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From Homeless to Harvard

March 11, 2013 | by Debbie Gutfreund

Passover is the time to tell your story.

On Passover we tell our story as the Jewish nation. Across thousands of Seder tables, the same words will echo as we speak of the darkness of Egypt and the light of freedom that burst forth 3,300 years ago.

At the Seder we also speak of where we came from. How Abraham was born into a home of idol worshippers. How he was almost killed in his search for the truth. How he needed to leave his birthplace and go to an unknown destination.

With no home and no map, Abraham had to write his own story. And through his courage, he taught us how to write our stories.

We each struggle through periods of uncertainty and confusion. How we tell our stories matters just as much as the stories themselves. Narrative therapy, originally developed by Michael White, teaches us that we can reframe our lives by focusing on what we did to overcome challenges in the past, and then use those same strengths to tackle our present.

Retelling the Jewish story is what we do at the Passover Seder. There is power in our story. Beauty in our story. Look where we began. Look how far we have come. And look where we are sitting now: free to speak, free to believe, and free to change our stories in the blink of an eye.

How about Dawn Loggins, a teenager who grew up in dire poverty and changed her life story. She told herself a tale of triumph when she so easily could have succumbed to dejection and despair.

Since her parents could not pay the electric bill, Dawn studied by candlelight.

Dawn struggled through a childhood full of endless evictions from dilapidated apartments, and the sheer terror of being on the streets with nowhere to go. Even when her family had a home, her parents often could not pay the electric bill, so Dawn studied by candlelight. She spent years eating noodles for every meal.

Throughout high school she worked each day as a school janitor – starting at 6 a.m. for two hours before school and for two hours after. Then she would stay up till midnight doing homework and studying for her honors and advanced placement classes.

Even that didn't prepare her for the shock of returning from a high school summer program in North Carolina, to find that her parents and sisters had abandoned her. The family had no phone service, so it took Dawn months to figure out they had moved to Tennessee.

During this time, Dawn crashed on couches at different friends' houses, until a school bus driver offered to host her. Dawn's boss at her custodial job also helped by washing her clothes at school and providing some food. Another mother in the community helped Dawn fill out college applications, and the staff at her high school raised the money needed to fund her visit to apply to Harvard that spring.

Dawn is now a freshman at Harvard and will be graduating in the class of 2016.

Although Dawn had to grow up fast, she never saw herself in a pitiful light. She told herself a different story. Instead of closing a door on the past, she is using it to start a non-profit to help other impoverished students from her high school. She tells them a story of finding a way out of the limitations of the past, and heading forward to Harvard and beyond.

Bubbling Springs

The Jewish people had also been homeless for thousands of years. Throughout the generations, in attics and in cellars, we have sat by candlelight, whispering our tales so that no one could hear but ourselves. As the Talmud says: Even someone sitting alone at the Seder table must recite the Haggadah out loud and ask questions: Where do I come from? Where am I going? Can I somehow find freedom in this exile?

Each year as Passover draws near, I tell my children that each of us needs to ask these questions and think about our personal story.

The whisper of all of our stories blended like a tapestry of miracles.

And I tell them parts of my own story. I speak of when my husband and I were newly married and living in Israel. My grandparents came from New York to join us for Passover. I was eight months pregnant with our first child and we traveled together to Ein Gedi. When we reached the top of the path and saw the fresh spring waters, we all sat down on an ancient desert rock. Grandparents, grandchildren and a great-grandchild listening from the womb, listening to the sound of life itself bubbling up from its hidden source. The whisper of all of our stories blended like a tapestry of miracles.

I tell my children how we drank the water and took a picture. I held my grandmother's hand on the way down and cradled my unborn daughter in the other. I knew somehow then – like the clear water flowing from the rock – that we came from miracles inside of miracles, all flowing from One pure source.

And I tell them, too, how as a little girl I dreamed of having a family just like ours.

Across the world, we gather around Seder tables to tell our story – how we all somehow made it to this night when all of our lives are bond by an invisible thread of shared redemption. We reach for our grandparents' hands as we cradle stories not yet told. We move forward together – from homelessness to belonging, from slavery to freedom, from silence to speech. Where do I come from? Where am I going?

We write our own stories. Stories that must never fade away.

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