Brand building through storytelling

Sometimes you have to answer a call from your past

I hadn’t planned on returning this August to the home town I couldn’t wait to leave. It seemed I had more urgent things to do than schlep by plane and bus to Durham, New Hampshire, where a gaggle of far-flung alumni from my high school—many of them strangers to each other and just about all them strangers to me—were convening to honour Eleanor and Frank Milliken, two wise and generous-hearted teachers who gave the best part of their careers to our collective intellectual development.

Then just over a week ago I found an e-mail message from the reunion steering committee: would I emcee the tribute dinner? I felt honoured to be asked—and more than a little embarrassed to have even considered staying home. I can rebook meetings, defer a few deadlines. The Millikens aren’t getting any younger. I’ll have only one chance to celebrate their legacy with several generations of their grateful students. How could I do anything but seize the day?

I should tell you how this gathering came to be. Last year I heard about a motley gang from my town who were reminiscing online through a website called Durham Friends. I never did have many friends in Durham, but I figured I might as well lurk and listen in, just to see what I might be missing. To my amazement, I had to chime in. I couldn’t resist the vivid, heartfelt memories of people and places that had formed me. I found myself pouncing on messages from Durham Friends I’d never even heard of when I should have been writing a speech or polishing a magazine article.

I felt both enthralled and astonished at the intensity of this ongoing virtual conversation between the scattered children of Durham, now in their 40s, 50s and 60s. Some could not imagine a better place to grow up than Durham and were raising their own kids there. Others recalled it as I did, with the resentful scorn of the perpetual outsider. Yet whatever our perspective on the town, it had shaped each one of us to some degree. Our stories intersected there, however briefly. At the heart of a good many stories stood Eleanor Milliken, the science teacher who never stopped trying to bring Isaac Asimov to Oyster River, and her husband Frank, driving force behind the Latin program. In a cross-continental flurry of excitement, we decided there must be a Durham Friends reunion, its focal point a tribute to the Millikens.

“Count me in!” I said. Then my summer calendar filled up. It seemed so easy to back out. The Millikens didn’t lack admirers to toast their dedication. Would I really be missed?

No doubt about that: I’d been asked to emcee the dinner. To decline for any reason short of a family wedding would be downright churlish. And anyway, I wanted to be there. I had never been invited to the prom at my school, or even for a movie date on Friday night. In the cafeteria, the cool kids ignored me. Yet Durham had a place for me after all.

It’s been more than 43 years since I cleaned out my locker at Oyster River High, and at the time I vowed to put the place behind me. I’ve since learned that the best part of growing older is the opportunity it brings to revisit the past with an open heart and discover what escaped me the first time around. Where I once saw a gaping chasm between me and others, I now see how much we have in common. I’m struck by the spirit of compassion that infuses so much of the Durham Friends conversation, and by the many stories that mirror aspects of my own.

Throughout my adult life I’ve cherished the power stories hold to break down distrust and celebrate shared values. I feel privileged to have made my living as a storyteller. But of course I have also been making a life. I’d like to think of myself as someone who shows up for the landmark events in the life of her tribe instead of saying, “I don’t have time.” That’s how I’d like others to think of me, too.

Yesterday I booked my trip to the reunion. I can’t wait to meet my virtual Durham Friends.

If you missed my previous post about the Millikens, click here to read it. I’m also proud of “Hometown kids, older and wiser,” about insights found through Durham Friends. 

Posted by Rona

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