Real people

Real people

Clarissa P. Green
1996 3M Teaching Fellow

n the first act of the play, Peter Pan, Wendy asks Peter why he comes to their nursery window. “I come for the stories,” he answers. “I want to hear the stories …. ” For Peter, the stories that Wendy’s mother tells at bedtime offer him a view of life beyond Neverland.

Like Wendy’s mother, I tell stories to invite students to enter someone else’s life for a while. The difference between me and Wendy’s mother is that the stories I tell aren’t fairy stories; they are real, drawn from experiences similar to the people my students will know during their careers as health care workers. Illness, after all, can be seen as a chapter in the life of a family, an experience with a beginning, middle and end, that tucks itself into the longer story of the family’s life together. Often I bring people living with serious illness into the classroom to tell their story in person.

For years my students have revealed, on course evaluations, teacher evaluations, and in conversation, the power of stories in their learning. Whether the stories emerge through film, live interview, written narrative or anecdotes swapped in a small group, the stories stay with them. Stories, they tell me, build bridges, link theory to life, create images that resonate, bring out the personal in the academic, help them know their place in someone’s illness experience. They remember the stories, especially the live ones that occur in class, for a long time.

Several years after a live in-class interview with a family in which the wife/mother was dying of breast cancer, I ran into a former student “Clarissa,” she said, “what happened to the woman with breast cancer you interviewed in class? To her children? I still think about that morning. My mother died of breast cancer two years before I was at u BC. I wish I had lmown how to talk with a really sick person. I work in oncology because of what that woman told us.” Dean Dorothy Smith at the University of Florida brought “real people” into her classroom, too. As a young undergraduate, I initially found this teaching strategy reprehensible. She told us her interviews were to “make concepts come alive,” and indeed they did. But I was convinced the patients had been coerced or manipulated into appearing on a large stage in front of 130 first-year students. The day she wheeled into the lecture hall an IV pole and gurney on which lay a sixty-year-old man dying of kidney failure, I stomped up to the Dean after class.

“You can’t do that! It’s cruel to interview someone who’s dying!” I tossed to her.

“I can’t?” she asked. “Why not?”

“Because it’s rude. It’s insensitive. He doesn’t want to talk in front of roo people. He’s dying. He wants to be left alone.”

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“No one wants to talk in front of an audience when they’re dying!”

“Are you sure?” she asked again. “Would you like to ask him?”

Within an hour I sat by the bed of this man, and it was my turn to ask him questions about what it was like to tell his story when he was so sick. He looked at me for a long time, and then smiled and said, to my amazement, “It was wonderful. Too few people are courageous enough to ask what being sick is like. Thanks to your teacher,” he said, “I got to talk to all of you, to tell my story, which right now is about dying. What a gift! And look, here you are … perhaps you will be one of those who grows enough courage to ask rather than silence people who are very ill.”

Because of my experience with that dying man, when I began teaching a course on the family’s experience of illness at UBC, I decided to do what Dean Smith had done, bring theory to life through the stories of live people in the classroom. Like her I would assign reading material that would create a context within which to “place” the story. I would do more, however. I would ask families if they would allow the students, too, to ask questions. I wanted to extend the power of the live story beyond linking theory with human beings’ lives; I wanted to reveal to students what I had learned from the sixty-year-old man. In my twenty-five years of interviewing families in class, no family has refused to entertain students’ questions and worries. Many families have insisted on talking directly with the students and not just with me. Often a student has voiced the same worry I did in Dean Smith’s class: “Don’t you find this embarrassing? Intrusive?” they have asked angrily. Families have said to these students what the sixty-year-old man said to me.

“This is an honour.”

“Telling our story to all of you, even though it’s a hard one, is healing. Too few people ask. Talking with you is healing.”

“I think every family with a child with osteosarcoma should have this opportunity.” One young child said, “This has been awesome. Usually everyone’s talking about my brother, because he’s the one with cancer. But today I got to talk, too.”