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What Story will you Tell

By Jenny Horsman

What story will you tell? What story do you hear?

Messages for Victims and Survivors of Crime Week – Part 6 of 7 in series

A Learning and Violence Stance is a place to stand with curiosity, connection and conscious awareness, before the colonial gaze of judgments, diagnoses, labels and standard stories shape and limit our view.


Human beings tell stories all the time. Sometimes we become so immersed in them that we have no doubt they are the truth. Sometimes they have been drummed into us by early violences, by unrecognized privilege, or by social judgments that hold such currency that they take ongoing and conscious work to question, to challenge, and to change.


A teacher who has been working all year to create conditions for learning for their students within the limitations of the compulsory school system was working with their students to deepen their understanding of how to settle themselves. One approach they had come up with together was to spray an essential oil the students had all agreed helped them feel more comfort in the space, more able to stay present enough to learn. But one student’s immediate response to the question of whether she wanted the scent sprayed near her one morning was a leap to the certainty that she must smell bad, and so to apologize profusely. She had her story, and so she was certain the scented spray was not kindness, not support, but judgment.


As human beings we tell many stories about others’ behaviour, and also about our own. I’ve listened to adult students tell me that they are lazy because they fall asleep when they read hard material, and teachers tell me they know their students aren’t motivated because they don’t get to class on time. I don’t believe them. I know those behaviours and many more are common impacts of experiences of violence, part of the traumatic forms that result.


We all hunt out patterns to make meaning of the world, and of other people. It is not easy to keep ourselves from running away with those stories. It reminds me of netball, a game I learned as a girl in England. In that sport, when you catch the ball you may take only one step, when you pick up your foot to take the next step you must throw the ball onward before that foot touches the ground again. You must NOT run with the ball, but it is so hard to stop, hard not to hold tight to that ball and run. I think of that as holding on to a story so firmly that we forget it is only a story. We come to believe in it, insist it is the only truth, speak and act based on that “truth,” and can’t bear to let it go.


What assumptions are underneath your stories, the ones you tell, and the ones others tell you? What helps you hold them lightly and remain open to new and contradictory stories, at least some of the time?

About the Author

I am an educational researcher, a white first-generation settler in Canada, a migrant from England by way of Sierra Leone, where I spent nearly four years beginning to unlearn much I had been taught about the world in England. In Sierra Leone I absorbed new awareness of colonialism and white privilege, though I didn’t really understand the significance of those lessons until years later.

For more than thirty years I have been studying the impacts of all forms of violence on learning, and exploring how to support more effective and joyful learning of the things we choose to learn, at any age and in any setting. I first stumbled over the connection between violence we experience and how and what we learn during my doctoral research in the 80s, and later came to understand that what I heard resonated with some of my own childhood experiences.


I have learned a lot over the years, from research, experience, the wisdom of colleagues and students of different races, religions, cultures, and socioeconomic locations from my own, and a wide variety of training and study.

I prefer the language of a Learning and Violence Stance to the commonly used “trauma-informed”, in order to stress this point of view that recognizes the multifaceted nature of violence in society, and the correspondingly complex pressures when any one of us try to support learning, our own or others,’ within colonial institutions and an unjust society founded on violence.

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