The Stories We Must Tell

When he was five, LeRoy (a pseudonym) fell out of a tree. His broken arm was badly set; gangrene set in. After three years in the hospital, LeRoy returned to school. "From the elbow down, LeRoy's forearm was smaller, discolored, thin," writes Ray Simmers-Wolpow. "A stub, three fingers, and a flap was his left hand." He could not read.

head, book, alphabet

His classmates teased and ridiculed him. Some kid made fun of me and I just beat the shit out of him, he told Simmers-Wolpow. I mean, I didn't quit. I was like a madman.

But he was powerless when his teachers, unintentionally, also humiliated him:

All the desks were bolted down and everybody had their own little seat. In the back of the room there was one rectangular table. Whenever it was time to do anything like reading, I was sent to that back table. Oftentimes I was the only one that was sent back there.

In time, LeRoy realized if I didn't read and said this was because I thought school and reading was stupid, I could be cool.

Simmers-Wolpow, a doctoral student in Penn State's College of Education, tells the story of LeRoy, now an exceptional fourth-grade teacher, to link two unconventional partners: trauma and literacy.

He also tells the story of another "teacher-survivor," Noemi:

We were in a cattle car. People were screaming all night long, the doors were locked from the outside. Suddenly my grandmother shouted, "Somebody wants to take my Shabbos candlesticks!" . . .

I said, "Grandma, don't worry about them, they are back home."

"No! No! No!" she said. "They're here, I have them."

She had taken them, somehow, under her three layers of skirts. She handed them to me and I tucked them away in her package of underwear and formula for my baby brother. . . .

We arrived at Auschwitz. By that time, she was in a daxe, out of her senses. She left her package in the cattle car. She didn't know who she was; she wasn't even asking for the candlesticks.

Noemi's grandmother, mother, sister, and baby brother all perished in Auschwitz. Of that life, she remembers,

Everybody was like a piece of wood. . . . The circumstances were so cruel, so below human existence, that we just lived from minute to minute forever. Tehre were no stories there. It was just a very hollow existence.

"What can we learn from extraordinary teacher-survivors," asks Simmers-Wolpow, "to improve our effectiveness with children who are not performing well in our classes because of the trauma in their lives? How might our understanding of recovery from trauma inform our pedagogy?"

Simmers-Wolpow brought to my office a sheaf of photographs of Noemi and her family, before and after Auschwitz. "Seeing the pictures takes the story out of the words," he said.

I handed him, in exchange, a clipping from Science News magazine.

While I pored over the photographs, the beautiful children, their sepia-tint smiles, the regal grandmother in a polka-dot dress of the same cloth as her daughter's, Simmers-Wolpow read of a recent psychiatric study of child sexual abuse conducted by Bessel A. Vander Kolk at Massachusetts General Hospital:

All participants reported remembering traumatic incidents in perceptual ways first and developing verbal accounts as time passed, van der Kolk argues. . . .

Post-traumatic stress disorder, a cluster of debilitating symptoms, occurred only in the six persons who could not make a coherent story out of perceptual elements. "Unfortunately, people seem to need to remember the details of their trauma to deal with it effectively," van der Kolk holds.

Simmers-Wolpow nodded, handed back the clipping. "I cite van der Kolk in my dissertation," he said.

He moved his chair forward. He is a large man—height 6'6", weight 230 lbs., in good health, according to his vita—who seemed to be trying to make himself smaller. He sat with his shoulders bent, hands between his knees, his head tilted slightly up, expectant—but there was a depth of humor in his eyes, and I realized, suddenly, that his pose was not unassuming, but accepting. He is 44, the father of two. He has been teaching since 1973. His "most rewarding teaching experience," he told me, was a year in Brooklyn, at the Eli Whitney Vocational High School, teaching remedial reading and math to inner-city kids. "I got to teach kids who very much wanted to read," he said softly. "'Which subway train do you get on?' 'How do you tell?'"

He has had ample experience of his students' trauma. "I've taught to the trauma that comes from racial hatred," he told me, "I've taught to the trauma that comes from sexual abuse." He defines trauma not colloquially (as did a New York Times reporter in a June 10 story, writing of "poverty and associated traumas like crime or drug abuse"), but clinically, citing The Language of Psycho-Analysis, in which trauma is "an event in the subject's life defined by its intensity, by the subject's incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the physical organization."

"It is important to remember," Simmers-Wolpow writes, "that 'traumatic' events are extraordinary not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life."

