A StoryCorps Experience
UPDATE: “Be Friendly and Helpful” – Excerpt from our Interview for StoryCorps South Texas on TPR.org, April 1, 2016
A few summers ago, I moved into a different yet centrally-located neighborhood—quiet, tree-lined, established. The houses were built in the 60’s-70’s, but the residents vary in age, from young families to middle-age types to seniors who take their daily constitutions up and down the streets. One day while outside unloading my trunk, a smartly-dressed elderly gentleman who was out walking his handsome tan chihuahua paused at the end of my driveway and asked, “Do you live here?”
I responded, “Yes, I moved in a few weeks ago.” At that point, he introduced himself as Edgar Fischel, along with his dog, Little Boy. Mr. Fischel asked me my name, a few things about myself like what I did for a living, and how I liked the neighborhood. After sharing that I was a school librarian, his face immediately lit up and he preceded to tell me that he was a retired teacher and principal, his wife a retired librarian, and that one of his daughters is an elementary school teacher. We further bonded over dogs when I asked him about Little Boy and told him that I was a dog mom to five. As we chatted, I noticed a faint accent, vaguely familiar yet not quite discernable; come to find out later through other sidewalk encounters that Mr. Fischel was a native of Costa Rica, but had come to the U.S. as a teenager and had lived in San Antonio since the fifties, starting out in the retail clothing sales business and then transitioning into education.
I was so taken with his friendliness and the ease with how he engaged me like an old friend, despite having just met; I was elated to have him as a neighbor, even though he lived several houses down near the corner. His amiable and energetic demeanor reminded me of my own father, who is around the same age—Mr. Fischel is 89, and my dad turns 88 this week. One thought that floated in the back of my mind after our initial meeting was that Mr. Fischel must have had a very interesting life, and likewise some great stories to share. As we parted company that first time, he said, “come down anytime if you’re feeling lonely and visit me and my wife, we love to have company.”
In January, I read on Facebook that the StoryCorps mobile tour was scheduled for a month-long pit stop in San Antonio from February through the first week of March. A longtime NPR listener, I’ve loved hearing snippets of StoryCorps interviews on the radio. Like anyone who knows about StoryCorps, the stories are amazing snapshots into people’s lives, and can make you laugh or cry almost on cue. I’ve always been struck by the humanness of the stories, and have often thought about what a great teaching tool it could be to use with students somehow.
I noted the date for reserving a recording spot online, and began thinking about who I could interview. The first person who sprang to mind was my father, but he now lives nine hours away in El Paso. As luck or coincidence would have it, Dad called to tell me he was planning a late February visit to San Antonio for his annual pilgrimage to watch the Notre Dame baseball team during spring training. Perfect! I thought.
Over the last several years, my father has talked about writing down all of his stories, and has made a few drafts of some of them, but they leave out so many of the nuances compared to when he’s retelling them aloud. One of my dad’s boyhood memories became fodder for a story I wrote for a high school assignment, which ended up winning a contest. At one point I gave my dad a digital voice recorder to help capture the memories as they emerged more organically in his mind; of course, he would only use the recorder when I was visiting, asking him questions as story-prompts based on the various tales he would tell while I was growing up. The StoryCorps’ visit seemed like a timely way to motivate both of us to begin recording and saving his stories, using the session as momentum to continue it on our own.
So just a day after the reservation site went live, I confirmed the dates of my dad’s visit, and went online to book a time slot—but all the available times during his stay were already booked. There were just a few random slots still available, so on impulse I booked a slot for the morning of February 14th to interview…who? Then I thought—Mr. Fischel. I hope he says yes. Luckily, he did.
The StoryCorps format allows for a 40-minute recording session, and the interviewer/interviewee can discuss anything they want to share. Beforehand I looked over the list of questions from the StoryCorps site and shared with Mr. Fischel the ones I was most interested in talking about during our session, focusing on his childhood and career as a teacher and principal.
On the drive to the recording site, Mr. Fischel shared some great stories about his earlier life as a “boy with three families” and his knack for selling men’s clothing before becoming a teacher.
During our interview, I discovered that he was a student “worse than Dennis the Menace,” and after getting transferred from one school to another in Costa Rica, came to San Antonio in 1949 to attend the Peacock Military Academy at age 17, barely speaking a word of English.
Mr. Fischel was no star student, and told some colorful tales leading to and during his days at the Peacock Military Academy.
Before entering the teaching profession, Mr. Fischel used his personality to his advantage as a men’s clothing salesman at Famby’s (sp?) in 1950s-era San Antonio. In this excerpt he shares his version of “cold calling” a customer named Mr. Rosie.
