Through a square window in the Hugh Gillis Hall classroom door, I see Communication Studies Lecturer Beth Von Till, ’86 MA Communication Studies, welcoming her class. She has asked me to give one of a series of guest lectures in her Communication and Organizational Philanthropy course, where students are learning to create fundraising campaigns. The class has already heard about different facets of fundraising from seasoned professionals who are doing the kinds of work the students might do one day. She has asked me to talk to them about storytelling and, in particular, what makes a good story.
One lesson I’ve learned in my career as a writer and editor is the pursuit of “the big why” in storytelling—or any endeavor—is always the point. And the real “why” often is not what you think or expect. As I prepared my lecture on storytelling, including a bit about my own story, as Von Till requested, I planned to talk about what I do as SJSU’s chief storyteller, but also why. Why have I spent my career in higher education?
When I really thought about it, the answer was that a series of classrooms led me to San Jose State. For me, school was the remedy to the chaos and dysfunction at home. My best early memories are in the classrooms of Robert E. Myles Elementary School, where I learned a new way to be in the world.
In Miss Gail’s second grade classroom, I had neatly ordered crayons and scented markers beneath the lid of my lift-top desk. As she shared the day’s French phrase, “il fait beau aujourd’hui,” writing cursive letters in white chalk on the blackboard, I’d moon over Mike Redlener, who sat across from me, smiling. Mr. Lane, my third grade teacher, had a bathtub filled with pillows in the corner of the room that was a coveted retreat for reading and imagining. Miss Batista created a symphony of sound and color and texture with shelves and bins of instruments—from musical triangles to rhythm sticks that we tapped on the floor as she played “It’s a Small World” on the piano.
Of course, this continued through high school. My physics teacher Miss Rich had us file into the school’s pale green hallways to learn about transverse and longitudinal waves. With Slinkies stretched between pairs of students, we moved them back and forth and then side to side. She taught us how to make waves, something I carried with me through college, thanks, in part, to the letter of recommendation she wrote for me.
If not for the classroom experiences my teachers created, I am not certain what path my life would have taken. Each dynamic experience helped me follow my curiosity and prepared me for what was next, even when I could not see where I’d ultimately end up.
The SJSU students in the Philanthropy Communications class are eager to transform their lives through learning, and to apply what they learn to raise funds and awareness about issues that matter to them. They are identifying problems to solve, problems that affect us all. To tell a good story, the kind that makes people pay attention and take action, I tell them, they need to understand what matters to the people they’re trying to reach.
To get to the big why for themselves and their audiences, they have to go small to find the heart of the question.
For me, that means paying attention to SJSU’s classroom experiences. There’s a classroom on the other side of my office wall in Clark Hall. The sounds of teaching and learning are ever-present. Chairs shifting across the floor for collaborative work. The gentle tapping of words written on the dry erase board. The rise and fall of voices, debating and discussing the big why.