To recover from trauma, according to the psychoanalysts he cites, one must establish personal safety, one must "remember, mourn, and resolve the incident(s) of trauma," and one must "reconnect with a healthy supportive community." Critical to both stages two and three are what Simmers-Wolpow calls "acts of literacy"—reading, writing, or telling stories; keeping a journal; even prayer.

"I've always had a sense of this," he said, still leaning toward me, "but I never had the outside evidence to prove it."

"I'm an expert on how you teach reading," Simmers-Wolpow began. He smiled, looked down at my notebook. "That's 'expert' in quotes, of course." He went on.

"I know how to teach reading, but I didn't know how to convince kids they should learn to read. Why should they tap into that community of story written by dead old men?"

He devised a class project. He was teaching in a rural school in Washington state. His students, high-schoolers, were to write their "reading autobiographies," short essays on why they do—or don't—like to read. "Then I asked them to find an elder—the Native American kids in the class understood that right away, that an elder is someone at least a generation older who values not only knowledge, but wisdom." The students interviewed the elders and wrote the elders' reading biographies. "Then the synthesis: what their own experience of reading was, what value reading had for the elders, the basis on which we understand reading."

Simmers-Wolpow repeated the assignment with college students at Western Washington University (where he has since accepted the post of assistant professor).

"A lot of kids wrote about trauma in their lives—child abuse, alcoholism." When responding to the prompt on his worksheet that asked if they had had a favorite book as an adolescent, the students often cited "a book about overcoming some trial," Simmers-Wolpow said.

In 1993 Simmers-Wolpow, who had won the 1990 Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Education from the State of Washington, came to Penn State "with these 500 stories of why people value reading, of people saying, 'This makes a difference in my life.'"

"My decision to return to school for a Ph.D.," he explained to me in an e-mail message after our interview, "was influenced most by Dr. Eunice Askov here at Penn State, who, after hearing my presentation at the American Reading Forum (that's the paper I dropped off to you yesterday), encouraged me to study qualitative analysis with Professors Jamie Myers, Lois M. Campbell, and William G. Tierney. . . .

"Please remember that I had been gathering biographies for five years, and I had a lot of data, many great stories, but I didn't know what I should be doing with them. Dr. Askov directed me to those who knew."

Simmers-Wolpow and his research adviser, assistant professor Lois M. Campbell, are now in the process of writing about their experience of structuring a formal study around the 500 reading biographies he had collected. Simmers-Wolpow smiled sheepishly. "Dr. Campbell said, 'For a quantitative study an n of 500 isn't high. For a qualitative study, you want maybe two, maybe three—'" From the 500, he chose to examine, qualitatively, the reading lives of three elders: LeRoy, Noemi, and Miriam, whose story he is just beginning to flesh out with interviews and observations as he has done for Noemi and LeRoy.

"Where does teaching begin and therapy end?" he asked. "I don't have the answer."

But he had also noted earlier in our conversation that "school is a place where adults can model a safe environment," a place where a traumatized child can begin the recovery process. "Some kids in my high-school reading class didn't do a thing for weeks," he said, "and that was okay. They were learning that my room was a safe place."

LeRoy was once a kid like that, looking for a safe place. Driven to being "cool," he became a jock, "hung out with a gang of local hoods, worked at a gas station for spending money, and found girlfriends to write his papers." He stole cars, got into fights, but, he told Simmers-Wolpow, never really got into trouble. . . . It took me a while to figure it out. It was pity.

"By a freak of happenstance," Simmers-Wolpow said, "he ends up at a university." Had I known more about college, I probably wouldn't have enrolled, LeRoy said. After all, I couldn't read. "He couldn't even read the tests," Simmers-Wolpow added. "But the university environment was one where he was treated with respect." To avoid being forced to leave, he taught himself to read. When the guys went out to party, around 7:00 p.m., I took my dictionary, my 900-page copy of Burn's History of Civilization and a thermos of coffee and . . . I'd hide in an old speech therapy room. . . . I'd spend hours and hours on just one word. In a year, he could read.

"It doesn't take 12 years to teach someone to read at a high-school level," remarked Simmers-Wolpow. "The eureka can come at any time."

LeRoy now teaches fourth and fifth grade. "He's good at dealing with kids who are going through tough times," said Simmers-Wolpow. One student, given the pseudonym "Herman" in Simmers-Wolpow's account, spent the first month of class out in the hall in what LeRoy called "the vertical fetal position": his head on his knees, squatting against the wall, his long hair over his face so you couldn't see him. It was as if he just disappeared.

