That lovely evocative title is not my creation. It belongs to a book by the eminent psychiatrist Robert Coles, celebrating his 90th birthday this year and, to my mind, insufficiently remembered and celebrated. Coles is one of the most prolific writers of his generation. I often joked that he seemed to write faster than I could read. Perhaps his most well-known work was the three volume Children of Crisis, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. In it he collected the stories he had gleaned from interviews with children living in poverty and struggle in the South, in Appalachia and in the urban north. One of the children he interviewed, Ruby Bridges, became a cultural icon, based on the story she told Coles about being the only Black child – and eventually the only child – in a newly integrated New Orleans school. He extended his work into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro whose children told their stories in The Moral Life of Children and The Spiritual Life of Children. His work relied heavily on allowing the reader to listen to the children’s own constructions of their difficult, sometimes heroic lives. It was light on analysis, although I remember vividly the power of his conclusion that the favela children who remained undefeated by their circumstances were those who could point to at least one adult in their lives who believed in them and whom they could trust.
In The Call of Stories, Coles describes the ways in which he brought the stories embodied in great literature into his medical school classrooms at Harvard to open his students to hearing the stories his patients told which so often went unheard. My friend Dr. Saul Weiner makes a similar point in his recent book, Listening for What Matters, about the consequential effects of doctors not listening to the stories their patients tell them, opting instead to enter data on their computers or to complete checklists. Coles also brought his stories into architecture school and law school classrooms in the hopes of instilling a more humane approach to serving the needs of the clients they served.
When my wife and I were graduate students in Cambridge, we heard him speak in a church in Harvard Square about his experiences in Mississippi. He was working on a military base in the Gulf Coast city of Biloxi when he joined a group of Black demonstrators who were attempting to integrate a public beach, an effort that was met by violence from the police. Listening to that story after hearing the testimony of the courageous Black students integrating lunch counters and the selfless Freedom Riders being beaten senseless in bus stations across the south, cemented our determination to join the struggle in some way. When we finally made that move, Bob became a more active presence in our lives as he shuttled in and out of the state, investigating the effects of hunger on poor children and mobilizing support for the early Head Start program that had become the focus of my work in Mississippi. My wife and I both proudly display blurbs from Bob Coles on some of our books.
Bob Coles was my model of the kind of psychologist I dreamed of being. Long before I had a label for it, that dream was born in the Brooklyn Public Library to which I made my weekly pilgrimage to cart home yet another batch of novels with the Borzoi insignia on the spine, indicating that they were a Modern Library “classic.” Thanks to that little canine symbol, I inhaled Dostoevsky, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence and Stendhal in no rational order. That is where my heart lay, while my body occupied seats in my freshman pre-engineering classes. Despite my good grades, it became clear that this was not how I wanted to spend my one shot at life, so after a year abroad I returned to school as a psychology major. That seemed like a “practical” way to immerse myself in people’s lives the way novelists do.
My Introductory courses were not promising. The textbooks were dry accounts of experiments and theories, and I found myself skipping past large chunks of text searching for the case studies which were interspersed among the dull stuff and which usually announced themselves by a change of type face. This was the stuff I could remember, the narratives that carved deep traces in my brain from which I could usually get a sense of the analytic material I had skipped over. I was beginning to wonder if psychology might also be a wrong turning for me.
Then came Dr. Max Hertzman’s Abnormal Psychology class. To my astonishment, there was no textbook listed on the course syllabus. Instead there was a list of short stories, mostly from The New Yorker magazine. Every class period we dug into the lives of the characters in those stories as if they were real. We struggled to grasp the motivations behind their seemingly incomprehensible actions. We marveled at their courage in the face of tyrannical parents and unfaithful partners. This was the call of stories that Bob Coles referred to later, and which I’ve come to recognize as what I hold most dear in my personal and professional life. It is the medium from which my memory and my understanding of the world is constructed.
In my work as a graduate student in psychology and later as a teacher and teacher educator, I’ve come to wonder if the world is divided between people who see the world through an analytic, more social science type lens vs. those who see the world in a more literary way. Thanks to my friend Frida Furman for reminding me of all the examples that give lie to this simplistic dichotomy. Much of anthropology, for example, shares with literature an emphasis on story. Still, Coles was an outcast among his psychiatric colleague because of his reluctance to classify and label the stories and observations that were the substance of his work. I prefer looking at the world in ways that raise more questions than I began with, while much of social science concerns itself with solution, classification and categorization. There is a quote often attributed to H.L. Mencken which says, “For every solution there is a solution that is simple, neat – and wrong.” I’m after the complex which often yields no solution, a configuration that seems to me to match more accurately the way things unfold in real life.
Being a teacher has satisfied the ideals that Max Hertzman and Robert Coles represented for me – the power of story. One day I came home from school after a day that was particularly dense with stories of individual kids, groups of kids and their interactions among themselves and with teachers. My wife was still at her desk working on a new novel. I said, “Every day when you’re at home writing your novel, I feel like I’m living a novel in school.” It’s work that’s both exhausting and exhilarating. I really miss it. I wish more teachers would tell their stories to counteract the misleading analyses of analysts who, without stories to draw on arrive at false portrayals of what ails American education and how to cure it.
I hope to have more to say about the power of stories in later postings.