Where Do You Call Home?

Did you notice the wording of my title? If you know anything about Great Books and our Shared Inquiry™ method of reading and discussion, you know we value good questions and pay careful attention to their wording. Same with the question in my title.

I chose this wording of the question as an ice-breaker at Stories with Nine Strangers, the small group discussions I’ve led this spring at the Chicago History Museum as part of their Chicago Authored exhibit. And I chose the question because where and when we choose to call a place “home” is an important theme in the book from which my group was discussing selections—The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.

The wording of the question was important to me because I, personally, have a complex answer. I travel a lot to teach Great Books courses and consult in schools, and when I am coming into O’Hare Airport after a trip, I definitely call Chicago “home.” After all, I’ve lived in the Chicago area for over 30 years now; it’s where I own a home and have a husband and cat and garden and friends that I am eager to see again.

But when I really pay attention to my wording and deeply answer that question in the title for myself, I still call Western Pennsylvania “home.” Oh, there’s no one house or spot any more, since I don’t have many family left in the area. But I grew up there and those roots are what make those ridges and hills and mountains “home” for me. Anywhere in the Appalachian Mountain range gives me that feeling of rootedness, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Adirondacks.

Why? In our Shared Inquiry Essentials course, I’ve frequently used a story titled “Gaston,” by William Sarayon, to model using a sequence of activities to support readers as they grapple with complex texts. The pre-reading question we usually started with was “What makes a place a home?” which gives the topic a slightly different twist. Obviously, for me, having roots, coming from a place, being able to trace back to origins, even the physical geography and land, are all important aspects of my answer to both questions.

Which may be part of why I find the stories of people who have complex answers to questions about home so fascinating. Even though my life story’s beginnings seem simple, the complexity and intensity of my answers to these questions signal how important they are to how I experience the world. And the wisdom embodied in great authors’ creative answers to these questions stretches my understanding of the many ways people can create homes, and roots, and begin again, especially in challenging circumstances, when literally going home isn’t easy, or even possible.

Next month, I’m looking forward to further explorations of this complex theme through the lens “Home Is Where the Art Is: Insights on the Haitian-American Experience.” This day-long event in Chicago features a conversation with National Book Award nominee Edwidge Danticat and a discussion focusing on her short story “Hot-Air Balloons,” which appears in our anthology Immigrant Voices: 21st Century Stories. Time to explore the Haitian American Museum and a storytelling workshop are also part of the event. Join us if you can!

Denise Ahlquist is the Foundation’s vice-president of professional learning. She travels the world training teachers how to bring Shared Inquiry to their classrooms. Denise enjoys reading, gardening, dining out with friends, and relaxing at home with her husband and cat Tika.

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