Once upon a time when I was a sophomore in college, I went to visit my friend Zach at his school outside of Chattanooga. It was a good trip, I’m sure. But the thing I remember most was the audio book I listened to as I made the 6.5 hour drive–A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, by Donald Miller. The book blew my mind and turned me upside down in the best way possible. The central idea of the book is the concept of life as story. The idea is that the same things that make a good story (obstacles overcome, connections forged, character transformation) make a good life. The book ultimately forces you to ask the question, are you living a good story? As Miller says:
If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.
For me–a little girl who grew up reading multiple books a day, a grown woman who often wishes she still could–this way of seeing the world was powerful and challenging. I believe that God gave us the Bible which is, at it’s heart, a great big beautiful story. And God’s been writing us into the story ever since, our lives twisting and interconnecting in different subplots, breaking his heart and bringing him joy. Ever since that day on I-59 in my Toyota Camry, I’ve often asked myself if I really think I’m living a good story. Lots of times, the answer has been no. But that question has pushed me towards a better life, challenging me to take risks, to make hard choices, to reconcile, to love better.
I’m a type A first born who loves a good list, but I’m learning that living a good story isn’t a checklist. David and I will be living deep into this idea our whole lives, constantly having to adjust course, to ask for grace, to better our story. But this whole concept of story isn’t just about personal reflection or self-improvement. Later in A Million Miles, Miller writes:
[God] said to me I was a tree in a story about a forest, and that it was arrogant of me to believe any differently. And he told me the story of the forest is better than the story of the tree… I sat by the fire until the sun came up; and asked God to help me understand the story of the forest and what it meant to be a tree in that story.
Our story is a subplot in a bigger story. As I’ve thought about over the past couple of years I’ve come to strongly believe that a huge part of telling a good story with your life is working to ensure that others get a chance to tell a good story with theirs.
Because, in our broken and unjust world, some people don’t get a chance to tell their stories. The stories might be fantastic, but there’s no opportunity for them to share them. A huge lie that’s told to people who have been historically marginalized is: “Your story doesn’t matter.” In prison? Your story doesn’t matter. Sex slave? Your story doesn’t matter. Homeless? Your story doesn’t matter. Immigrant? Your story doesn’t matter. As we look back on history we see storytelling as a powerful force for justice for marginalized people groups. There are people who have been born into privilege who are using that privilege to loudly advocate for people who are traditionally marginalized. Photographers, writers, movie makers. People who are making sure that the stories of the marginalized don’t go untold. This is good work, brave work, important work. The kind of work that makes for such a great story.
I’m a teacher, so lately I’ve been thinking about where my kids fit into this concept. And I realized that it’s not just sex slaves in Greece or homeless people in New York City who are bombarded with this message of worthlessness. As a teacher in a school that’s considered high poverty, there are kids in my very own classroom who are being told lies. Your mom didn’t go to college? Your story doesn’t matter. You’re poor? Your story doesn’t matter. Your dad’s in jail? Your school doesn’t have Macbooks for every kid? You don’t have heat in the winter? Your story doesn’t matter.
Those are lies. If I’ve learning anything over these past two years of doing life with the kids I teach it’s that their stories are precious, deserving of being told. But I don’t think I need to be the one to tell them. Advocacy is powerful, but agency even more so. I don’t want to make a movie about my kids or write a book about them. I want them to write the books, make the movies, take the pictures. I want them to know deep down at the core that they were created in God’s image, that their story matters and should be shared–that they are capable of telling it beautifully.
In planning for my classroom next year, I knew I wanted to do some kind of photography project. After a little more thinking and dreaming, I decided that I want kids in my classroom to take pictures that represent themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, their hopes and dreams. I want them to write about the photos they take. Reading and writing will be an integral part of the unit. And then, at the end, I want my students to exhibit their photography + writing in some avenue.
Cameras and film are expensive, so I created a DonorsChoose project to fund part of the project. It’s called “A Thousand Words: Literacy through Photography.” If any of you are interested in helping my kids tell their stories, here’s the link. All donations are tax deductible and (if you leave your name) come with a thank you note from the class (which I think the people who helped with my book project would say that’s well worth the cost). Edit to add: thanks to some generous private donors + The Barksdale Foundation, this project is fully funded! I’m shocked and so thankful. If you’d still like to help my kids tell good stories, anything on this list is appreciated (especially the composition books… and the chess documentary… and the book Wonder… :) ).
And if you haven’t read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, pick it up. You’ll start to find that question slowly bubbling to the surface, whispers in your ear asking, am I living a good story? It’s an uncomfortable question. But embrace it. Wrestle with it. Learn from it. I think you’ll be glad you did.