This is the first post of a special series, STORYTELLER IN THE FIELD, exploring the actual telling of stories.
The children entered the room with a sense of excitement and calm. I had spread Indonesian cloths on the floor to define the space; to alert children to a place prepared especially for them. I was delighted to greet them as they happily took their assigned places. Teachers involved sat with the children. The few who needed extra support in order to listen were with individual staff.After welcoming everyone and introducing myself, I lifted my arms, “Now lift up your arms and reach out your fingers to touch the goodness in the sky. Now let’s take our hands down together slowly.”
Slowing down with anticipation and playfulness, we drew from a deep shared energy within each of us and from the communal feeling the activity engendered.
I began a story. My audience alive with curiosity and four-year-old preoccupations were not shy. They settled into listening:
“There was once a King who…”
A boy called out, “I am a King.”
Another said, “Are the Three Little Pigs in this story?”
“What about the wolf?” asked a girl with an embroidered dog on her t-shirt.
I began again, “There was once a King in India whose favorite story was The Three Little Pigs and the Wolf.” I asked the child who had asked about the King to become the King, “Join me on my large chair.”
He leaned back and said, ” I am not a King anymore. ”
But two girls squeezed in next to me.
That seemed to satisfy everyone.
The five-minute tale now took fifteen as I included everyone’s comments.
For me to include everyone signaled to the children the unspoken fact that the most important aspect of the journey was our participation together. For a storyteller, being present to the actuality of the room expands the joy and the focus tremendously. An inner knowing of confidence arises. It is as if they are saying with their continued focus, “I am able to not only learn and participate, but influence the things that happen in my life.” There is a combination of discipline and spontaneity that colors the storyteller moving it from the territory of text into a living art.
Amazingly we moved well into the story about a poignant friendship between an elephant and a dog. They were with me all the way to the conclusion.
I brought the tale to a close with, “And everyone, including the three little pigs, the wolf, the other Kings and Princesses, the cheetah, Jocelyn the dog and a red race car all lived happily ever after.” We finished with each of the 35 children taking a turn beside me on the chair. I announced, “welcome,” as they sat down very pleased. Then I counted to 3 and off they went back to their seats on the floor.
The white tiled floor covered with colorful cotton perked up and focused the conference room (which was remarkably clean for a school). Behind me was a bright green batik cloth held up with red tape. During the telling, already infused with participation, it fell off the wall and slid onto the floor. Children in the first row began to tug at it covering their legs, tumbling out of the story. Since I couldn’t think of a way to include it in the unfolding, already-stretched-thin narrative, I took it in my hands saying, “Amazing. The cloth was so excited it wanted to hear the story too.” Then I draped it over one shoulder making sure the children saw that it was close to my head. And I continued. Bringing humor and life into the room rather than blame or serious discipline allowed them to self adjust and come back to their senses. There was a small extra appreciation I felt for the cloths. I had purchased them in an open-air street market in a small town in Kuala Lumpur on my way to tell stories. That they were somehow falling off the wall, or crumpled beneath children felt delicious and appropriate. If the audience had been older I might have told them the story of finding the cloths. A wakeful storyteller, dedicated to the audience relies on an inner sense of what can keep the joyful and deepening relationship of an audience active. A memorized tale or prepackaged response has far less benefit for the audience.
The second story I told was a join-in tale from Puerto Rico: The Squeaky Door. I stated that I first heard the story in Spanish. A boy lifted his hands up in the air as if thrilled.
He shouted, pointing to the girl next to him, “She lives in Puerto Rico!”
She moved away from him, distressed, calling out, “I do not live in Puerto Rico.”
I said, “You live in Hoboken.”
She smiled and relaxed.
But we had opened the door for a plethora of place names and countries, including Disney World, being called out.
I let it go on for a time and then asked, “Is there anyone here who has ever been afraid of the dark?”
Almost all the children called out NO so strongly that I said, “Wow. No one?”
And a small girl in the back, wearing a very light pink blouse, raised her hand nodding, “I am.” I said, “Sometimes I am as well.” I wanted to make sure that anyone who had not admitted feeling afraid of the dark sometimes could find some allowance for their feelings, even if they’re not publicly acknowledged.
So we began.
The call and response included actions, sounds, emotions and choral chants. Mostly everyone was captivated in the thrill of it all. Somehow having announced that she was afraid of the dark, the pink-blouse girl nodded in agreement every time I mentioned the squeaky door that made a scary noise. I nodded to her knowingly and felt as if we were perhaps not only acknowledging her fear, but also feeding her bravery each time the door closed in the story. Twice she even stood up and sat down like an exclamation point.
I hardly had to tell the story once we were knee deep in what was repeatedly occurring.One child or another called out events before I had a chance. The audience became the storytellers.
A summary of the tale: A boy was afraid of the dark. He jumped under his bed and cried every time his grandmother closed the squeaky door to his room. His grandmother’s solution was to keep adding animals under the covers so he wouldn’t be afraid.
We had a lot of fun becoming the animals, calling out whaw.whaw(mock crying) and meow; woof woof; oink; sssshhhh; and finally loud neighs accompanied by rhythmic hoof sounds on their knees.We came close to the culmination of the tale, but someone called out, “How come she didn’t’ put a cow in the bed? ”
The story stopped as a lot of kids starting asking about different animals. In time I replied, “She would have put the cow, the monkey, the elephant and the tiger in the bed. But when the horse jumped out of the bed, it fell apart.”
“Of course,” replied a boy in the middle who had been quiet until then, relieving me of telling the story for hours until my repertory of sounds and over used throat might have run out of inspiration!
The story came to a close with satisfaction and full involvement. The idea of a bed collapsing brought a roar of laughter and incredible near somersaults.
I have told the same story often in camps and orphanages in Haiti after the earthquake. In that situation, where the loss of a bed and a house collapsing was visceral, I changed the ending. I had the grandmother find a tin of oil in the kitchen and fix the squeaky door. This never changed the essential work of the story and saved any child who might have been triggered by the images of destruction so fresh in their minds.
As we delighted in the images of the bed and the house falling apart, a very energetic zany event, I said very quietly, “And the little boy climbed into a new bed in a new house that had no squeaky door.”
The secret play of silent collusion ensued as they leaned in to taste the end of the tale.“That’s it!” I said, clapping.
“One more?” said the pink-bloused girl.
I told what I thought would be a very short story about my sixth birthday when I wanted a puppy. It is a tale where not much happens, but there is tremendous suspense. Of course the minor part where children come to my house with gifts expanded into a list of desired gifts. A child would say what they imagined I wanted, revealing what they wanted. In the context of the story there was expression, rather than disappointment or dissatisfaction or want. I repeated what they said adding it to the suspense and fun of the story. I rushed to the conclusion of the tale: a gift of a small white puppy with one black ear. A puppy I named Clipper, Zipper, Tipper. They roared and repeated the names.
A very happy group of children left some rushing up to hug me, others waving, others leaving, smiling to the next moment of their lives. They exited, careful of one another, listening to their teachers, and full of energy. As they departed, I scooped up the cloths and laughed out loud for the sheer pleasure of having enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed being part of the story.