Momservation: Whether you think you can or your can’t, you’re right. ~Henry Ford
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I teach a memoir writing class where the average age of my students is 75. They come to me thinking they might have an interesting story to tell, their collection of memories scanning decades of life experiences. As they near the sunset of their lives my students feel compelled to leave behind something of value for their youngest family members. But when these seniors first begin my class, many are still skeptical anyone would be interested in reading and knowing about their lives.
But here’s what I tell them: absolutely! When you have six to nine decades of riding shotgun if life’s rolling history class, you are inherently interesting. Please—tell us what you’ve seen, heard, tasted, felt; what has shaped you, inspired you, broke you, resurrected you, taught you, and made you an expert on life!
Why wouldn’t someone want to read 94 year-old Joan’s vivid recollection of what it was like to be a teenager in London during World War II when the air-raid sirens would go off at her first job and the bombing of the city would begin?
I am the first person to read my students’ stories and I am never disappointed with the insights they have to share. In fact, I feel like these stories, many from first-generation Americans, should be read in social studies classrooms to enlighten our youth. Let them learn from first-hand accounts of climbing out of poverty thanks to an education, of being content with the very basics of survival, and awe-inspiring stories from those who broke the boundaries of what women were expected to settle for.
Like Alice, one of nine children growing up in poverty on a farm in Alabama. Enlisting in the military in 1960 “Hoping to see the world rather than the end of a hoe my whole life,” she ended up retiring as one of the first female Major Generals in the Air Force.
I have been continually amazed at ordinary stories of growing up in America, and all over the world, that became extraordinary tales of perseverance, survival, success, self-discovery, and, ultimately, joy in discovering what really matters in life.
Margaret feels she did. As the first-born to teenage parents and one of 15 kids growing up in the rural Hispanic communities of Los Angeles, she weaves an inspiring story of breaking the cycle of poverty through education and dedication to success. Rising to the highest ranks of California state government, she returns to the barrio to help her community also rise.
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic shut down the senior center forcing our resourceful class to continue on Zoom, I learned from my students’ life stories that whatever we are currently going through that seems unparalleled and insurmountable, nothing ever is. History has always served up something unimaginable, with time showing us we will not only discover the ability to survive it, but likely go on to thrive.
Take for example, Indru, one of my first students to self-publish his memoir about a life he never could have imagined. Displaced by the violent Partition of India and constantly in pursuit of a better life, he battled language barriers, racism, and a constant learning curve in his quest for the American Dream. Who knew it would ultimately land him in Sacramento as a successful real estate investor, generous philanthropist, and now at 85, a published author?
So if you’re wondering: Will we get through this challenging time? As seen by these amazing, inspiring students of mine, these experts in history—yes, we will. How will we get through this unprecedented time? Somehow you will and you will be better for it. Just ask Pansy, the 94 year-old daughter of a Texas sharecropper who would show up to every class with a delighted smile on her face, just happy for another day.
And guess what? One day, when you look back at it all—you’re going to have an amazing story to tell.
Kelli Wheeler is an award-winning family columnist and writing instructor. She has had 4 of her students self-publish books, with more on the way. You can find her columns at Momservations.com and her writing class at morpd.com/writing-your-memoirs.