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

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Reflections on the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part III

by Jack McKeon

Many, many good things happened in our workshops at the Youth Detention Center. Often these would occur fleetingly, a quick laugh, a searching question, an eager listening pose, an insightful comment. It would be impossible to list all of these, but they happened frequently. Here are some that were important to me.
The boys, and finally, girls really liked the stories. They would come into the workshop sullen and resentful with their heads down. As we told, the heads would rise, eye contact would be made and, eventually, faces and body language showed total involvement. New residents, who didn’t know what to expect and who started out with embarrassed giggles, very quickly saw that the residents who had previously participated in Storytelling were listening and listened themselves. Students remembered the stories from day to day. Even after my first solo venture, when Julie P came in the next day they could repeat what I’d told them. 
There could be genuine enthusiasm. There would be amen corner responses, often obscene and incredulous that the characters could behave this way or angry at the frequent injustice. There could be energetic discussions afterwards. If time was up and a story wasn’t finished, they would insist on knowing how it ended. They could retell the stories. Occasionally they would tell their own. Boys who had been released and found their way back would greet us and tell us which stories they remembered we had told them. Once, a boy who expressed his disgust at the silliness of the stories provoked this response (more or less). “Just listen. These stories have a lot to do with us.”
The workshop aspect of each session usually involved some sort of creative response to the story. Most of these were very successful. They painted masks, made dream catchers, constructed collages of magic trees and monsters, painted and drew and used markers. They often worked with an intensity and focus that surprised me. If one session wasn’t enough to finish the work, they wanted to continue the next day. Often they wanted to take the results back with them to the residence area. They wrote vivid poetry drawn from their own experiences and were pleased to have it read aloud. It’s hard to imagine where else in their lives the opportunity for this kind of expression would arise
With those boys who were there for an extended period we did develop a trust and familiarity. W was a prime example. He was there for a year, waiting to reach his majority so he could be sent to real jail. When he first arrived, Julie DT and I were using the tarot cards again. He was clearly miserable. I gave him The Tower and told him just to look at it. He did. He cheered up as time went on, listened closely, had much to say and became a favorite of ours. We have kept a running commentary on our sessions on a wiki site and during that year, the comments increasingly mentioned W, his responses and general participation, even whether or not he was there, as if that in itself were an important point. I wished him well the last time I saw him before he left. I couldn’t shake his hand because at that time were were not supposed to touch the boys, but I would have. On his way out he said that he would see me again. He didn’t know how but he would. I think we still miss him.
There’s the story of A. When I first met him, I referred him in my wiki post, to my lasting shame, as a dope. He giggled constantly and blurted out inappropriate comments, and did strange disruptive things with whatever was at hand. He was, of course, a damaged person with something like Tourette’s, though I have no idea whether that was it. Julie DT and I went in one day to find, to our relief, that he was gone. As part of this work at the Morris County facilities, we would spend a third 45 minute session at the youth shelter down the hill (a story for another blog). When we arrived this time, there was A. He told us that his favorite story was “The Ugly Duckling”. Julie asked why. He said that he felt like the duckling, hated and avoided.
That day, we were telling stories about the goddess and A contributed excellent observations about the powers of women. Julie sort of told the “Duckling”. When I told my story, I think it was Baba Yaga, he focused, was quiet, and tried hard to articulate his response when I was through. It was a stunning example of the power a story can have. A was touched, focused, brought back for a time from his usual disruption. It was a session neither Julie nor I will forget.
Finally there was H who spent his classes, when T was present, with his head in his hands. He never looked up. At this point we were in a different room with no guard so we let him get away with it. When T left, H’s head would come up for a while. He began to comment on the stories from within his arms. “Just because my head’s in my arms that doesn’t mean I’m not listening.” Sometimes he came in and was totally there. His re-emergence was another example of the way trust would build with a resident who was in the Center for a long time. During our last few sessions last Spring, we had the boys writing dialogue and acting it out, often improvising. (Without a guard present, we were able to move around and interact.) The sessions were noisy and delightful. It was play. H wrote at length. During one of those sessions I told “The Golden Bird” again. He had a lot to say, and anticipated events in the story as it went along. He was impatient with the foolishness of the hero. At the very last session, Paula and I decided just to tell stories. Paula announced that it might be our very last time there. H looked up, mouth open in astonishment and, I think, dismay. After Paula explained why, he went back to his writing, one ear cocked to our stories. He was leaving the facility shortly thereafter.
We rarely knew what these residents had done to bring them to the Detention Center and we did not want to know. We were working with something else. Except for what we could see once in a while during the sessions, it is difficult to know if we made any impact. Did W take some part of us or our stories with him to help sustain him through his hard time? Did any of the residents, as they lay in bed at night, in lock-down, think about the story they had just heard? Did it make a connection? We can only hope so. Was it all worth it? Absolutely.
As a postscript, I need to say that one of the wonderful things for me about working at these facilities was the chance to interact so closely and cooperatively with four great storytellers who were full of ideas and offered wonderful support, all under Paula’s capable guidance.


Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reflections on the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part II

by Jack McKeon

My first solo venture at the Youth Detention Center never really left me. It demonstrated the need for good planning, but also for being able to go where the boys were going and being willing to abandon the plan to work with what they were hearing. It showed that I couldn’t count on my expectations. Flexibility was essential.  It also indicated that I never knew what to expect.  As a result, there was always a level of anxiety before I got there.

These boys carry a lot of baggage and from day to day we never knew what kind of mood or level of energy we might find. Being there demanded an empathy I didn’t always feel. We needed to understand that much of their negative reaction had little to do with us. I had to learn to keep my self out of it. Though there was sometimes open hostility to storytelling on the part of a few (very few) boys, discipline was rarely a problem because a guard was present at all times.  Sometimes the guard would land on the boys with some vehemence and we would have to find our way back to the telling. There could be other interruptions. Boys called out of the room. Walkie-talkies crackling and vocalizing. Other guards coming in to confer.  We found out later that the boys received ”points” if they refused to attend and more points if they didn’t participate. Keep your head up. Pay attention. Sit up. Sometimes they were woken from naps to attend. When the boys left, they had to remove their jumpers and be searched lest they take some kind of contraband from the classroom. The atmosphere obviously was not ideal.  Compounding this was the fluid nature of the population. We never knew who would be there the next session. If a Tuesday plan was to carry over to Wednesday, we couldn’t be sure that the same people would be there. This also, most of the time, kept us from forming any kind of sustained relationship with them. We wouldn’t see them over a period of time long enough to develop familiarity and trust. We were always starting over again. We met in the muster room.  It was always cold.

At first we had large groups for 1 and 1/2 hours, a long time for storytelling to any group.  It’s not clear why, since it had been past policy (under Ellen Musikant) to split large groups in half for 45 minutes each, much easier to handle and a relief for all concerned.  Maybe the guards didn’t remember or were just waiting for instructions. The guards themselves were always cooperative and often contributed or actually participated in the sessions.  More often they sat and did other work, their presence meant to keep the peace. Eventually Paula requested the old practice of splitting the groups and life became easier.

In spite of all of these issues, really bad times were infrequent. Never, ever, did any of us feel threatened, however unhappy the boys might be on occasion. But things could get unpleasant. T was a boy who had been transferred from another facility for breaking a boy’s jaw.  Gerry and I first met T in September of 2016. On our way to the session we both received a message from the education supervisor warning us that this was a particularly bad group. We should be prepared. Still, the session went well enough. Gerry had brought along his dousing rod, always a good ice breaker. Sometime later, I was there with Julie P. There was what seemed to me a calculated rudeness as Julie got started but she faced it down.  When I started my story, I was interrupted repeatedly and aggressively by T. I promised to deal with his questions after my story but I couldn’t get into it.  When another boy insulted yet a third boy, I called it a day.  We were ten minutes into the session, but it was clear to me, at the time anyway, that it wasn’t going to work. Whether it was a good or bad decision, nothing like it had happened before. 
Often, there were issues going on with guards and boys that we did not know about but which had an obvious effect. One day soon after my calling the session, I was there with Julie Della Torre.  For one of the sessions we had only T. I have no idea what had happened, but someone or something had pulled the boy’s plug. He was empty of affect and response. There was no energy left in him.  We told him stories he sort of heard, showed him pictures he didn’t look at, asked him questions he could barely respond to with a shake of the head. I asked him if he wanted to talk about the questions I hadn’t answered before.  A very slight shake of the head.  He could hardly muster the energy to move his body. It was the saddest experience of my time at the DC. JDT and I were  glad to have each other to share it with.

These were the difficulties. There was much else that made it all worth it. I’ll write about that next week.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reflections on Telling at the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part I

by Jack McKeon

            Now while the status of our work with the residents of the Morris County Juvenile Detention Center remains in limbo, I’ve been thinking about the experience the five tellers, Paula Davidoff, Julie Pasqual, Julie DellaTorre, Gerry Fierst and I, have had there. Julie P once commented that our purpose at the DC was to address aspects of the detainees’ lives that had been ignored and left to atrophy. We worked under the belief that stories have connections, that they resonate with the value of courage, honesty, empathy and a willingness to listen and cooperate with others.They are full of the dangers of temptation, isolation, violence, carelessness and of misplaced trust. They show how endurance can succeed against overwhelming odds.  In other words, they were relevant to our audience. They also provided a context to discuss other cultures and new ideas.  And they were fun.

            For me the DC was a venue way outside my usual box. It was not a comfortable place to work.  Our effectiveness was not often clear. It could be demoralizing.  In spite of this, working with the residents there was very often rewarding, sometimes exhilarating. Here are my first experiences.

            My first session was in 2012. I went in with Paula. We had nine boys for two sessions of 45 minutes each with a fifteen minute break for muster when the guards changed. The plan for the day was to tell stories about essential needs and desires and talk about them. I was telling “The Theft of Fire”.  I brought in photos of Chippewa life as an introduction.  The boys filed in, hands behind their backs.  They were sober, compliant but unenthusiastic.  I handed out the pictures.  Polite but uninterested glances.  I told my story.  Polite but minimal reaction.  We listed needs and desires on the board pretty good list, actually.  In the second session, Paula told her story.  Much the same reaction.  They understood where we were going but weren’t eager to help us get there.  We came to a halt about ten minutes before the end of the session.  I resorted to my go-to story for these occasions,  “Jack and the Beanstalk,”  also about wants and needs.  I told, they listened with some enthusiasm, and when I was done I had time for one last question, “Why did Jack need to go back for the harp?”  “For the spirit!” came back an immediate reply.  And we were done.

            This first experience took away some of the naive glow I had brought in with me, expecting more interest and energy than I found. It was a fairly typical session, a bit of a slog with flashes of insight that showed what could happen when things worked.

            My second session was with Julie Pasqual who told a story from Haiti and then began an account of her experiences in that country after the earthquake. Julie’s accounts of Haiti kept the boys fascinated and full of questions for the whole time. Wants and needs were still the theme. I didn’t tell my story. One boy, Big H, the Alpha male at the time, said at the end that he’d rather be where he was - the DC - than in Haiti. Could their interest be aroused? Could they make connections? Oh, yes.

            My third session was solo. Working alone in this venue was a particular challenge. We always felt more comfortable with someone else, someone to work with and off of and someone to share the burden with if things didn’t go as expected.  My plan was to work with The Fool, using the tarot card to discuss the nature of foolishness.  My story was  “The Golden Bird.”  Again I had twelve boys for two sessions. I told. They listened well but didn’t get it. What seems to me to be foolish behavior on the part of the hero who ignores good advice repeatedly was to them ordinary behavior. He made bad choices.  He went for the gold and ended up in jail.  What’s the big deal?  I tried to tell them. Bad teaching. I tried the tarot card.  They made a few half-hearted observations. When the time was up for the first session the guard asked me if I wanted them back.  Not seeing that I might have a choice, I said yes.  Big H, on the way out muttered a curse followed by “storytelling.”  I sat through muster in the chilly common room with the sinking feeling of being in the middle of a self-inflicted, ongoing disaster that I had to see all the way through.  When they came back we had a bit of discussion about the fox in the story that seemed to be going somewhere. Then I made a mistake and went back to my plan which was to have them write. Things screeched to a halt. Most didn’t write anything. Those who did managed a couple of sentences. Nothing to work with. Close to despair, I just started telling stories, including ones Julie and I hadn’t gotten to the last time around.  When the clock ground to 4:00, they left.  On the way out, one of them turned back with a grin and asked, “Are you coming back?”  “Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be back.”  But my heart wasn’t in it.

            I got my heart back as time went on, sometimes filled to the brim.

            To be continued...