A universal narrative

If we could read the secret lives of our enemies,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “we could disarm all hostility.” At Williams, hopefully none of us are enemies, but barriers between us still exist. We focus in on our homework and our busy lives and often miss opportunities for connection.

Over the last five semesters, the three of us have been privileged to organize Storytime, a story-sharing gathering that occurs upstairs in Paresky for a half-hour on Sunday nights. A typical crowd – usually around 40-100 students – takes a break to listen to a fellow Eph tell a story from his or her life, one that is personal and matters to him or her.

Sixty stories later, we continue to be amazed every single Sunday. The stories are funny and sad and inspiring and real. People talk about their families, their hometowns, their sexuality, anything. We pass around cookies, always the speaker’s favorite, as another thing to share with the community. Afterward, the speaker hangs around, and 15 to 20 people will come up, ask questions, hug, support. Speakers have told us that they later get e-mails from people with similar experiences or from others expressing simple appreciation.

On the whole, Storytime has surprised us. We could list a dozen reasons why people at Williams wouldn’t be interested in listening or telling their stories. Who wants to listen to someone natter on about themselves? Isn’t it just depressing when people tell sad stories? Every story, no matter how foreign, illuminates elements of the listener’s own life. Even in the hardest moments, there’s often humor and hope – much like reality.

At the beginning, we had no idea how people would react – would only the same 10 people show up? Would no one show up? Would no one want to tell their story? – and have been consistently amazed by the number of listeners showing up week after week. The crowd is never the same. The courage of the speakers to share things they’ve sometimes never told anyone at Williams is a constant and humbling surprise.

Often, when speakers describe to us what they want to say, they tell us that they’ve never told anyone because, “I don’t know; it just never came up.” It’s an opportunity to push beyond the usual limits of conversation. Sometimes the most surprising moments are small, like hearing that a friend has a sister. It’s knowing the size of someone’s family or sharing a defining moment that deepen relationships. Many of our speakers have said that Storytime is the perfect opportunity to share things about themselves that they never felt they could bring up elsewhere.

We have always resisted characterizing Storytime as a “performance” or a “speech” because it’s a community event, a dialogue. In a play, or even in a publication, information is presented and packaged to an anonymous audience. With Storytime, the connection with the listeners gives meaning to the process. Only one person speaks for the half-hour, but the real value is putting the story out there, into the fabric of the community.

Knowledge of speakers’ lives gets incorporated into our Williams experience. Not only do you know the name of a person you pass on your way to class, or their job title, or what sport they play or who their friends are, but also what challenges they’ve faced and some of their deeper experiences. Understanding others’ stories helps us to feel at home here; to, in Longfellow’s words, “disarm hostility.” After seeing 60 of these, we have learned, over and over again, that everyone must have a story.

Williams has been a wonderful self-contained community in which we can practice sharing with, listening to and learning from one another. As we prepare to leave cozy Williamstown and enter the wider world, the knowledge that everyone has a story will follow us. We have been lucky to have the opportunity to learn from every corner of this place, not only in the classroom.

Jay Cox-Chapman ’09 is an American studies major from Hartford, Conn. Rachel Ko ’09 is a history and practice major from Taipei, Taiwan. Sarah Moore ’09 is an American studies major from San Marino, Calif.