The power of story

Roundup




Elizabeth Svoboda writes on an eclectic range of thought-provoking topics, from creationist biology classes in Galápagos schools to the connections between suffering and selflessness. She lives in San José, California, and is the author of "What Makes a Hero?" (2013)

Back in the fall of 1999, Norman Conard, a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas, asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day. While brainstorming ideas, ninth-grader Elizabeth Cambers stumbled on an old clipping from US News and World Report. The story included the line, ‘Irena Sendler saved 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942-43.’

Elizabeth asked her fellow ninth-grader Megan Stewart to help her with her project, and during her free time, Megan pored over the story of Irena Sendler. She learned about how this unassuming young Polish nurse had created thousands of false identity papers to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto. To sneak the children past Nazi guards, Sendler hid them under piles of potatoes and loaded them into gunny sacks. She also wrote out lists of the children’s names and buried them in jars, intending to dig them up again after the war so she could tell them their real identities.

Imagining herself in the young nurse’s position, Megan could appreciate just how difficult her life-threatening choices must have been. She was so moved by Sendler’s gumption and selflessness that she, Elizabeth, and two other friends wrote a play about Sendler. They called it Life in a Jar andperformed it at schools and theatres.As word got out, the students’ quest to share what Sendler had done appeared on CNN, NPR, and the Today Show. The power of Sendler’s story had turned the project into something much bigger than the girls expected.

Today, Megan Stewart – now Megan Felt – is programme director for the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, a non-profit organisation that teaches students about the lives of past luminaries such as Sendler. ‘I continue to be inspired by Irena Sendler daily,’ says Felt, who still marvels at the way a single story cracked her own life wide open, completely altering its course. ‘We want young people to be inspired by the stories they hear and realise that they also can change the world.’

The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones – that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act. As the late US poet laureate Stanley Kunitz put it in ‘The Layers’, ‘I have walked through many lives, some of them my own, and I am not who I was.’ ...




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