Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Truth in "Lies"

Last week I told stories for nine groups of first graders: one in which a tortoise rides on eagle’s back, one in which a strange visitor arrives one body part at a time, one in which a wolf demands that a little girl sing to him, another in which a man’s doctor is none other than a python.  Midway through the second day, I realized I had not yet heard that oft-asked question, “Is that true?”


These six and seven-year olds seemed entirely comfortable in the imaginative world of folk and fairy tale, where every story is really a story about the human condition, providing metaphors which do not have to be analyzed in order to be useful.  They seemed to intuit that these traditional tales contain truth even if the events never happened.


As teachers and parents we want our children to value honesty and to be able to live in the everyday world where we cannot count on physical magic, understand the language of the animals, or witness a giant pumpkin’s sky-born seeds turning into stars.


Perhaps it was partly this desire to prepare children for “the real world” that was behind one teacher’s consternation when a boy in her class told me that his father had gone to a skeleton doctor (not an orthopedist, but a doctor that was a skeleton) and got better.  “I forgot to tell you,” she quietly told me as I left the room,  “He is always lying.  He’s been referred to counseling.”  Her concern for her student was palpable.


In the days since that session, I have found myself trying to “unpack” this brief episode.  Many of us often feel the need to soften or stretch the truth, and we sometimes to go even further in both our discourses with others and our internal conversations.  The stories told by this little boy, new to both the school and the community, may come from his need to be acknowledged and to fit in. 


For me, his claims certainly confirmed that he had absorbed the story I’d just told, a folk tale from Zimbabwe called “Nyangara, the Python.”  In the tale, a group of brave children accomplish a task from which the men of the village flee.  They carry a chief’s doctor, a huge snake, down from his mountain cave and the very ill chief, gently tended by Nyangara, immediately regains his strength.


Coming to this story as an adult, I have always focused on the irrepressible innocent courage of the children, rather than on the magical powers of the snake.  But I am guessing that the boy who spoke of the skeleton doctor was hearing something very important about a child/father relationship.  In the tale, the chief refers to all of the kids as “my children” and prepares a great feast for them because they were able to do what the men were too frightened to do.  It is clear that the children save the man’s life.


Though I know nothing of this student’s family, I do know how it feels to be able to make an ailing parent feel better.   I vividly remember the months before my own father had the back surgery he so needed.  I was seven, the oldest of five, living on a busy dairy farm.  In school, I was a rather timid second grader.  At home, I was the capable one who could feed and dress my baby twin sisters while my mother was out in the barn or keep my two other sisters occupied by reading to them.  Nothing, however, made me feel as useful and as important as giving my dad a back rub.  “Press hard,” he’d say as I leaned into the tight muscles along his spine.  “That’s right.  That helps.”  


Now my father is 87. His heart is failing, his memory in shambles.  Sometimes, instead of dutifully working on his checkbook or cleaning his kitchen, I tell him a story I’m working on.  He is an attentive listener, still a thoughtful man, one who appreciates the truths wrapped up in the “lies” of the story.  I am grateful.

LURAY GROSS works extensively in schools and the community presenting workshops and performances for all ages. She is a believer in the power of stories and poems as resources nurturing heart, mind, and spirit. Under the auspices of Storytelling Arts, Inc., she brings multicultural folktales into the classroom and facilitates response and elaboration, particularly through writing. Her own love of the spoken and written word, of the outdoors, and of music were all nurtured by her experiences growing up on a busy dairy farm in Pennsylvania.

Luray is the author of three collections of poetry: Forenoon was published in 1990 by The Attic Press in Westfield, NJ, and Elegant Reprieve won the 1995-96 Still Waters Press Poetry Chapbook Competition. The Perfection of Zeros, was published by Word Press in 2004.