|Julie telling to the littles|
There have been a lot of articles, lectures, and discussions about how storytelling makes connections between people. How the audience and the storyteller have a shared experience. How there is no storytelling without the audience – teller and listener are in this thing together.
And I have experienced that – from the adult that begins to reminisce after hearing a story, to the jaded teen that reveals themselves when they say they “get” where a character is coming from – even if that character is an animal, or a wizard, or has 16 arms - to the youngest listeners who are eager to tell me about their dog, after hearing about a dog in a story, or calling out that they know someone named Jack, like the boy in the story. These little revelations are often touching, sometimes amusing, but one that happened just recently was troubling, and reminded me, once again of the need for folktales.
For the last three summers, I have been fortunate enough to tell stories at day camps and child care centers in Paterson, NJ, through a program of the Paterson Library. Instead of the children – mostly ages 4 – 6 years old, having to be brought to the library, this program brings several professional storytellers to the facilities, as well as providing volunteer readers, that come regularly. Each site has been a joy, full of eager listeners and lots of fun!!
On my next to last day, I went to a day camp that was run in a school. I felt bad for both the children, and their teenage counselors, because there was ZERO air conditioning, and it was a REALLY hot day. It would be too hot for the kids to go out even, so it was a day they would stay indoors. The volunteer reader must have been great, because when they heard there was someone from the library there, the kids perked up! The overheated, but very game staff, lined up the kids to take them to the cooler of the two rooms, and as the kids got up, I began to “read “ the crowd, to see who I would be telling my tales for. I did this as I usually do – by acting silly. Soon there were smiles, and laughs, and they pulled in closer to me, and I began to ask some of their names. One little girl, who was, as a friend of mine says, “happiness on legs” came very close to me. Her giggle was like soap bubbles – light, floaty, and irresistible. Her little face looked up at me, and then she said, quite merrily, “I have a stalker.”
Whatever game I had been playing with the group came to an abrupt end – I did that thing we adults do when we don’t want kids to see we are worried or upset, I breathed deep, put on a kind, but straight face, and spoke in a decidedly even tone. “What do you mean?” I asked, knowing kids make things up – I mean that is the gift of childhood, an imagination as wide as an ocean. It is this imagination that I fear that our children are losing faster and faster each year. But, even as I waited to see if there was anything real about this statement, the reality hit me that the prospect of a stalker was in this little girl’s consciousness. It wasn’t “I have a pet unicorn”, or “I have flown to the moon” – it was, “I have a stalker”. This kid had been exposed to the concept of a stalker – in some way – either in life, or in TV, or in overheard conversations - enough that at age 5, she got what it was. The counselor, no older than 16 years old came out, and I had the girl repeat what she said. The counselor looked puzzled, and then was quickly taken away by another child who needed her.
“He comes by my window at night,” she continued, cheerfully. “But, my big sister scares him away. She has a gun. She is big and strong, and will protect me.” By this point, the line was moving towards the room I was to tell in, and the kids were hustled into the room, and made to sit down. There was no senior staff in the room, so I began my telling. The little girl was one of the brightest lights in the room. My brain burned with the question, “Is she telling the truth???” even as I turned myself into lions, frogs, and one sassy fox. It was one of those performances that, after I was done, the kids got up and gave me a group hug.
I alerted my contact at the library, so she could tell the person in charge of the program – I feared I was over reacting, but I feared MUCH MORE turning on the news and seeing a report about a little girl shot in her bed. I was told it was “handled” – so I will never know whether the stalker was a figment of this child’s imagination, or someone who wished to harm this young innocent – but to me, it doesn’t matter. Instead of magic, fairies, and talking animals, this child’s head was full of danger and guns. Whether real or not, in truth, it was her reality, because what we hold in our consciousness IS our reality. Somehow, the things that filled my head as child, weren’t even a moment’s thought to this girl – she could not conceive of the wonder that fills folktales, because all she had been exposed to was the harsh reality of a society that spews out violence to all ages 24/7.
As I drove away that day, I felt a mix of powerlessness and determination – I cannot eradicate the ills that are “downloaded” into the hard drive of young minds today, but I could, at least, offer them something else. Another view – a softer view, someplace where imagination could land, and allow them to picture a world, where danger wasn’t a given, where they could be what they were actually meant to be – CHILDREN!!!