On my first day of teaching 5th grade, one of my students threw up all over himself, his desk, and the floor.

True story.

I’ve taught for a lot of years now, and quickly came to find out that vomit happens in an elementary classroom with surprising frequency.

But that first day of my first year…whoa. That was rough.

The end.

This is an anecdote. You, as my audience, probably had a little bit of a reaction. Maybe you cringed at the word vomit. Maybe you thought, aww, poor kid. Maybe you thought, aww, poor baby teacher.

I could have gone into more detail. (You probably don’t want that, though.) But basically I reported a set of circumstances, and left you to do whatever you want with it.

This is an anecdote.

This is the kind of tale we tell off the cuff at parties, when something someone says reminds us of “that one time…”

Anecdotes are a completely acceptable, normal way of sharing bits of ourselves with other people. They are like little pin holes through which a tiny light shines from a person’s human experience.

Stories, on the other hand, are like giant windows.

With stories, we lay ourselves bare. Not in every single way, but in a crafted, intentional way.

Through a window you can see parts of the room, but not every single cobweb in every single corner, and certainly not what’s in the room next to it.

That’s how it is with a story.

Yes, the words anecdote and story are interchangeable in English. But for our purposes here I want you to understand that I am not talking about anecdotes.

I am talking about stories.

Stories where we consider our audience. Who are they? What points of entry can we place in our story to help them connect with our experience even if they’ve never experienced anything similar?

Stories where we uncover what a series of events is actually about. What universal themes of human experience it touches upon.

Stories where we’ve intentionally shaped the events – not fictionalized them, but rather made conscious choices about the details we include and the emphasis we place – to illustrate the way the experience changed us in some way.

I had spent weeks preparing for that first day of teaching 5th grade. I had planned every single minute of that first day of teaching 5th grade.

I was standing in the front of the room with 25 faces looking back at me. Some were feigning enthusiasm, others were clearly bored. I was in the middle of my well-rehearsed speech about procedures for something – was it using the pass to the restroom? sharpening pencils? – when I saw a hand waving in the back of the room.

I ignored it at first, worried more about just getting through everything in time to get them to recess because I desperately did not want to be the teacher that made them late for recess on the first day of 5th grade! I just pressed on, because I figured I could answer questions at the end. The hand kept waving, becoming more and more vigorous.

Finally, annoyed, I called on the boy with his hand in the air. “Yes, Charlie?”

“Um…” he stammered, eyes wide. “Um, Remy threw up.” He pointed across the table. Remy sat there with vomit all over his shirt, arms out in front of him, palms up like a surgeon who had just scrubbed for surgery.

I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know what the procedure was when a kid threw up in school. And all of my hours of preparation, all of my anxious energy, all of my Type-A planning went straight out the window as I realized that I was woefully underprepared for my job.

I am not talking about anecdotes. I’m talking about stories.

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