Thursday, November 13, 2008

Notes from the Field (XIV)

Deceiving Appearances

There is a Jewish wisdom tale that goes like this:

One day, a prophet, a magical seer of the future, came upon a wedding feast. Outside this party stood the father of the bride. Inviting all within earshot, the man continually cried out, “All are welcome!”

Seeking to test the man, the prophet went home, and put on the robes of a beggar. “May I come in?” He asked the father of the bride, as he approached.

“A beggar such as you is not welcome here,” was the response.

A short time later, the prophet returned to the wedding again – this time dressed in the robes of a king. No one recognized him from his first visit, and he was immediately escorted in, and sat in a place of honor. But when he was offered some of the wedding dinner to eat, the prophet put the food on his glorious robes, and poured the wine down his shirt.

“Why do you do this?” Demanded the father of the bride.

“It is simple,” replied the prophet. “I am feeding the one whom you invited to your feast.”

“Nonsense! I invited you, and you wasted my fine meal!”

“You are wrong, sir,” the prophet said, with a smile. “You see, earlier today, I came here dressed as a beggar, and you turned me away. But when I came back wearing the robes of royalty – you treated me with distinction. And since I am the same man, it would seem that who you invited here today, wasn’t me, at all, it was my clothes. For you said that all were welcome – but you did not truly mean it.”

Normally, I avoid telling tales I’ve hear someone else tell. For some reason, the moment I hear a story come from a fellow tellers lips – it becomes their sole property, in my mind, and I cannot bring myself to utter it. But this story was my different.

The theme of being judged by ones appearances is one that has run throughout my life. As a person of color, and as a woman, assumptions have been made about me by other people long before they actually made my acquaintance. Also, for some reason, I don’t often look like what some people think of as a storyteller either – on more than several occasions people have looked at me quizzically saying, “YOU’RE the storyteller????????” And sadly, one of the few truisms of life, is that EVERYONE, at some time or another, has been judged solely on what they look like. This story then, is universal, and I have seen it work for seniors, the homeless, and one particular group, I think is often misjudged – teenagers.

Who hasn’t seen a group of high schoolers enter a store, and then watched the owners take one look at them, and brace themselves for “trouble”. On the subway, I routinely see people shift away from teen agers if their voices rise above the normal polite train murmur. Time and time again, when I share this tale with a class of 14 – 17 year olds, their hands shoot up when I ask the question, “Have you ever been judged by what you look like?”

They recount instances of being judged by strangers, their peers, and their families, and though they often shrug it off in a show of youthful bravado – it’s clear to me, that they have been hurt by it.
But even though I have often been “the judged”, I am not, as I was recently reminded, above being “the judge”. This past month, I was given the task of “modeling” my performance style for a high school public speaking class that was doing a unit on folktales. I was also to coach them in preparation of their upcoming storytelling performances.

As I walked up the steps of this sprawling, inner city school, I felt my stomach tightened. The scene is one I have taken in far more than once – metal detectors at the entrance, and security guards scanning for any whiff of trouble. “Here was go,” I thought, mentally preparing myself for a group of surly, rude teens, that didn’t give a D*** about storytelling or me, and would probably let me know it BIG TIME. “Use a lot of humor, “ my brain whispered. “Get them to laugh at you. And if that fails – it’s only three visits – how bad could it be.”

My first clue that I was wrong, came when one of the football players in the class – well over 6’3” and 200 lbs, walked by me and said, “You’re the storyteller, huh? That’s cool.”

From the very first word out of my mouth, these students were attentive, and respectful. The questions they asked made it clear that they were eager to learn anything I was willing to share with them. The faces I had thought would look at me with scowls, gazed at me with genuine interest. And that was before they began to tell stories themselves.

As each student rose, and made their way to the front of the classroom, I was blown away time and time again by the level of concentration, commitment, and talent these young men and women brought to their storytelling.

Just as I had been judged by others as not looking like a storyteller, I had done the same thing to these gifted students. With their oversized hoodies and baggy jeans, they might not look like the storytellers one sees at libraries, schools, and festivals – but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t ones. They are a reminder that stories, and their tellers, come in all different packages. For just like the father of the bride in that Jewish folktale, stories say, “ALL are welcome.” The difference is, tales really mean it.

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