Stories from my Father

Posted June 19, 2020 By Sara Conzemius

My dad is a storyteller. Though if you ask him what he is, he would say he’s an educator. After all, he spent his entire career working in public schools: first as a school psychologist, then as a principal, and ultimately as a superintendent. In my mind, I believe my dad’s greatest gift has always been his ability to use a story to make a point.

My dad’s main mechanism for storytelling was in what the staff in his district began to lovingly call, the Green Sheet. The Green Sheet was a weekly letter that he sent to the entire district sharing updates, news, and (always) stories. Throughout his career, these stories served as reminders and teachable moments that created deep and personal connections to the work being done, and the children it served.

Some of these stories were comical, like when he had to referee an argument between two boys whose point of contention was whether ‘it’ had been a booger or a goober, that one child had flung at the other on the bus. Other stories were more sobering, like the story of two girls’ definition of being rich versus being poor. To one girl in his school, being poor meant you had to drive to Disney World for vacation. To the other, being rich meant you got to own a pair of new shoes. Two children on the same playground, living in two completely different worlds. Whether heartbreaking or uplifting, all his stories carried a lesson.

These two stories teach us important lessons: Semantics matters. Perspective matters.

“Storytelling is a gift. It connects us to people who are like us, and more importantly, to those who are different than us who we must seek to understand.”

My dad often tells the story of a visit to a kindergarten class in which he told students they could ask him anything they want. Of course, a lot of little hands shot up. Dad called on one child whose hand had been slightly more tentative as it went up. The boy looked closely at my dad and asked, “are those cobwebs in your hair?” (Dad prematurely greyed and his quaff of white and brown curly hair indeed had a unique look).

With a straight face, my dad told him a story about the color of his hair, and how in our family sometimes we got white hair when we were still really young. He then invited that child to come up and take a closer look for himself.

The lesson in the cobweb story is that when we take time to learn more about each other, to get up close, even when someone seems different (or in this case scary), we usually find that the thing we were afraid of is not what we made it out to be.

For years, Black Americans have been trying to tell the country their story of dealing with systemic and oppressive racism. We were not listening. Women also have been trying to tell the world their stories of sexual harassment and subjugation. We were not listening. Trans people, Indigenous people, disabled people, Dreamers—they are all trying to tell us their stories. Are we listening or are we just assuming cobwebs?

On this Father’s Day I feel ever more grateful that my dad brought me up to see that making space for, and learning from other people’s stories is an imperative, because today more than ever, we need to hear and be open to learning from the stories that are not ours. It is the only way we can move ourselves to a place of change. I am also grateful that my dad did not pass on the gift of having cobweb hair by the age of 30.

So, for both those gifts and the others that would fill a book’s worth of pages, thanks Dad.