… in sharing stories, we have the potential for forging new relationships, including local, classroom “cultures” in which individuals are interconnected and new “we’s” formed.
– Dyson, A. H., & Genishi, C. (1994). The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and community. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
When Paul and I moved from our apartment on a bluff over Lake Michigan to a middle and owning class northern suburb of Milwaukee, we were both excited and worried. We very much wanted a yard for gardening and we wanted a dog or two. Paul also viewed our home as his canvas, so there were certainly some advantages of ownership as well. On the flip side, we felt we might be gay pioneers — and we were. On a very practical level, I was not sure what to expect from suburbann neighbors. I had been an apartment dweller for 20 years. That I could handle, but I wasn’t sure what language suburbia spoke.
Within the first two weeks we had loads of adventures. I recall our visit from the Welcome Wagon lady. She was perplexed at what to call us and what to tell our neighbors, but Paul and I appreciated her “can do” spirit. She was determined to do her job, introducing us to local businesses and neighbors. Then there was the neighbor who told us she had a son like us — a son we didn’t like much better than she did. Then there were the people who would a decade later steal bulbs out of our garden — while we watched!
Among my favorites was the woman who stopped one day and asked who my gardener was. When I told her we did our own gardening, she argued that she saw a young handsome man working in the yard on weekdays. When I told her that gardener was my husband, she took a step back and said, “Let’s start this over. ‘Hi, I am your neighbor who likes to put her foot in it.'”
Another neighbor was quite chilly to us. The couple didn’t so much give us a reception as a blank stare. One night their house was on fire and I raced over wearing only boxers to wake them. Even that was not sufficient to win their civility.
One couple became our dear friends. We spent most Christmas Eves with them at a Chinese or Serbian restaurant. We look out after them and they us. For years they picked up political signs for our lawn. When they could no longer do this, I picked up signs for theirs. We grew to know them and they us. We shared these neighborhood stories with them and many others over the years.
But we didn’t share with them the stories of the annual anti-gay harassment, the shouts of “Faggots!” that echoed from passing cars. I didn’t tell them that I was accosted by someone a block away and told that “our kind” was not wanted here. I didn’t tell them that the parents of one little boy who liked hanging around us had cautioned him against us.
If storytelling helps shape relationships, allowing for a sense of community, what is the effect of selective storytelling or significant omissions? Did we limit community development when we attenuated our candor? Is adhesion threatened by this failure in vulnerability?