Through stories, LeRoy reaches the Hermans in his class.

"If you could see LeRoy teach," added Simmers-Wolpow, "you'd do anything you could to get your own kid in his class. He reads to them. He reads these stories—

"Let me describe how he does this. It's wonderful—"

Simmers-Wolpow has told this story before, of the day he watched LeRoy read. He's also written the story down:

The one o'clock bell sounds and LeRoy asks his students to help him "set up for reading." Twenty-seven fourth-graders move in apparently predetermined directions. One student [closes] . . . the venetian blinds. Another turns out the overhead lights while several other students move pillows and cushions from their chairs to the corner closest to their teacher's desk. Here seven or eight students arrange LeRoy's seat and several other chairs in a semicircle. The students with pillows snuggle in to complete a circle, illuminated solely by a 40-watt bulb in an orange gooseneck lamp. LeRoy sits directly under the light and one student hands him a copy of Gary Paulsen's Dog Song. Five or six students also have copies of the book and are squirreled in close to the light and their teacher.

Not all the students are in the circle, however, Three students remain within hearing range at their desks, a fourth in an easy-chair about 15 feet away. . . .The room is quiet except for the squirming noises of one of the boys seated at his desk. LeRoy acknowledges this boy, but says nothing about the squirming.

LeRoy asks the boy seated next to him, "Brent, do you still have that picture you showed me this morning?" Brent nods yes, and LeRoy asks him to get it. The teacher addresses the class as a whole: "While Brent is looking for the picture, can someone tell me what was going on when we last read from this book?" The anticipation is obviously too much. A dozen hands rise into the air.

LeRoy calls on the boy with a looney-Tunes-Tasmanian-Devil on the back of his Miami Hurricane sweatshirt.

"There's a man in a really bad blizzard. And he's trying to get food and fuel to his wife and babies who are home freezing and starving to death. But the storm is too tough for his dog team and him."

"Right! So, tell me class, what is the mood? How does it feel? What do you think might happen?"

A girl in green sweats raises her hand and, when called upon, says: "I'm afraid they're all going to die." Several students nod their heads affirming her thoughts.

LeRoy's voice drops slightly in pitch with each word: "So what does it mean when the author says, 'his head went down . . . down . . . down.'" No student volunteers an answer. LeRoy continues: "It's 30 below zero. He's run his dogs ragged. Can a man exist in this country without his dogs?"

The class responds in unison: "No."

"His family is back home, two babies and a mother. They've eaten all their leather clothing. What needs to happen?"

LeRoy calls on one of the many students with hands raised, and she answers, "Their dad needs to get home with the food and fuel."

"When?"

"Now!"

"Yes. Now! This is very unforgiving country. It's tough to live where it is this cold." LeRoy puts his hand directly under the reading light and fingers an imaginary object. "One more question. . . . What was the mom fingering?"

Once again the class answers in unison: "A strangulation cord."

"And why haven't they eaten this cord? What is she going to do with it?"

The students struggle with the unimaginable. Finally Herman answers: "She's going to kill her own babies to keep them from suffering." This answer is followed by an agonizingly long silence. LeRoy silently nods his head and then starts reading.

Minutes later, the boy who has been squirming at his desk falls off his chair. LeRoy seems to be the only one to notice. This veteran teacher looks over his spectacles to check for injury. Finding none, LeRoy continues to read the passage about the Eskimo father, his exhausted team of dogs, and the deadly blizzard.

Soon LeRoy stops and asks Brent to show the class his picture. Into the light, Brent proudly lifts a photograph of a man in a thick-hooded parka leaning into the wind of a blinding snowstorm. Even the boy in the easy chair gets up for a better view.

"How many of you have ever been in a storm like this?" LeRoy asks. No one has. "Please close your eyes and imagine yourself in that storm. The wind is cold, very cold. Can you hear it howling? The snow if falling so fast that you can't even see your hand a foot in front of your face. Bundle up now. . ."

Said Simmers-Wolpow, "He just totally wraps them up in that story. They're transfixed.

"He likes to pick things to read that are hard to grasp because they're otherworldly, they're from cultures other than the one that they're growing up in. 'There are Hittites!' he says. 'What's a Hittite? There's the Yukon! Can people live there?'

"When he's reading to them, he says, 'When I first learned to read, I discovered there was a whole world out there.'

"Traumatized people tend to narrow their environments," Simmers-Wolpow continued. "They make their worlds so small that they can't step out of them.

