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...