storytelling, story hearing, story gathering
Today I'm writing about something I read aloud, to a group of children yesterday at BTW school, as a prompt to get them to talk about their own stories. The book was A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams. It was interesting to try this... first we were in absolutely the wrong space for little ones to pay attention, a raucous and noisy auditorium. So I asked that we move, and we did, to the library. Then we had the problem that some children had already read the book, so I asked them to keep it secret for the others. In the middle of the book, one girl blurted out "then their house burned," and I leaned to her and said, yes, that's the story inside the story that we'll keep secret for now. So she kept the secret, and felt proud instead of out of line for her enthusiastic outburst.
In a context where a group is divided into those above the age 9 (who went with Rosie to do the Smart Moves program, an anti-gang/drug program) and those below, the 8 year olds become the jaded teenagers. The 5 and 6 year olds become the centers of attention, because they are willing to speak, and they are joined by those 7 year olds still willing to regress a bit and shout out their tales. The 8 year olds look blase, bored beyond belief, slumping in the back of the story circle. I took it in stride. I just spoke to the children.
After I read, we talked about disasters. When bad things happen... This was meant to be an exercise in Community Funds of Knowledge, but ended up being 3/4 fantasy stories. A remarkable number of children had experienced "fires" as disasters, immediate after hearing the story about a fire. The coincidence suggested that children's imaginations were still engaged with the story rather than indicating a rash of arsonists in the neighboorhood. I think the only real one among the group of younger children was "The Big Ketchup Bottle Disaster," which involved a bottle of ketchup plummeting to the floor ("kablooie").
Among the larger group of children which included those ages 9-13 or so, I was told 2 stories of real disasters. One was of an aunt and cousin's house that had been hit by a tree in a tornado. I stopped and talked with this girl, the one who drew this picture with a tree bending in to the window of her aunt's house. She was in earnest about her experience, and it was a story of safety and getting to the basement on time. Another boy had a story about his trip to Mexico when he was 7, when he had been hit in the stomach by a goat. His picture was so vivid. Using only the colors orange and green, he drew a goat, complete with ram's horns, with its head down. He drew himself lifted slightly up in the air, with an "X" and a circle on his belly where the goat hit him. He told me he was in the hospital for 3 weeks.
These experiences make me believe in the power of story. I don't always know if it matters whether stories are true or not. I'm convinced that the power lies somewhere in the telling. If they are real, then they are cautionary or informative. If imagined, they are a testament to the creative reworking we all do of narratives around us, which we weave into the story in which we cloak ourselves from morning to night.