Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Language Lover is Born

I saw a young man fall in love with language this month. While that sight would always be a gratifying thing, always make me do my happy dance just a little bit, this was even more remarkable, because this event took place in a small classroom, not in a school, but in a prison.
Over the last year and a half, my work with Storytelling Arts Inc. (an organization dedicated to bringing the power of storytelling to underserved populations) has led me into three Youth Detention Centers. And, each time I speak to people about this work, they are dumbfounded. “Are you nuts??? Aren’t you scared?? Do they listen??” – are some of the questions I hear from concerned and confused friends and family. I smile, because, frankly, I have asked myself the exact same things. So, as much for myself, as for anyone who might be reading this, I’ll answer those very sensible queries.
1) Are you nuts?? - Of course, I am, but that doesn’t have anything to do with this!
2) Aren’t you scared?? – Yes, but not in the way one might think. I’m not scared because I think I will be in any danger. I don’t envision burly men charging across the table trying to “shiv” me. No, I’m scared – well, nervous, actually, that I will not have the goods to reach through to these young people – these kids. Because that is what they are – kids. They are children – even if they would never call themselves that – who have made a bad choice. And who amongst us, has not? They are human, and the one thing I know “for sure” – as Oprah likes to say - is that humans are more alike than different. We all feel emotions, we all, in one way or another seek connection. The art of storytelling is all about connecting with the audience. A tale simply isn’t a tale until it has been told, shared with other human beings. And that, is my worry, that I will not be committed enough, articulate enough, interesting enough to touch these youths. Because folktales have the goods to inspire, teach, and move EVERYONE. With their archetypical characters, intriguing plots, they leave behind them a wake of interesting points to mull over, and to learn from. And, when I see audiences – be they five year olds, or the inmates in the Detention Centers, respond to storytelling, I know it’s not me, it’s the story. All I did was put it out there in a way they could hear. So, that’s my fear, that I won’t find the “way in” with my telling. Because if I can…well, let’s move onto the next question, shall we?
3) Do they listen?? – YES, THEY DO!! I have seen a young man, that I was told was a double murder, follow my every word like his life depended on it. I have seen another young man, whom I thought was asleep; lift his head, and his voice, to defend a character in a story. And, this past month, I saw that young man fall in love with language right before my eyes. He, and his “pod” had been told a wonderful story, by a wonderful storyteller – Paula Davidoff, the day before, and he and two other fellows, stood, in front of their peers to retell it. (AND LET’S JUST STOP AND ACKNOWLEDGE HOW VERY AWESOME THAT ALONE WAS!!!!) While the other two young men were more confident, and outgoing, this fellow – I’ll call J, was shy, stiff, and self conscious. With his hands tightly clasped behind his back, and his eyes lowered, he only spoke when his two companions “threw” him the story. But, then, half way through the story or so – he began to describe a horse as “strong and bold”. As he said those words, he too, became strong and bold. His body came alive, his eyes afire, and anyone could see his relish in saying that combination of words “strong and bold”. The little group then told another tale – this one they invented, and this time J was animated right from the start, interjecting wonderfully fluid language and body gestures throughout the piece. It was like seeing a flower blossom – the entire energy of the room had shifted and changed. One could say it was a moment of victory, because that story, those words “strong and bold”, had reached into J, and touched on something that had lay dormant within him. He had forged a true connection with that tale. And, connection is not only what storytelling is about, but what life is about as well. For to quote a book I just finished reading, “When you practice mindful connection, your life feels meaningful, and so it is.”

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