Human beings love stories. We are entertained by them. We learn from them. We pass on faith, culture, history, and character through them. Story telling is as old as mankind. The earliest forms of history were oral traditions passed from one generation to the next. We see story telling in the ancient hieroglyphics as people yearned for a way to put down their ideas and experiences to remember them, as a record for posterity, for others to see and read and know.
Modern humans love stories no less than our ancestors did. Certainly we have different avenues for sharing them. From way back, people bought books. Eventually they shared those books through libraries. And today we have e-books. From Sophocles to Lin-Manuel Miranda the theater has told stories of kings and heroes, of lovers, murderers, and political leaders, of salesmen, conmen, and immigrants in Washington Heights. We have stories in songs. You know about the Piano Man who tells us “John at the bar is a friend of mine. He gets me my drinks for free and he’s quick with a joke or a light up your smoke but there’s someplace that he’d rather be.” And Harry Chapin told us the whole life story of a father and son within the lyrics of “Cat’s in the Cradle.” We hear the story of a people even in the lyrics of a song. Look at the snippets, lines and words that Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda sing in “Love Make the World Go Round” which tells a story:
Jesus taught the way humans learn easiest and best. He taught in stories, in parables. He taught the value of being a neighbor as he wove the tale of the Good Samaritan. He taught of the love God has for his people in the Parable of the Lost Sheep,the value of forgiveness in the story of the two debtors, the value of living right in the Parable of the Sower, and about forgiveness and redemption in the story of the Prodigal Son.
Some of the lessons and teachers I remember most used story to make things come alive. Mr. Horpel taught us of the all-too human people and brought history alive for me by having us find the lives behind the dates and accomplishments of the founding fathers of our country. Mrs. Sampson told us stories that made us think beyond the pages of the literature we were reading. She had us question and reason and make a case. She had the audacity to tell teenagers how she maintained the Jewish sabbath and followed the rules agains work. She did no work and used no machines during the sabbath. This meant no cooking, no driving, no turning on lights, no answering doorbells, and (oh the horror) not answering the phone! She taught us debate and argumentation as we tried futilely to convince her of the error of her ways.
I have always loved stories from my earliest memories. I was a television junkie at an early age. I camped out on Saturday morning with a dozen or so stuffed animals lined up on the sofa to keep me company as Johnny Weissmuller flew from vine to vine, as the cartoon heroes of my day were chased by and then foiled their enemies. On a good Saturday, I could slip past my mother’s notice to take to the air with Sky King and hisniece Penny as they solved crimes. And I went to movies. Every Saturday that there was a new movie at the Coyle or the State theater that looked interesting, there I was.
Books? I know you wonder what about my books. Surprisingly, given my love of them now, books played a small part in my childhood. I remember only one in my home. It was an anthology – old, brittle, disintegrating, and browned with age – that lived in our attic. Given its condition I was discouraged from handling it but I loved every chance I got to get my hands on it. I have no idea what the book was, why Mom kept it, or what happened to it. But it was the first book I loved. I spent a little time in our tiny public library where you were allowed two books each time you visited. But it wasn’t until we moved to a new city and I knew no one that I found the stories in books that I grew to love. In the new library, I could have all the books I could carry!
Having stories shared with me was a joy. But eventually I learned the joy of sharing stories. My drama class in high school put me on the other end of the equation. We could share stories with our audience, delight them, entertain them, inform them. I went on to major in drama in college (with majors in English and education as safety nets). I never sought to work in theater, but took my “show” into the classroom. Unfortunately, drama was the first of the arts to disappear from public education. So it was a good thing I had that English background.
It is odd to me that it is only in retrospect that I realize how vital a role story telling played in my classroom. As I taught concepts of grammar, logic, literary criticism, and speech, I used story to make my point. I told of former students, neighbors, classmates, friends, and family. I told self-deprecating stories under the philosophy of “if you can’t be a good example, at least be a terrible warning.”
And it’s no accident that in one of my first blog posts I shared Pat Conroy’s “Great Teacher Theory” since I lived by that advice. And I shared the stories of others. Of course I assigned and recommended books all the time. But more importantly, I read aloud to my high school juniors. I read the stories and poems we discussed in class. I read essays and magazine articles. I read picture books – lots of them. And I read books – entire books – aloud. We cried at the loss of Morrie Schwartz as Mitch Albom recounted his days with his college professor in Tuesdays With Morrie. We giggled and grew outraged for Melinda in Speak. We empathized with George and Lennie as their best laid plans fell apart in Of Mice and Men.
At the end of school years, my students told me that their favorite stories were those I read aloud to them. As I think back to those days I realize that those were my favorites as well.
How could it be that it wasn’t until after I retired from teaching and took a part-time job in a library that I became aware of how much I loved and thrived on sharing stories? About four years ago Mary Alice Spiegel and Megan Leeds told me “You can do it!” and “Don’t worry. It’s fun” and shoved me into a two-year-old’s story time. Megan had planned it so all I had to do was show up and jump in. And they were right. Fun!
Not long after that, I inherited a Picture Book Story Time of 4-6-year-olds. What a blast! I was having a ball and getting paid to tell stories, sing songs, and make preschoolers laugh. Eventually I added a Baby and Me time for under twos. And I loved that too!
I’ve joked at times. Do you know what the difference is between those preschoolers and my high schoolers? Height. But in some ways it wasn’t such a joke. We all love stories, and as C. S. Lewis once said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
Yesterday I had a wonderful opportunity. Last week an old friend from before I was a teacher or a mom contacted me and asked me to be the story teller on the Steam Into History Story Time Train. This session was different than any I had ever done because the “children” ranged in age from about eight weeks to eighty years. We read stories and they loved The Book With No Pictures and I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More. Some were reunited with and others introduced to Elephant and Piggy. Young and old alike made train noises and played along with “Baby Shark.” Sure there were a few of those kids who were of the age where they couldn’t do motions to silly songs, but I watched their eyes. They still loved stories.
Now that I’ve realized at this ripe old age that I need to be able to tell stories, that I want to read and entertain, that watching the faces of people being transported through story needs to be part of my life… Well, I have a hole to fill. I need to find a way to make this more a part of my life. I thrive on it, and if I can take the word of my little boys I called George, of Stella, of Laila and Charlie, of Ruthie, of Kian and others, I think I’m pretty good at it. Want me to read you a story, stop by any time!