Tell us about the story that changed your life.” The prompt was simple; the exercise was anything but. Not only were we asking folks to identify a singular work that forever changed the course of their lives, but we were asking people to share such intimate details with, well, 50,000 people.
Because we are fervent believers that stories do change lives, we knew it was a question worth asking—and our contributors did not disappoint. Some responded almost immediately; others took some time to reflect. Some could pinpoint that actual moment their lives changed, while others got a bit creative with the question. Which delighted us, too.
So enjoy. And please take a moment to give the question some thought and let us know if you have your own story to tell.
Julia Alvarez ’71
Writer in Residence Emerita
The Arabian Nights
Before I ever came into English, I lived in a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. I wasn’t a reader, I didn’t care for books. But I loved stories, which in our oral culture were told by living people. But I do recall one storybook, a gift from my tía, which captured my imagination, The Arabian Nights. It was the story of a girl, Scheherazade, who saves herself by telling stories to a cruel sultan, night after night, for one thousand and one nights. Not only does Scheherazade save her own life, she also manages to save the lives of all the women in her kingdom by transforming the mind and heart of the sultan with her stories. It was an important bit of luminous information that I carried to my new country in the bloodstream of my imagination: that stories have power, that they can transform us and save us.
Lesly Santos ’20
“La Llorona, the Weeping Woman”
The tale of “La Llorona” varies by country, but in Mexican folklore, “La Llorona” is the tale of a beautiful woman who lives in an impoverished village. A wealthy merchant from the city is immediately captivated by her beauty and marries her. After she has two children, the merchant leaves her for another woman, since motherhood has stripped part of her physical beauty. In contempt and despair, she drowns her two children in the river. Almost immediately, she regrets her decision and spends all of eternity wailing in despair for her children. She targets young children in hopes of finding her own.
When I was younger, my parents would tell my sister and me, “No vayas, te va llevar la Llorona.” We children would tell tales of the weeping woman and potential sightings. It was really a popular ghost myth for any age group. This ghost-woman was a form of intimidation to scare children from doing bad or from wandering off by themselves. I did not think much of the tale until I read Medea, a Greek tragedy by Euripides. A sort of realization hit me: Why does one think of these women as monsters? It might be far-fetched, but it seems the predominantly misogynistic culture of my country could not fathom the idea of a woman standing up for herself or making a mistake, because of social/marital pressure. Are women only tools for complementing their husbands with their beauty? Are we only useful for motherhood? Why are we so scared of women who do wrong?
As a woman, I couldn’t help but empathize with her suffering instead of being afraid of her. Perhaps our greatest blessing could be our most fatal flaw.
Associate Professor, Middlebury Institute of International Studies
The story of my grandmother, growing up in Kyrgyzstan
“Patient perseverance is gold.” “A kind word makes even snake come out of her nest.” These are just some of the proverbs my grandma used to say when I was growing up. Although she never went to school and could not read, she spoke in vivid metaphors and radiated wisdom. I am still unpacking some of her words over many years of being a student of leadership.
For someone who experienced much hardship in her life growing up as an orphan in rural Kyrgyzstan in the 1930s, she saw the best in everyone. No wonder she was a glue and magnet for the entire community. Her small house, where she raised her own 10 kids and many more grandkids like me, was like a bustling café where neighbors and friends were always welcome. Never mind she also worked at a tobacco farm in addition to managing a household with too many mouths to feed, making homemade bread and almost everything handmade and from scratch. It is as if physical hardships did not weigh her down. Just the opposite—her attention sought out the wonderful in life and in people, elevating everyone. In her presence people lit up, nourished by her genuine attention.
Now I find myself teaching in my leadership class the deep lessons from her life—that the best leaders build up and bring forth others’ strengths and create an enabling environment for their continued growth. She also encouraged me to reach and grow as far as my dreams and imagination could take me. Now I too try to pass her example and lessons forward by bringing forth the beautiful and unique in our students. I also strive to help them move forward with confidence. I think my grandma would have liked that.
Sabine Poux ’20
The story of how my parents met
I’m a planner. As a child, I always needed to know exactly how we’d fill each day; as a tween, I’d ask “left or right?” before disembarking the ski lift; now, I spend more time tweaking my color-coded planner than working on the assignments in it. So when a plan falls through, I think of the story of my parents.
My mom was crestfallen when she got the call in 1993 that her six-month trip to Somalia was canceled. Not only had she already endured the required half-dozen painful vaccinations, but also the trip was going to be a pivotal landmark in her career, her switch from editing radio behind the scenes to presenting the news on air.
The icing on the cake was she lost her excuse to miss her 10-year high school reunion a few weeks later, which she hadn’t been particularly dying to attend. But at the reunion, she reconnected with an old classmate: my dad.
