“This one,” Sam says, pointing, and I begin:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall….
Rhyme by rhyme, tiny story by tiny story, we proceed through the book Sam has chosen. A few weeks ago, discomfitted by my 3-year old grandson’s pre-school-induced interest in superheroes, and bored with the wooden prose in the two Super Friend books he owns, I pulled the collection of nursery rhymes from his shelf and began reading, though “reading” is not exactly what I was doing. Many of the rhymes I sang; in giving voice those I did not sing, I emphasized their rhythm and rhyme. Of course more than vocal play is involved. We marched in place for “The Noble Duke of York,” popping up and down as his “ten thousand men” march to the top of the hill, crouching for “when you’re only half-way up, you’re neither up nor down.”
Since then, each time I’ve come, Sam – who decided to be Flash Kid for Halloween – has brought me the book and settled in for the entire ride, Humpty Dumpty to the sleep-time poems on the last pages.
I thought of that last week, as my colleagues Helen and Gerry and I worked on plans for an upcoming residency at Stokes Early Childhood Learning Center in Trenton, NJ. Our discussion ranged from scheduling complexities to the stories we want to bring to these preschoolers and their teachers. Stories that involve movement and song are a necessity, for even in adulthood, we humans learn through our bodies. We often forget how vital physicality is for all learners.
When I am not telling stories, I visit schools as the resident poet. In these projects, my aim is to immerse the students in creative expression, both through experiencing poems of others and making their own new poems. One of my favorite activities is to write out a poem on the board and invite the students (third graders onward), to copy it. I explain that when you write the poem out with your own hand, it gets into you more deeply than when you read it. I often teach younger children a short poem “by ear” adding gestures for each line. These brief poems become part of our shared culture, much in the way that certain texts and songs are part of what binds a group together, be it a Girl Scout troop or a congregation at worship.
Storytellers who have a sustained relationship with a school will tell you how there are certain tales they tell each year, some much more often because the students demand them. Both teller and listener delight in the “superior” position of knowing how the story goes. Both are comforted by the familiar music of the story, that of certain words and phrases, as well as the dependable the shape of the story itself. The only thing better than hearing a new story is hearing a story again.
I think the reassurance of the familiar is part of what makes the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Bobby Shaftoe, and Wee Willie Winkie appeal to Sam over and over. No matter what has happened in Sam’s life that day, the old woman will always put her many children to bed, Bobby Shaftoe will come home to marry the girl and little Jack Horner will pull that plum out of the Christmas pie exclaiming, “What a good boy am I!”