The Power of Empathy
We’ve completed week three of the Dorchester class of the Memoir Project. Like Dorchester itself, the class is mixed racially and in many other ways. Some of the 15 students have advanced degrees and others don’t. Some grew up in the south and moved to Boston, while others were born and raised here. Some are very outgoing and love to share their work, and others are more reticent. Each week I hand out three or four writing prompts at the beginning of class and, and later some of the students read aloud a few paragraphs of what they’ve written in their notebook.
Last week, one of the quieter members of our group, Dan, read about coming home from Vietnam and then spending a year in Ireland, attending college and joining the track team, for which he ran races barefoot on the grass, just like the locals. In Ireland, he built himself up physically and emotionally after his military service, then returned to Dorchester, where he worked a series of jobs before running for Congress. Everyone in class gasped when he said that last part. Someone asked if he won. “I came in second,” Dan said. They groaned in sympathy.
“I wonder if I voted for you,” said one woman. “I’m sure that I must have.” Everyone laughed, except for one student, who stared at Dan with a look of awe. “I could pass you on the street and never know any of that about you,” she said to him. She turned to her classmates and asked the room, “Isn’t it amazing what we’ve learned about each other? So many stories.”
There have been so many stories, even in three short sessions. One woman wrote about how she was nearly kidnapped as a child. Another wrote about caring for her mother in those final months, although they had a difficult relationship. A man wrote about trying out for the NFL and making a team, only to be ordered home by a stern grandfather who told him, “I didn’t raise you to be a gladiator.” Another wrote about an early church trip in which he stayed at the home of Martin Luther King and was a little annoyed by how King’s son Scott followed him around all the time. One student was rushed to a Boston city hospital one morning with acute appendicitis, but was left in a corridor with no care, nothing for the pain, until nearly midnight when she was finally operated on after her appendix had burst. “That’s what happened to you back then if you were poor, as I was at that time,” she said. Another wrote about how it felt to be one of the few African American students on her first day at Radcliffe. Yet another wrote about being pulled out of school each fall because she had to work the fields. “I dragged those sacks of cotton, a hundred and fifty pounds, on my knees. On my knees,” she said. Her voice shook with emotion. Several students have cried as they read aloud their stories about long-dead relatives. They have shared their grief, their gratitude, and in some cases, pain that has not diminished.
It takes courage to write about these things and even more to read what you’ve written aloud, to make yourself vulnerable to others with whom you may have little in common. One student asked me if it’s always like this, if all the classes learn so much about each other and grow to like each other this much.
They do, although it doesn’t always happen this fast. In many of our classes, I have seen students begin to hug each other hello and goodbye, or they make plans to meet after class. The class from Roslindale continued to meet on its own, because they liked writing and sharing stories so much. And at the readings and book launches, we always see participants from even the first classes, which were held almost ten years ago. They want to hear more stories; they still want that experience of learning something about someone—something that that they never would have imagined if they had just passed that person in the street.
With the Memoir Project, we’ve always said that we want to give the students a real writing experience, but I think we’ve done something more. We’ve invited them into a special kind of fellowship, given them a chance to experience a camaraderie that you can find only in a memoir class.
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton