The Story After the Story

By Mary Jane Berger, OSB
English Department

I went over to Country Manor that morning for viewing of the body before the funeral services. I wasn't sure I could stay for the funeral because of other commitments. I made my way to the chapel, and as I was looking at the people near the door, I saw a woman I thought I recognized. We kept looking at one another, and then looking away, trying to remember. Slowly, she moved toward me and asked if I remembered her. Suddenly I knew her name, "Yes, you are Helen." We had met before because of our mutual volunteerism at Woman House. This woman is Bernard's daughter! Can you believe it? She told me she visited her Dad weekly but had never met Marc before. On Sunday she was there when Bernard died, and so was MARC!! I can hardly breathe thinking of the beauty of that timing. God is utterly unreal at times! And so the connections continue . . . remembering, logging, and reflecting combine to weave a spidery web of the most memorable teaching semester of my career.
The course was entitled "Writing Lives: Partnering With the Community." The student membership consisted of fifteen students that first day. Among the students was a non-traditional student named Marc. Marc was to become an influential student in this particular class because he had spent some years of his adult life in hospice work--- and because he was partnered with Bernard. Marc and Bernard became fast friends, even though Bernard insisted that he was sure he did not have enough stories to tell.
Several other factors attributed to this career highlight. I was launching an entirely new and risky experiential class I had never taught before. I knew next to nothing about gerontology, nursing/care facilities in Minnesota, ageism, long-term care facilities, the Eden Alternative, aging in place, or retirement agencies. To offset my fear about the lack of knowledge, however, I knew about resources both in personnel, through the service learning office, and in the literature. With the aid of many capable people including the volunteer coordinator at Country Manor, Nancy Thomes, and the Service Learning Coordinator at CSB/SJU, Cindy Pederson, we drew up a plan to call upon community agencies that could facilitate the learning in this class. We invited an ombudsperson who works to enhance the quality of care and life for the elderly receiving health care services. This ombudswoman for the elderly introduced ways we could become more sensitive to the life and needs of our older citizens. For a day the class and I walked around with popcorn in our shoes, Vaseline on our glasses, a sling holding one arm still, or cotton in our ears. By noon, I was emailing students to tell them I could no longer stand the Vaseline on my glasses. Now, we could identify with the words of another elder who said:

Heard . . . If they only understood how important it is that we be heard! I can take
being in a nursing home. It's really all right, with a positive attitude. My daughter has
her hands full, three kids and a job. She visits regularly. I understand. But . . . most
people here, they just want to tell their story. That's what they have to give, don't you
see? And it's a precious thing to them. It's their life they want to give. You'd think
people would understand what it means to us . . . to give our lives in a story.

(Dass and Gorman 112-113)

Every week throughout the course, both the students and I studied, researched and
discussed the information we found, while they established relationships with the elderly they had befriended at Country Manor. After every visit the students posted a summary of what they had done during a visit or what they had discovered about the rich life of their newly forming friendship. These postings often held profound revelations for us all:

Perhaps, now more than ever, Joyce lives for the "little things." Shopping trips with her
daughter, wedding plans of her grand daughter, visits from her sons. My visits to the
Manor are another "little thing." Joyce looks forward to them as much as I do. We are
giving each other the opportunity to share ourselves, our stories, our purpose. Through
the "little things," Joyce is rolling up her sleeves and getting on with her life.


This biographer used her postings as the basis of a conversational manuscript, in the form of dialogue the two of them experienced throughout the weeks of the semester.
Another student posted these words near the end of the semester,

"We met for the last time and it actually was a little emotional. Wally caught me off guard with a few sentimental comments. We talked about death and we talked about life; I guess you could say we came full circle. I didn’t expect the reaction I got out of Wally."

 

Wally told his friends he could have filled another book with all his adventures on the railroad and wanted to be part of doing this project again the next year. Wally bought at least ten copies of Manor Memories for friends and family. Wally was very worried about his biographer who just graduated from SJU this spring. During the summer when Wally started feeling rather poorly, the volunteer coordinator and one of the nurses contacted his biographer. Therefore, when Erik sent a card wishing him well, Wally rallied. Unfortunately, however, Wally will not be part of our class this spring because God had other plans for him and called him home on October 29.
Bernard's biographer wrote the first week,

"He has lived at the Country Manor for

seventeen years. When asked how he's done with that, he leaned his head way back, smiled, and

said, "You accept things in life the way they are, not the way you wish they were."