It gives me solace to think of my parents’ story as I navigate the emotional roller coaster of job applications. It’s one thing to know that when one door closes, another opens. It’s another to be the product of that.
Assistant Professor of Music
Not any one story, but the storyteller
There are too many stories to count, really. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart inspired me to write an opera, while F. Scott Fitzgerald taught me to be a more attentive reader with The Great Gatsby. As a little kid, I learned about heroism from Issun-Boshi, the One-Inch High Samurai, and I loved the adventures of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Yes, there are too many to count. So I think I will cheat and instead name the storyteller who changed my life: Jackie Torrence. Ms. Torrence taught me that beauty is not just found in the happy moments, but also in the sad and scary moments. She taught me what a miracle making art can be. Listen to her tell the story “Sleeping Sickness,” and you will hear a woman who empathizes with her characters. In “Shoes,” you hear her empathize with her audience.
I think of her often when I compose. I remember how she made me feel as an eight-year-old when she frightened me with her rendition of “Tilly” (“Tilly, I’m on the top step . . . Tilly, I’m right next to you . . . BOO!”), and I think of ways to reach my audience.
I owe a great deal to her.
Shawn Ryan ’88
Screenwriter and Television Producer
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
As a teenager constantly on the run from activity to activity, I used long car rides to devour books of all manner—mysteries, teen angst romances, Mark Twain classics, sports biographies—to pass the traveling hours on back roads and highways. When The Three Musketeers was recommended to me as a “good story,” I was dubious but gave it a shot, despite its intimidating page count and small print. Growing up in the Midwest and about to venture into the world as a young adult myself, I became riveted by the swashbuckling tale of d’Artagnan and his journey into friendship, adventure, intrigue, love, politics, and sword-fighting heroism. Here was a young man on a quest to prove himself, to make his name, and to do it with honor and dignity.
When I first read the book, I didn’t know yet that I would want to be a professional writer one day, but the story sang to me with its life-and-death stakes, its high drama, and its ability to transport me, as if in a time machine, to a different world, a different era, and a different culture. By the third time I had read Dumas’s masterpiece, I knew then that I wanted to be a professional writer, and I reread it as if I was a safecracker trying to unlock the combination that made it so brilliantly work. This time I appreciated the plotting and especially the specificity of the characters, and always the thrills that I felt as d’Artagnan dodged death and embraced duty. It’s a story for the ages and has set a bar that I try (unsuccessfully) to match with each show and script I work on now.
Dena Simmons ’05
Assistant Director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
The book I am writing—White Rules for Black People
I was 10 years old when my very religious cousin told me that “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Confused, I stood in front of my cousin, wondering how any of God’s creations could be an abomination.
As a child, I did not like the fairytales and fables conservative family members told me; these stories felt manipulative, oppressive, and limiting. At school, I was expected to find myself in narratives of enslaved Africans, of the three civil rights leaders about whom we learned each year, and of Black struggle. I did not see myself in the many clear faces with blond hair and blue eyes in children’s books and television shows. I searched for stories about Black biracial children with immigrant mothers and absent fathers, about children of color living in cities in apartments inventing games because outside it was sometimes too dangerous to play. I searched for stories about Black love, excellence, and joy. I searched for these stories until I could not search anymore.
Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I’ve taken heed and am now writing White Rules for Black People (St. Martin’s Press, 2021). The process has already changed me. I have had to face uncomfortable truths to love myself more fiercely and to understand my relationship with whiteness as I envision a better nation—one where we can all face our ugly and confront our country’s sin of racism to do and be better, to heal.
Reginald C. Cook Professor of American Literature
“The River” by Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” ends with the main character, the grandmother, being shot three times in the chest by the Misfit, the most unlikely agent of salvation imaginable. But the grandmother, at least, is an adult. In “The River,” the protagonist is a five-year-old boy. We meet him in his dissipated and loveless home, as he is taken by his babysitter to see a preacher conducting a mass baptism in a nearby river. Told that he will find life in the river, the boy returns alone the next day and launches himself hopefully into the current, and “since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.” Presumably, he drowns.
For years, I found this ending unacceptable. Even knowing O’Connor’s penchant for representing the action of God’s grace through violence (her idea was that modern humans are so estranged from God that any contact with the divine will shock us), I struggled to see the boy as anything but deluded, and his end tragic. But learning to see the boy’s yearning for love and belonging as symbolic of our own, yields the timeless truth: “the things which are seen are temporal, and the things which are not seen are eternal.”
Dean of Admissions
Ghost in the Machine by the Police
I could be an annoying little sister at times, and I often drove my brother mad by “borrowing” his stuff. As I was heading into middle school, I located some records in his room one afternoon and one album cover stood out—Ghost in the Machine by the Police, a British band formed in the late ’70s, so I grabbed everything of theirs he had. I was immediately hooked, and to this day I still remember every word of their songs.
