Zinovia Canale is the English Department Chair at Rogers High School, Newport RI, and has been teaching for thirty years. She is currently enrolled in the Masters Program in English at the University of Rhode Island.
I’m one of those teachers with whom high school kids like to hang around. They like to tell me about their problems and they like to listen to my stories, especially when I share my human side of being a parent who yells at her kids to get up, to get off the “machines,” and to get their work done. When they hear stories about my love for The Grateful Dead and the fact that I still go to concerts with my deadhead husband to catch Bob Weir and Phil Lesh they nod in approval.
I’ve also been able to amuse my students with my dance of the “chicken noodle soup,” appreciation of the art of the rap (writing one is more difficult than one imagines), and my enjoyment of Beyonce, and Rihanna. I’m great at picking up new dance steps and am always open to learning new moves. I have a good time listening to my students’ jokes, learning their language, and trying to understand the dilemmas of their world, especially those kids of the “down-trodden,” I say with trepidation.
In fact, forgive me for labeling a group as the “down-trodden” which sounds so snobbish and evokes such an attitude of superiority. Yet, to ignore the truths about the conditions with which some of these kids live is to ignore the truth about their hearts, minds, and souls and as an English teacher there is where I want to reach. I can’t bring them into a more expansive world of literature if I do not meet them where they reside-emotionally, physically, and socially.
I’ve had the good fortune of being raised by hard-working, responsible, God-fearing parents who provided great meals, financial support, and clear guidelines and parameters. I lived within the confines of the American dream, trusted it, and gained relative success and comfort as a result of its beliefs. Therefore, all of the ingredients required to foster a desire, a love, and an appreciation of literature and reading were provided and nurtured.
I sat at the knees of my immigrant mother surrounded by my two brothers and two sisters and listened to her tell stories both fictional and non-fictional. Her journey to America was intriguing-sad and hopeful and my mother did not spare the details as she recounted them in a combination of Greek and English. And on Sundays, when my father was off for a portion of the day (he owned a bar geared toward entertaining the young navy guys) we sat at the kitchen table with my grandparents and heard stories about the wars, the politics of the day, and the happenings of the village over in Greece. Music played and it was not unusual to hear choruses singing along. Ours was a verbal family, not always peaceful and calm. In fact, quite often it was loud, emotional and dramatic a family of stories and sounds.
Just like I could never live without food or music, I could never live without stories-my passion, my sustenance, my dreams, my hopes, and my world. The moment I stepped into my first classroom thirty years ago, I knew I had to find a way to bundle and wrap this gift to be unwrapped in daily prizes like nuggets of the sweetest chocolate to be savored and enjoyed by the most resistant students. When I realized that not everyone loves chocolate, I learned that sometimes individuals hide their desires and that oftentimes stories are hidden within them.
Stories live everywhere and when one reaches inside or mutually collaborates with someone to get inside, builds a relationship with that person, establishes trust, then connections begin to develop. The desire to connect to strangers such as Steinbeck, Morrison, Shakespeare, McCourt, Austen, and Angelou to name a few becomes less threatening. Instead, the realization that these strangers are also living hearts, souls and minds is apparent. The difference lies in the fact that they have had the inclination to write their stories. If we choose to visit with them for moments in time by reading their work, than perhaps, we too may discover a story to think about, to tell, to write or to simply enjoy.