Mr. Fischel began his career in education as a fourth-grade reading teacher, overwhelmed with the multiple reading levels of 44 students in one class. Seven years later, he volunteered to work with the National Teacher Corps as a teacher representative and team leader, helping develop the program from the ground up. He received a Masters in Education Administration from the experience which led to him becoming a principal.
He also worked as a recruiter for a migrant student program in San Antonio, and with the Head Start program. One story we didn’t explore involved Little Girl, his stolen female chihuahua returned to him six years later all because of a microchip. Coincidentally, the initial loss of Little Girl prompted Mr. Fischel to write a short book about his life to deal with his own sadness, which he brought to the interview; he still hopes to write more about his life, since there are still so many stories he left out.
Besides his previous roles as teacher and principal, Mr. Fischel is a poetry lover and poet himself. A modern-day maker, he enjoys creating Christmas tree-shaped wall art from old jewelry; he also designs and makes birdhouses out of recycled license plates for a little shop in La Villita, where all the proceeds go to help the homeless and low-income population here in San Antonio. At the end of our interview, he recited part of his favorite poem, “El Brindis del Bohemio.”
One of my final questions to Mr. Fischel was,
“In thinking about your life and all the things you’ve experienced, what would you say are some important lessons you’ve learned?”
Although the timing didn’t work in my favor for doing the StoryCorps recording with my father, I am so glad that Mr. Fischel agreed. Listening to his stories made me think about those I grew up hearing from my dad—stories that I can now record on our own together this summer, using the StoryCorps app. The interview also heightened how being an active listener is crucial to asking thoughtful follow-up questions that augment the story without influencing the emotions, flow of memory, or tone of the storyteller—a technique I need to hone before sitting across from my father, especially considering some of the questions I want to ask about his life, my childhood, and his relationship with my mother, who he cared for during her last eight years of illness before she passed away ten years ago this May.
This StoryCorps experience reminded me that stories matter and are what connect us, what make (and hopefully keep) us human. Yes, we routinely tell and share stories—what we’ve been up to lately, what we did over the weekend, how our day was. But these daily anecdotal stories don’t necessarily delve into more than just conveying how we spend our time. It doesn’t help that the intent or meaning of a story can get skewed and manipulated by others who might try to interpret or communicate them for or to us, especially when looking at the current political antics in the news media, for example. Literary storytelling is still alive and well, and has endless value for bringing the written word alive through oral interpretation. But there’s nothing like hearing firsthand a word-of-mouth story that comes from someone’s own personal experience or memory. It’s like the difference between a slice of homemade pie versus a shelf-ready storebought one.
If you think about it, storytelling was the first literacy. But the more we read and write, the more literate we become, and the more literacies we determine we need and must master—the less dependent we are on oral storytelling as a way to communicate, to convey a message, express an idea, teach a value, build a shared understanding.
The beauty of the StoryCorps mission and format is the reframing—or rather regrounding—of what story truly is by going back to its storytelling roots. From a young age we are taught to think of a “story” as having a beginning, a middle, and an end, with rising action, peaking in a climax and resolved in its conclusion; but life’s real narrative arc is continuous and continual, organically unpredictable, potentially anticlimactic, yet at times enigmatically poetic. As if riffing off of this iffiness like a call-and-response pattern, the StoryCorps in media res model of storytelling is roguishly authentic, bypassing literary norms by cutting straight to the heart of what a story really is and why we tell them, share them, need them—a simple conversation in the form of asking and listening. The resulting stories are subtly overt, causing listeners to think and connect to their own lives—meaningfully memeful without even trying, free of pretense, interpretation, or hubris.
Resources & Tools for DIY StoryCorps
Recreating the StoryCorps experience on your own is now possible through the free app, which allows for multiple recording uploads of 45 minutes or less.
This animated interview video of StoryCorps founder Dave Isay could be used as a vivid introduction for students.
StoryCorpsU recently posted three free lessons from its yearlong interdisciplinary development program for high school students. To find out more about becoming part of the StoryCorpsU program, see this link.
You can also use and adapt the DIY Guide to interview and preserve stories.
The Animated Shorts page offers some brilliant visualizations of selected excerpts that could provide students inspiration for illustrating/animating their own personal stories or interviews, using tools/apps such as:
- Storyboard That
- GoAnimate & GoAnimate for Schools
- Shadow Puppet Edu
- Adobe Voice
- Stop Motion Studio