Bernard and Marc became close friends. Bernard told Marc one day that he had never had a close male friend before. Their friendship was mutual:

Week after week we meet. Bernard talks about his life, while I listen. Occasionally I ask a question or prod him to go deeper into a memory. Slowly I have grown closer to him and have wondered why. What is drawing me to this old man? I find myself thinking of him as I listen to the radio or feed the birds or chat with my wife. Recently, as he shared a particularly painful memory and wiped tears from his eyes, I was stunned to feel tears running down my own cheeks. And yet I was at peace with our tears. Bernard wept because he hadn’t told his kids he loved them as they were growing up. Despite his desire to not be like his father, he had become his father. I was staring at his tears when I realized Bernard was the age my own father would have been, had he lived. And I was wishing my dad would have expressed his love for me, more often and earlier in my life. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, we come to where we began and we know it for the first time. Bernard brought me to that place.

One day, sometime after the book was completed, while Nancy was reading a section of Manor Memories to Bernard, he told her that he was glad to be involved in this project. He started thinking about things he had never thought about before, yet he knew these were things he really needed to think about before he died. Bernard died on a Sunday morning this October with his biographer and one of his daughter's at his side.
Amanda, a social work major, was partnered with a retired couple who provided a home for troubled girls. Sheri still visits her dear friend who once was an English teacher. They often converse about the computer woes Margaret has or play piano for Sheri's benefit. Katie and Jennifer have both written to their senior friends and plan to visit again this semester. As stated earlier, one key feature of Service Learning includes reflection. Many of the students from this class wrote the following words of wisdom:
I haven’t always appreciated them. This class provided a unique opportunity to reestablish my paradigms of the elderly. My partner and I have enriched each other’s lives.
Working one on one with the elderly provides great experience that simply can’t be learned through books.
The tragedy of living for 86 year without having had a close friend to share your stories with really struck me, and how crucial it is that our stories remain within us.
I feel like I have made a difference in someone’s life. I have the opportunity to “keep history alive” and I even made a new friend out of the deal. I will always remember this experience.
It made me think about various feelings and attitudes and how they have changed since doing this project.
This really was an excellent program – more than the students, the residents really benefited – we gave many of them something to look forward and live for.
Service Learning is the most recent manifestation of experiential education. Of course, experiential education is not a new idea, but some form of it surfaces occasionally through the cycles of education. In fact, experiential education can trace its roots to a Greek scholar named Isocrates. Isocrates was the first teacher who invited small groups of students to learn with him under a trilogy of talent, education, and practice. He called his complex training program the "gymnastics of the mind" and is credited with training a host of the finest rhetoricians among his contemporaries. Roman educators adapted this Isocratean ideal of education but over time subsumed the Sophist's name (Marrou 79). Therefore many educators have not heard of Isocrates.
Whether or not early twentieth century American educator, John Dewey, ever heard of
Isocrates, he promoted experiential learning under the umbrella of progressive education . "Students must be given a more active role in the life of the school, and that life itself needed to have more relation to the life of the 'outside world'" (Applebee 64). And now, once again, since 1985 and into the Twenty First century, experiential education has surfaced in the form of service learning.
What is Service Learning? In my mind it is classroom learning enhanced by the component of service. How does one mix theory and praxis has been the age-old question, debated ad infinitum by educators century after century. Isocrates debated with his contemporaries Plato and Gorgias that a student must imitate and follow a model in the process of learning; John Dewey debated with his contemporaries that progressive education is fueled through active participation in one's education. And now, we have students writing, " I know it is not feasible, but this course (or one like it) should become required."
I am not so sure a service learning component should be required, but as a practitioner who believes that theory cannot be totally understood without praxis, I too, have become a proponent of Service Learning education. When reflecting upon the kind of service students have given to the elderly at Country Manor, and seeing the reciprocal benefits to students, I am sure Service Learning becomes a matter of justice. One of the students in this class told me that she was so relieved to be in a class like this because she feels so narrow in her contacts, only relating to peers and educators. This class gave her the chance to relate to the gems of our society. And as my community partner, Nancy Thomes, says, "I have the good fortune to work among the wise ones--- individuals who have lived long lives and possess the kind of wisdom that only old age can provide."

WORKS CITED
Applebee, Arthur N. Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History. NCTE, 1974.
Dass, Ram and Paul Gorman. How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service. NY: Knopf,
1987.
Marrou, Henri I. A History of Education in Antiquity. Trans. George Lamb. NY: Sheen and
Ward, 1956.