Tuesday, May 5, 2015


There are all kinds of masks - tribal, ceremonial, funny, scary, theatrical - but none more interesting to me, than those worn by some tween and teenagers. Perhaps you know this mask - sullen, withdrawn, almost a dare, really. A "so you think you know what I'm going through, do you? Well, you don't!!!" look, that is as hard as stone, and more difficult to read than a heady scientific text written in German. It's faces like these that we - myself, and the four other storytellers working in the Morristown Youth Detention Center, have been encountering recently. While sometimes this facility has given me some of THE MOST attentive audiences EVER, where 20 minute stories and deep discussion are welcome, lately the group of young people in this facility have more often than not seemed distance, bored, depressed, and angry and have hidden themselves behind an emotionless facial affect, or a sweat shirt pulled up over their heads. It's easy for me, when faced with those closed off faces to make it all about me "Why aren't they responding? Aren't I at least better than sitting in a cell? I'm being respectful. I'm trying to "keep it real". People at least usually think I'm funny." But that type of thinking was clearly getting me nowhere - in the same way dogs and small children know precisely who it is that fear them, in a solo session (sometimes there are two storytellers at a time) I had with these students before my recent trip to China, from the moment I entered, they could feel my anxiety. Those masks were pulled down tight, and the more I tried to "win them over" by my telling, and the activities I had brought and planned for follow up, the more they withdrew. I left feeling like a team that was "supposed" to win the big game, and had one of those games where EVERYTHING went wrong from the second they hit the field. So, just like a coach would do after his players had gotten their butts kicked, I took a good hard look at the "game film", and studied what went wrong. Externally, the plan was sound. I had a good story, that I had told several times before, it fit into the theme the other storytellers had been working with, and I was granted permission to show a clip from Youtube to accompany it, as well as several photo books with wonderful pictures. I even had - what always has worked as a follow up at this facility - an art project. THUD!!! That would be the sound of my session hitting the floor like the hugest weight at my gym flying out of the hands of the 80 pound weakling. I remember walking to my car feeling that numb feeling I get when I am upset - I have learned that is the sensation of my "reptilian brain" - the most primitive part of my consciousness shutting down to protect me from the wound. I had a yoga class to teach afterwards, otherwise I would have done what I usually do when that icy numbness takes over my body - crawl under a blanket on my couch, and search for a "Law and Order" rerun on TV (there is such a bizarre comfort in watching that show for me) But, luckily, instead of watching the solving of a crime in a mere 60 minutes or less, I had to teach a mind/body discipline, and as it so often does - it saved me, by making me look at things another way. The truth is, in my wanting so badly to be "liked" and to "do well", and have a "successful performance" - I was forgetting the most crucial thing. I AM THERE FOR THEM!!!! They aren't there for me. These kids, and they are kids, no matter how they scowl and posture, have been hurt - badly. They have been mistreated, cast off, probably abused in multiple ways, and THAT'S WHY THEY ARE THERE! God knows what they have endured before they made the mistakes that put them in this place. Everything about their lives is out of control - and now here comes me, wanting them to dance to my tune of storytelling, when what I really should have been doing is, in some way or another saying, "What can I do for you? How can I serve this situation? How might I bring what I have to these guys, so it might help ease the sting of this situation, and maybe give them something to think about that might help them down the road." In another words - it wasn't about ME! And so, I changed course. Externally, things looked similar. I had a deep story and follow up activities, but what was different was my intention. I tried with all my might to squelch my performer ego, and not go for applause, but instead think "how can I be of service to these kids in this moment". The theme this month had been masks, so I worked on seeing beyond their masks - peeking behind the blank, almost hostile glares to what might be behind, and at the same time, I lowered my own mask. The "I'm the grown up professional in the room that knows exactly what's supposed to be going on here". With that new insight, I was able to keep asking myself silently "how can I be of help? What can I bring to this table?" And things went MUCH better, they listened, they interacted, they even smiled! Now, to be perfectly honest, the young man who had consistently worn the most blank of all "the masks" was not in the room that day, so I will say that I was "cut a break" - but I do believe in my heart of hearts that that shift in my perspective made a huge impact. That in trying to see beyond their masks, and lowering my own, enabled a better flow of communication between this teller and that particular audience. And even if it didn't, the reminder that in EVERY situation it's always best to think, not what can it do for me, but how can I help, is ALWAYS the best way to go!!