National Day of Listening

November 24, 2009

Seeing the barrage of ads for the impending shopping blitz that is “Black Friday” does not annoy or stress me, but simply warms my heart.  This is not because I will celebrate the ominously named “holiday” with the rest of my capitalist brethren, but because I have found a new tradition to mark the beginning of the holiday season.  This Friday, I will sit down with the people I love, press record, ask questions, and simply listen.

Last year at this time, I nestled onto my Brooklyn apartment’s couch with a cup of hot cocoa and a Snuggie to record an interview with my then-fiancée after our first Thanksgiving together.  We spent an hour and a half recovering stories from childhood that had slipped through the cracks, recalling our first moments together, and imagining what the future had in store for us as newlyweds, as young parents, and as an old couple rocking in matching chairs.  At times it felt like we were on a first date, at other times like we’d been married for years.

The idea to take advantage of a day when most families are already together to have deep conversations and record them for posterity comes from StoryCorps, a non-profit oral history project founded by David Isay.  Last year, StoryCorps established the first annual “National Day of Listening” on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  This simplest of ideas – that a caring conversation is a perhaps the best gift of all – represents the easiest way for people to celebrate the true spirit of the holidays.  After getting hitched this past summer, my wife and I listened to our interview while on our honeymoon and added another promise to our list of vows: to participate in this beautiful new holiday each year.  We will begin to fulfill that vow this coming Friday when we interview my parents and siblings in Santa Barbara.

The benefits of oral history are clear – asking questions that go beyond the superficial “How was your day?” give people the opportunity to express themselves and therefore to establish deeper relationships (this was certainly true when I first took advantage of StoryCorps in their New York City recording booth with my grandfather in 2004, and again with my father in 2006).  Perhaps more importantly, recording these conversations for posterity creates a family history in a time when such stories are often ignored and quickly forgotten.  As a graduate student in education I discovered, somewhat surprisingly, that participating in oral history – even informally – also has positive effects on academic self-confidence.

Naturally, as a teacher I took the opportunity of last year’s National Day of Listening to introduce the newfound holiday to my third grade class.   My students sat down in pairs and interviewed each other in front of a digital recorder.  Given free reign before a microphone, the kids expressed things that were really important to them (a large percentage of the dialogue was about pets, suggesting the importance for an eight year old to feel a sense of responsibility for a living thing).  These lighthearted and at times profound moments were eventually burned onto CD and distributed to the families during the winter holidays.

Perhaps my favorite moment from these interviews came when a normally reserved student named Evan answered the question, “What is your favorite moment with your family?”  The previous summer, Evan had been away at camp for a month when the day finally came for his family to pick him up: “I came out of my cabin and I saw these little dots that looked like my parents, and I started running towards them and sure enough it was them.  I was so happy to see them.”  Evan’s parents obviously were delighted to hear this from their son, who normally would not have expressed himself in this way.  Participating in the National Day of Listening this coming Friday will give families across the country an opportunity to discover these hidden gems that are resting just below the surface in so many relationships.  All you have to do is ask, and listen.