I am honored to have Brian Forschner, author of the compelling Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders, his wife, Joyce, and his granddaughter as authors of the guest post this month. I met Brian about six years ago through an online writing group, and three years later, Brian began sharing with me his research for his book, which I ultimately had the privilege and honor of editing. As does Cold Serial, this post conveys Brian’s heart and passion for justice and his belief in the power of the written word.
Sixty students had tackled their eighth-grade capstone project. The theme was “Justice and the complexity of story.” The words of Malala, a favorite quote of the class, became a battle cry for the students: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” So sixty “pens” and one teacher went to work. The project entailed searching for sixty “voices,” defined as individuals whose stories illustrate the concept of justice. Students interviewed their “voices” and then wrote a summary of their conversation. These stories were then compiled and published in a book entitled Hear My Story: Be My Voice.
The day to unveil the book finally arrived; the audience of parents, grandparents, and other middle school students did not know what to expect. The ceremony began with a moving ritual honoring the “voices.” Each was met by his or her student “pen,” presented with a white rose, symbolic of hope, escorted up the aisle of the one hundred-year-old chapel, and seated near the altar. A priest and a rabbi then offered reflections, which were followed by the son of an Auschwitz survivor whose story had spearheaded the project. Given time constraints, only a few of the “voices” spoke, each briefly telling his or her powerful story, and the audience was awestruck and deeply moved by their words. The speakers were a Western Saharan woman, ousted from her country by invading Moroccans, now a human rights activist; a granddaughter who spoke for her grandfather, a WWII decorated veteran, who was present; and a high school student who spoke of his mother, a beloved teacher at the school. He told of her long battle with depression, culminating in her suicide. Many in the chapel were brought to tears listening to his words. The audience realized they had just witnessed a sacred moment and responded to the stories in the only way they knew how: a standing ovation.
A minister closed with a prayer. The students then filed out and went to the school cafeteria for a luncheon in honor of the “voices.”
The “pens” may not have anticipated the impact of their efforts. This is true for us writers. We often do not know the impact of what we say. Perhaps that is why and how stories should be told, innocently, truthfully, vulnerably, and forcefully, placing the words upon the page, allowing the reader to digest, feel, know, critique, admire, and act. Then the writer moves on to tell the next story, and the next and the next. This book, Hear My Story: Be My Voice, is a witness to the nature of doing justice. It is telling story after story, each building on the veracity of the previous one, words woven together into a tapestry illustrating justice.
This was hard work for the students and their teacher. Writing is hard work. Justice is hard work. Writing is doing the hard work of justice. A key learning from this project was that, in every era, words can bring about justice and change.
Malala would be proud.