Ghost in the Machine was the first album that I remember dropping the needle on during this listening session when I started to realize that there didn’t have to be a formula for music. The beats were mixed with reggae, punk, pop, and the song lyrics said things about our world. From love to industrialization and the overreach of technology, I found in a four-minute song a great deal to think about. My musical world had been mostly curated by commercial radio and, without the freedom of choice with today’s streaming services, it was limited and hard to navigate as you spun the dial and hoped for a new song.
I was young, female, and black and living in a tree-lined neighborhood in the West Ward of Newark, New Jersey, in the ’70s and ’80s, a time when the city was gradually becoming less mixed with people from many different backgrounds and faiths. I saw the change as many of my friends who weren’t black were moving to the neighboring suburbs. If you walked in the park or around my neighborhood, you largely heard R & B hits like the Whispers singing “And the Beat Goes On” or Teddy Pendergrass crooning “Love TKO.” And I knew there was more out there.
My parents were civil rights activists and educators who brought an extended family of academics and young upstarts into our home on a regular basis. Our stereo played the gamut of styles from classical to experimental jazz to musicals. Some of my Newark friends raised their eyebrows when I mentioned the Doobie Brothers or Queen, but it didn’t occur to me that I should limit my tastes or be boxed into a fixed perception of what a young person from Newark should groove to. So my brother’s record collection sparked a personal movement, and music continues to change my life every day and gives me the confidence to listen to what I want and to define my path beyond assumptions. And my family showed me the way.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
My copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek long ago fell apart, its cover separated from the spine, pages held together more by memory and number than glue. Pay attention, Dillard wrote to my undergraduate self, don’t just look at the world around you, but see it, see and smell and feel and hear and taste all the beauty and all the brutality of the outside world that you love so much.
I used her book as a touchstone for a creative writing class, which I loved, even though I threw the highlighter against the wall in frustration, because every word she wrote was so damned important. And, like a fledgling painter using Monet for inspiration, I wisely chose to stick with horticulture, learning that plants are much more forgiving than paint, or the written word.
Professor of History
Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
At the risk of cliché, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series (1932–43) won my heart and sparked my historical imagination in transformative ways (starting in 1974). As a scholar of the American West, I focus on human connections to land and natural resources. As I’ve read, researched, and taught, I have engaged with two ongoing tensions. The first is the gap between Wilder’s mythic American story and a far more complex, violent, and interesting history of conquest, dispossession, failure, and environmental change (what scholars now term settler colonialism). The second is the question of when and how we as scholars and educators share this fuller story with our students. As Caroline Fraser explains in her Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wilder’s fictional stories wove together memories, inventions, and erasures in a narrative shaped as much by the crisis of the Great Depression as by the Ingalls and Wilder families’ struggles and failures. Yet those fictions started my journey to deeper truths and better stories. A recent semester of History 216 began with the 1862 Dakota Sioux Uprising—five years before Wilder’s birth—which, as Fraser shows, spurred and shaped her family’s westward migration in profound ways.
David Barker ’06
Director, Fort Greene Park, NYC Parks
My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George
My mom’s reading of Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain to me in elementary school changed my life. The story about Sam Gribley, who escapes a crowded New York City apartment to the Catskill Mountains for a year of wilderness survival, helped steer me on a course of outdoor adventure and continued awe of rugged, self-sufficient individualists, from Teddy Roosevelt to MacGyver.
I ended up in New York City after Middlebury, having grown up in Oregon. For 12 years I’ve tried to make that escape to the Catskills for weekend fishing, and more locally through work for the New York City Parks Department. I fled the agency’s cushy Manhattan headquarters a few years ago to the rugged world of park maintenance, where I manage the 30-acre Fort Greene Park at the edge of downtown Brooklyn. The people and wildlife Sam befriended in the Catskills remind me of the diverse mix of characters and creatures I come across at the park.
Sam had Frightful the Peregrine falcon. I greet a pair of red-tailed hawks each day that swoop for pigeons outside of my office. In place of Bando, the professor who teaches and mentors Sam, I rely on Ted, a retired neighbor who coaches me in all manner of repairs to our mowers and utility vehicles. I joke that Fort Greene Park is my own fiefdom. Or, put another way, the park has become my side of the mountain.
Faculty, Bread Loaf School of English
Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange
I came across Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo in a first-year course at UC Berkeley. Up until that time, I had not seen myself as a young African American woman in literature in that way, and Ntozake broke my world right open.
