by Luray Gross
It’s a rainy evening and I have not yet unpacked my suitcase after a four-day stint in the central Jersey town where I used to live. I was there as the teller for a four-day storytelling residency at Brainerd Elementary School. Brainerd opted to have me see each of their sixteen kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade classes for one 45-minute introduction to storytelling. This seemed to work out just fine.
In each session I told three or four tales, including at least one story in which the children participated through chanting, singing, and/or movement. My hope was to activate not only their mental image-making facilities, but to create a situation in which they helped the story unfold with their participation. I was quite pleased with the involvement of the students and touched by their wide-eyed attention and the many connections they made with other folktales and with their personal lives.
Near the end of a session with one of the second grade classes, a boy I’ll call Manny raised his hand to say, “I have a connection to that dress story. It’s like my mother.” The first story I had told his class was the Haitian tale, “Tipingee,” in which the main character is left with her stepmother after both her parents have died. As the story unfolds, Tipingee asks her friends to wear dresses the same color as hers and thus help her stay safe. In my telling of the story today, I found myself inserting an explanation for the selfishness of the stepmother who offers Tipingee as a servant to a man demanding payment for carrying a bundle of wood. I said something like, “When Tipingee’s father married again, his new wife was kind and caring, but after he died, something in her heart cracked, and she became mean and selfish.” A few other students had comments and questions about the stories, then Manny raised his hand again to quietly ask, “Do you want to hear about my mother?”
“Would you like to tell us?” I asked.
Manny nodded and quietly explained that his mother’s parents both used “bad drugs,” and sometimes they didn’t even give her anything to eat, but her grandmother realized what was happening, took Manny’s mother to live with her and took care of her. “And she grew up and met my dad and got married and they had me, and now she is happy,” Manny concluded. All simply told. All from a deep place.
This kind of happening is far from rare when age-old stories are brought to life in a classroom. Children explode with energetic laughter over silly antics and grow thoughtful when the dilemmas of characters resonate with their own challenges. One of the most rewarding things for me is when this occurs for a teacher. That too happened at Brainerd School. In another second grade class I ended our session with the Native American story, “Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle.” In the tale, the larger-than-life boy Gluscabi gets fed up with the wind and finds a way to trick the great bird, the source of that element. He succeeds in stopping the wind, only to discover how much we need it. Then he must reverse his actions to restore the great bird to its mountain top. I tend to end this tale by saying, “And so it has been to this day: sometimes the wind blows so hard we cannot stand against it, sometimes it is a gentle breeze, and sometimes there is not a breath of wind at all.”
Mrs. H, the teacher, was sitting behind her students for all of the stories, attentive and drawn in, but the wind story was different. Her whole body was leaning into it, and when I finished, she was the one who raised her hand. “That reminds me of something our pastor said in a sermon about the winds of adversity. That’s what they can be.” Without her having to say more, I understood that she knew what that adversity felt like and had found a way to stand up in its presence. When we saw each other again in the faculty room, that bond of understanding remained. For me, one of the deep rewards of this work.