The late poet and writer Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

The junior class at Casco Bay High School would wholeheartedly agree.

“In the media age, we hear much from or about the famous, rich, and powerful, while our neighbors are quietly living heroic, brave lives – in small and big ways,” they say in their opening to the People of Portland Project, 2020. “We know there are many in our community who have shown immense courage, resilience and strength in the face of hardship or injustice … We want to listen to these everyday people and we want to bring their stories to life for all of us to experience.”

But they need your help. Between now and Nov. 12, the class is seeking people throughout Greater Portland who stand out without a spotlight, who serve as role models without even trying, who might not even think their story is one worth telling.

“I think it’s important to hear the voices of the unknown,” Mark Oryem, a member of the project’s steering committee, said during an interview at the school Friday afternoon. “For people who don’t really have a platform to really express or tell their stories, I feel like this is a great way for their voices to be heard.”

It’s not the first time the juniors at CBHS, under the direction of English teacher Susan McCray, have fanned out from the school in search of the compelling narrative.

For the past 14 years, successive junior classes have done deep dives into documentary storytelling by way of films, photos, sound recordings and written words.

Last year, for the first time, they took to the stage.

Drawing from two separate hourlong interviews, the four-member teams of students actually performed the stories onstage at the high school. While their subjects watched from the audience, they took what made each person’s story compelling and, in a carefully choreographed combination or words and motion, ran with it.

This year, for the first time, they’re asking for nominations from the public. Here’s how to submit one.

The purpose is twofold.

First, McCray said, it’s a great way to deal with the painful truth that in an increasingly divided world, we’ve lost the ability to talk with – and listen to – one another. Focus an audience on a singular story, she added, and “all that goes away.”

We see it in movie theaters all the time: Total strangers, touched by the story they just watched together, sharing their reactions and thoughts as they head for the parking lot en masse to get on with their disparate lives.

The second goal – the project comprises a good chunk of 97 kids’ junior year, after all – is to learn everything from interviewing skills to the intricacies of the narrative arc.

Each team will consist of an interviewer, a sound recorder, a photographer and observer, who will take notes and, from the start, listen for what makes a person’s story truly compelling.

After the first interview, scheduled for late January, the students will examine what they have, identify what they still need and go back for another sit-down in early February.

“We talk a lot about how you establish rapport and how do you listen closely and so intensely and deeply that the person feels compelled and moved and wants to be heard and will reveal themselves to you,” McCray said.

To that end, the interviews will be conducted somewhere in the subject’s comfort zone – workplace, home, wherever they feel most at ease. Once both sessions are completed, the students will transcribe them verbatim and then go about the arduous task of building a narrative.

That, McCray said, can be the tricky part.

Last year, one team focused on Sahra Hassan, a 2015 graduate of CBHS who at the time of her interviews was wrapping up her four years at the University of New England. Sitting in on Friday, she recalled being nervous at first, but in the end finding it “a really, really cool experience.”

Still, getting to the heart of Sahra’s story wasn’t easy. After she divulged the tragic loss of her brother, the team wanted to make that the climax of her narrative. McCray, who knew Sahra from her days at CBHS, wasn’t so sure.

“They were definitely moved by (the death of Sahra’s brother), as they should have been,” McCrea recalled.

But in the process, they were missing a broader picture: Sahra, upon winning a scholarship at UNE, had to decide between going off to dorm life on the school’s picturesque Biddeford campus – as the scholarship required – and staying home with her Somalian immigrant family, for whom she played a critical caretaking role.

The climactic moment, the team eventually agreed, was when she finally had to choose  between her past and her future.

“Which is the general story of most immigrant kids,” Sahra said.

Once the interviews are complete, the students will take the transcripts and assign each quote, each anecdote, each detail, a place in the narrative arc. From there, they will select the most compelling lines and arrange them into a four-person script – although every word they use will have been uttered at some point by their subject.

Finally, on March 13, they will take it all to a pair of stages at CBHS. The subjects of their stories, along with those who nominated them, will be the guests of honor.

Maybe you’ve already thought of someone. Maybe it’s a member of your family, or your neighbor, or your mail carrier, or anyone with whom you’ve crossed paths and come away thinking, “Wow. What an inspiration. Other people should hear about this.”

So go ahead, look around at the people in your orbit. Find that one person who impresses you not by how many Facebook hits they generate, but by how they quietly go about living their lives with dignity, honor, an ethic worth emulating.

And if you’re still not sure this is worth your or your nominee’s time, I refer you to steering committee member Marlee Mellen.

“A lot of the people you see on TV and on social media – it’s not real.” Marlee said. “But people around you, people you see every day, people you encounter hardships with? That’s real.”

Marlee’s but one of almost 100 soon-to-be adults in search of real, everyday folks worth emulating. Meanwhile, countless people throughout Greater Portland are going through their daily lives, as Maya Angelou so poignantly put it, “bearing untold stories inside.”

Let the nominations begin.


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