Stories Clear Familiarity Fog

Familiarity with an idea can be a really good thing. Having some exposure to a certain word or concept can speed along the learning process and build deep understanding. However, the opposite is also true. Familiarity can dull our minds and prevent us from deeper learning.

Selflessness is something we talk about a lot in my class. I want the student to understand our class as a learning community and think about what it looks like to put the needs of others before their own. Even though I want this to be a central focus of the classroom, if I come back to it in the same way too often, it loses its power and students are lulled to sleep by things they have heard before.

Fresh Stories Clear the Fog

One solution to counteract the fog of familiarity is to tell fresh, powerful stories that illustrate selflessness in a variety of ways. They allow my students to gain deeper perspectives and have fresh inspiration to serve others. Stories are also a secret weapon to engage the head and heart of a person in a way that is impossible when communicating with bare principles or propositions.

One recent example of a story that brought the concept of selflessness to life was in Suzanne Collin’s book, Hunger Games. Last week, I was re-reading the story and was struck by the selflessness of Katniss Everdeen as she volunteers as a tribute at the reaping.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the reaping ceremony is required by the Capitol to remind every district in the country of Panem of their submission to its power. Two child tributes are chosen from every district to compete in a lethal competition called the hunger games. The games require a male and female representative from each of the Districts to fight to the death in an enclosed area. Katniss is one of many impoverished residents of District 12. Her mother and younger sister, Prim, are all that is left of her family after her father died in a mine explosion years earlier. As a result of her father’s death, her mother falls into a paralyzing depression and Katniss is forced to be the primary caregiver and provider for her family.

On the night of the reaping ceremony, the mayor gives a speech reminding District 12 of their historic defeat by the Capitol and why they must offer tributes to the hunger games every year. The district’s female tribute is chosen, and to Katniss’s horror, it’s her 12-year-old sister, Prim. The crowd is disturbed by the draw of such a young tribute who will surely meet a sudden death in the arena. Katniss shakes off the shock of the moment and volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.

To acknowledge her heroic act, the residents of District 12 touch the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and hold it out to Katniss. Collins describes this gesture as, “old and rarely used…occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love (p. 24).”

Katniss’ powerful act of love for her sister is contrasted by the selection of the male tribute that follows. Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, is also chosen as a tribute but his only brother, that can volunteer to take his place, refuses. His refusal to risk his life for his brother underlines Katniss’ radical act on her sister’s behalf. It is a love that goes deeper than family devotion.

Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He [Peeta] has two older brothers, I know, I’ve seen them in the bakery, but one is probably too old now to volunteer and the other won’t. This is standard. Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.

The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins

“The radical thing” is what my students and I need to be reminded of every day. We want to be a community marked by radical devotion and servant leadership that puts the needs of others before our own. Stories like these grab our attention and inspire us out of our familiarity fog to be what we hope to be.

Do you have a story that has inspired your class lately? Tell your story or link your blog post below. I’d love to read it. If you would like to share this section of Hunger Games with your students, it is available from scholastic here.

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