"LeRoy turns these kids on to literature by saying, 'Here are things you can discover.'

"And then they write stories, as if they were the author they've been reading. He takes a theme—But of course the kids' lives sneak into the characters that they're writing about."

There's a famous Chekhov story, called in translation "Heartache," or "Misery," a very short story of the driver of a horse-drawn cab in 19th-century St. Petersburg, at night, in the snow. The epigraph, which one translation footnotes as coming from an old Russian folksong, reads: To whom shall I tell my sorrow?

Kuzma Ionitch, the cabbie's son, has died. The cab driver tries to tell his fare, but:

"Drive on! Drive on!" says the officer. "We shan't get there till tomorrow going on like this. Hurry up!"

The sledge driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen.

Three raucous young men, one a hunchback, next hire the cab. Iona the cabbie tries again.

"We shall all die," says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. "Come, drive on! Drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this!"

They swear, they make drunken threats, yet when Iona drops them at their door, he gazes after them for a long time.

Again he is alone and again there is silence for him. The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona's eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery. His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona's heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen.

He returns to the cab yard, but all are asleep.

He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather. He cannot think about his son when he is alone. To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish.

"Are you munching?" Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. "There, munch away, munch away. Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay. Yes, I have grown too old to drive. My son ought to be driving, not I. He was a real cabman. He ought to have lived."

Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on. "That's how it is, old girl. Kuzma Ionitch is gone. . . ."

Noemi has the diary her father kept when he returned from a Nazi forced-labor camp at the end of the war and found his family had been sent to Auschwitz.

Every night I dream about what has happened to you. I can find comfort only in remembering.

I remember seeing Anyu [Noemi's mother] at the Shabbos table. She is reading in a very quiet atmosphere after dinner. And then, Noemi, I see you sitting opposite me. While you are reading, you are combing your hair. I also see little Elizabeth sitting next to you. We are family, and we are very much in love as we do our reading.

Said Noemi to Simmers-Wolpow:

As I [now] read [my father's] words, the whole picture comes back to me. Before [we lighted the candles] every individual was immersed in his own world. . . . But then the ceremonies began, the blessings and prayers, our dinner and our reading.

I remember the mutual agreement and shared enjoyment, the quiet trust in each other and love as we sat honoring each other's privacy. . . . Our family together quietly reading, was in itself a strength, a unity, a harmony. And we were not alone. It was not isolation. It was not routine. It was a celebration. It was a quiet way to show love and to enjoy each other.

The last time Simmers-Wolpow visited Noemi, he told me, she found a "testimony" she had given to an archivist at the University of Washington eight years earlier. "In terms of the stages of recovery from trauma," he said, "you can clearly see she's done a much better job of telling her story. You can see she's moved from stage two"—remembering, mourning, and resolving—"to stage three," reconnecting with the community. "That's why she goes out to talk to kids."

Simmers-Wolpow watched her lecture a group of middle-school students. "That's your toughest audience," he said. "They were absolutely riveted.

"Here's this frail 71-year-old woman. She starts out, 'There are many reasons I am coming to talk with you.'" Her talk should be "like a stop sign" to them, so that they can see the evil even "a little bit of prejudice" can lead to.

"'People are saying the Holocaust didn't happen,' she tells them, 'but my loved ones are gone. I'm here to ask you, if what they're saying is true, what happened to my loved ones?

"'And I am coming,' she says, 'because it's healing for me to tell you. In telling you about them, I get to remember them and be close to them, and they'll be in your memories as well as in mine.' And with that, she's got them. She tells her story.

"The kids ask the most wonderful questions," Simmers-Wolpow said. "'Why were you embarrassed about wearing a yellow star? Weren't you proud to be Jewish?'

"So she explains. She's a teacher."

As Simmers-Wolpow was leaving my office, I handed him the book of Chekhov stories, opened to "Heartache."

"You should read this," I said.

He nodded, glanced at the epigraph: To whom shall I tell my sorrow? "Thank you," he said, tucking the book under his arm, "I will."

Ray Simmers-Wolpow is a doctoral student in language and literacy education, College of Education, Penn State University, University Park PA 16802; 814-865-2526. His research adviser, Lois M. Campbell, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the department; 865-6568. Eunice Askov, Ph.D., is professor of education and director of the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy; 863-3777. "Heartache" was quoted from Short Stories by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett (Macmillan, 1928), in which it is titled "Misery."

Last Updated December 01, 2004