After I realized we were there in all of our beauty and magic, I could not get enough. I read as much as I could. It was a feast for my spirit. Once you see yourself in literature celebrated for the beauty you are and can be, there’s no going back. I looked for other stories exploring and celebrating the lives of Black women and came across Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, and others. I already loved writing. Naturally, I went on to write myself and other African American girls and young women in our celebration and stories. I found exceptional poetry mentors who helped me hone the celebration in my work. This culminated in a poetry collection at the end of undergrad, We Are the Young Magicians, which won the Barnard New Women Poets Prize. The celebration in my work continues, and it started with Ntozake Shange.
Professor of Russian
Vini zvani pu, Bosnian and Croatian translation of Winnie-the-Pooh
My story involves reading the Serbo-Croatian (as the language was then known) translation of Winnie-the-Pooh, Vini zvani pu, when I was a junior in Zagreb, Yugoslavia (as it was then). I had hoped to learn Serbian and to study medieval Serbian frescoes, but the only program in Yugoslavia was a) in Zagreb, Croatia and b) to study Russian, so I had to make do with taking some art history and studying the frescoes on my own. Outside of class time, three or four of our group (six Americans in total), somehow decided to improve our Croatian by reading Winnie-the-Pooh (I had already read it in Russian, as well as in English, of course). I remember reading it in an apple orchard in Slovenia, but also on the train from Graz to Zagreb with two students and a stranger in the train compartment. The stranger was sleeping, or so I thought, by the window, with her coat hanging and draped over her head (a familiar sight on European trains), while I was occasionally explaining something about Slavic grammar to my classmates, who also knew Russian. At some point the mystery woman came out from under her coat and pronounced that I must be a teacher. She turned out to be the formidable head of the Art History Department at Zagreb University, a woman whose reputation I had heard of, Vera Horvat-Pintarić. It took me another two years to actually come around to the idea of teaching, but perhaps this planted the seed?
James Chase Sanchez
Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric
The Leftovers, created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta
This overlooked television show brings us to a small town and a particular family after a “rapture” takes place—where 2 percent of the population literally vanishes into thin air. With no specific connections between these people who vanish and no religion being able to answer for it, we are left with a world of characters who are hopeless and who are trying to make meaning out of their hopelessness. It sounds bleak—and it is—but it’s oddly life-affirming as well, as we get to follow characters searching for meaning through relationships, cults, place, and family. I never would imagine that a show that would fit neatly into the category of magical realism would feel more realistic than any show I have ever seen, but that is exactly what The Leftovers does. It forces its audience to be aware of their existence and eventual mortality and forces them to deal with it. It is brazen, refreshing, and oddly uplifting.
Associate Director, Bread Loaf School of English
The Woman of Colour by Anonymous
While working on my graduate dissertation, an anonymous novel originally published in England in 1808 changed my life. I had read about The Woman of Colour in Jennifer DeVere Brody’s monograph Impossible Purities (1998). But Brody didn’t provide any indication of where one might get a hold of this intriguingly titled text. A subsequent and fortuitous research trip to the British Library, however, brought me face-to-face with what I believed, at the time, was the only extant copy of this amazing two-volume epistolary narrative. It tells the story of a motherless biracial woman whose English slaveholding father dies in Jamaica and leaves a curious mandate in his will: his mulatto daughter must leave her homeland with a £60,000 dowry, travel to England, and marry her white first cousin. Perusing Olivia Fairfield’s letters gave me a unique and nuanced glimpse of a life lived by a wealthy woman of color in the year after Britain abolished its colonial slave trade. Moreover, I started to see women of color as crucial characters within the British novel and even as possible creators of important 18th- and 19th-century fictions that British critics had too long ignored.
Catherine O’Neill Grace ’72
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
I was nine when the U.S. government, in its wisdom, sent me into exile, reassigning my father from his State Department post in New Delhi, my home since I was four, to Washington, D.C. That winter, my mother and I visited her hometown—Williamsport, Pennsylvania—and went for tea with her high school English teacher, Miss Miriam Wendell. Miss Wendell gave me the run of her library, and I took down a heavy, musty book: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It was probably the 1905 edition; Miss Wendell collected children’s books, and this one was venerable. I skimmed the story about a rich little girl named Sara Crewe who is sent back to England from her home in India, falls on hard times, and is banished to a cold attic and drudgery as a servant. How this resonated with me, shivering in the Pennsylvania cold, separated from everyone I knew and from the sun and heat and smells of home. I read a paragraph in which Sara clambers into a skylight to look out at the sunset over London (“It’s a Splendid one . . .”) and sees an Indian servant, a lascar, cradling a pet monkey across the way. The monkey escapes; Sara catches it, and a gleaming tale of redemption and restored riches follows. But it wasn’t the happy ending that enchanted me. It was the moment when Sara recognizes that the lascar misses the Indian sun. Reading that, I was no longer alone.