishing and writing to elevate the voices of African Americans. She gave people the opportunity to listen to another voice, hear another story, and develop a stronger appreciation for whose voices matter.

As a teacher I get a sweet opportunity to share her voice--and lots of other voices with my students. I get a chance to say this voice matters. This story matters. Read it. Listen to it. Learn something from it. 

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