SIDNEY — As another school year begins I hope parents, teachers, and students can keep a powerful truth in mind: there is danger in a single story. There is danger in being satisfied with knowing only a little about anything, but when we decide that the little we know about someone else is the whole story, the impact can be devastating. The danger is that when people assign a single story to a person or even a larger population they miss out on the truth about most people. Our lives are composed of many overlapping stories and experiences and if we choose to assign only a single story to a person or a place, we typically miss the mark.
I see this in my hometown. Having lived in Sidney most of my life I have started to recognize the single story that is often told about the people who live here. Many from surrounding towns and adjacent cities assume that the story of Sidney is the one that is on the news about a crime committed or even worse. The single story that I often hear about my hometown in no way reflects my experience living here. My experience living here has afforded me the chance to raise a family in a place where kids still ride bikes and play outside until dark. It is a place where going to the grocery means bumping into someone you know and are happy to see. This is not to suggest that Sidney is crime free or conflict free. However, the imbalance between the story assigned and reality lived caused me a good amount of frustration and made me incredibly curious about searching for other disparities between the story assigned and the experience underneath. I shared this curiosity with my students.
The SHS class of 2019 spent some time exploring the danger of a single story and graduated with a renewed sense to humanize their peers. By the time students reach their senior year they are keenly aware of the story that has been assigned to them. One student shared that after he made a pretty big mistake in junior high, most people wrote him off. His single story was one of failure. People stopped seeing the overlapping stories that actually made up his experience- he was a brother and son, had successfully held the same part time job throughout high school, and even taught himself how to record music. His experiences did not match his single story, but the single story he was assigned weighed heavily on him. He couldn’t get people to see anything else.
Another student shared that the single story people assigned him was about the worst game he ever had. He admitted that he lost his temper and the fans got the best of him, yet he couldn’t reconcile how every other good game he ever played was cancelled because of one bad one. It affected the way he approached people. It changed the way he looked at the world.
Other students shared their experiences of being assigned the single story of an athlete, musician, or a scholar. While these roles made up a part of their identity, they felt limited by the label as their life experiences were much more nuanced. It didn’t take long for the conversation in the classroom to shift from what story is assigned to us to the consideration that, perhaps, we are guilty of assigning a single story to others. All felt that this investigation was of equal importance. We wanted to try to understand the many attributes that comprise a person rather than settling for the assigned story. We spent time reading, writing, and exploring ideas in conversation and came away with several points to remember.
Most people are better than their worst day or biggest mistake.
It is impossible to know someone else’s story if we are not willing to invest the time in them to let them tell it.
There is no single story that can do any other person justice.
My hope is that as the class of 2019 begins their next chapter they keep these take-aways in mind and keep searching for the truth about others. I hope they have the courage to share their many overlapping stories and experiences when others try to assign a single story to them. There is no danger in being open to learning more about each other. The danger only exists if we refuse. I hope they can inspire others to consider that there is always more to the story.
Sara Olding is a teacher, writer, and mother. She lives in Sidney with her husband Bryan and their children Grace, Genevieve and CJ Olding. This fall she will continue her work with the Ohio Writing Project through Miami University.