If I were to write my autobiography, I'd need to devote at least three chapters to how I spent approximately 18.4 months of this past year (I'm a grammar teacher, not a math whiz, people) starring in the roles of editor and proofreader for my kids' homework papers.
For most of my kids' lives, I have been their only teacher but, the past few years, we have added in online classes for them. This became a necessity just about the time I began teaching higher maths and sciences to my eldest son. Also known as the time when, forced to choose between that pursuit and the option of being repeatedly stabbed in the eyeballs with a toothpick, I would have told you that x and y need to stop playing passive-aggressive games. Do they want to be found? Why, exactly, do they keep hiding? Now pass the toothpick.
Since my kids now have other teachers reading their words, I am brain-deep into the phase of Motherhood Life known as Checking Their Homework. It's as much a joy as it sounds.
While proofreading a recent paper (and please, take a moment of sympathy here for my poor kids who have to deal with a grammar teacher checking their work. It's as much a joy as it sounds), I realized that the kid who was writing an essay about the events of September 11, 2001 had no actual memory of the day. He had, in fact, not even been alive then. So the essay, while factually correct and grammatically intact, did not capture the emotions for me, a person who had experienced that day in all of its panic and horror.
It did not recall the confusion I felt when, that blue-skied morning, I was gathering my two very young kiddos to board a plane for upstate New York. It did not recall the uncomprehending horror I felt as I watched, on live TV, a huge jet slamming into a skyscraper full of everyday people. It did not recall how my flight home that day was immediately canceled and how, instead, my parents and I huddled in front of the news, none of us able to turn away from the unfolding tragedy. It did not recall how, as news reports came in of other explosions, other planes plummeting to the ground, we wondered what was next. We felt the breath squeeze from our bodies as we could not imagine what sort of attack our assumed-to-be-safe country was under.
As I read the facts of the essay, I realized how, over years and decades, other people must have felt the same as I. How they read the factual accounts of those horrific hours on the beaches of Normandy and knew it did not capture their experience on those blood-saturated sands at all. How others read the stories of innocents slaughtered around them in genocides and death camps and shook their heads at what a tiny glimpse of their own firsthand tales those stories provided. How I, currently situated in my warm American home, continue to take in the story of refugees fleeing their lands, their own babies being torn from their white-hot grasps. Even in my shock and tears over their plight, what a tiny corner of the story's landscape I actually see.
But this limited viewpoint isn't just restricted to the big events, the larger terror of the world around us. It happens even in the daily conversations, the small moments, the short texts and the typed-out Facebook comments. We don't know anyone's full story. All we know is the facts, and sometimes, not even those.
We don't know the broken heart behind the snarky comment.
We don't know the insecurity behind the backhanded compliment.
We don't know the years of suffered abuse hidden behind the eyes that don't smile.
We don't know the desire to self-harm behind the face of someone who appears to have it all together.
Sometimes, over months and through the slow-growing roots of trust, we will learn each other's real stories. We will learn the pieces that make up the whole. Yet even then, the worn cliche of walking in another's shoes can never capture it all: We may try on their shoes for a moment, for an hour, but we don't inhabit their feet, with all of the weariness and weight and miles they have carried.
Let's put down our assumptions and pick up the practice of being safe story-keepers. Let's be the ones who are willing to look behind the social media data, to know the flesh on the factual skeleton of the tale. Let's not be listeners who read between the lines for hurtful intent or for ways we can make the tale about ourselves, but true story-capturers who hear with our eyes, our hearts, and who then allow that story to change us.
Let us never forget how little we really know of another's journey and let us be safe vessels for another's story, fellow travelers who will walk their road with them.
"...grant that I may not so much seek...to be understood as to understand." Prayer of St. Francis