Every once in awhile you have experiences that remind you of why you do what you do. A couple of those happened for me this past month.
Why the Words We Say Matter
The first occurred at a local restaurant where I had gotten together with a group of Spanish-speaking friends to celebrate a birthday. I listened as one friend shared how her 13 year old son had been called a “freak” for being Mexican – and this by his own friends, the boys sitting at his lunch table. Sadly, this seemed to have been spurred on by recent political events and debates that have opened the floodgates for unkind comments about immigrants — even those who are US citizens and feel more connected to this country than the one of their cultural heritage.
Another friend from South America described how her 5th grade daughter didn’t want to go to school anymore because of the hurtful things people said to her about her culture and race (her father is African-American). Despite living her whole life in the United States, she’d felt more comfortable at the school she attended that summer while her mother had been visiting friends in her homeland. She’d begged her mom to be allowed to stay because she felt like she fit in there.
My heart broke for these children. As the mom of a son of Colombian heritage, I can only imagine what my response will be if he is subjected to such hurtful treatment because of his ethnic background, the language he speaks, or any other factor for that matter! Hearing these stories, I wanted to do something. I wanted to fight back! But then I realized that I already am.
Every time I tell a story that allows children to see the beauty and wisdom in another culture, in people different from themselves, I am doing just that. This was a reminder that I need to keep doing it – because we still have a long way to go in recognizing the beauty in our differences.
Why Big Crowds Aren’t Everything To Me
The second experience came when I made a trip to the Columbus area to present my Hispanic Heritage program. I’d like to tell you that I had hundreds of people crowded into the room, eager to hear me tell. In reality, the librarian and I were starting to worry that my trip might be for naught when we were minutes from showtime and the room was empty.
Finally, a young boy walked in with his grandfather. “I’m Latino,” he proudly announced. He then shared that his father lived in Central America, and he didn’t get to see him often.
When I began my program, I had only four audience members – this young man, his grandfather, the librarian and a library volunteer. (Later two more adults – a teacher and her friend — would arrive to make the total six.) Because it was such a small crowd, the boy had the opportunity to take on many roles in the program and also to freely interject his thoughts and ideas. At one point he told me that he had a story to tell. I asked him kindly to “put the story in his pocket” and told him that when I had finished he could share. By the end, he said the story was “burning a hole in his pocket!” Clearly it was time to bring it out.
I invited him up, and he became the storyteller and the main character in his story with help from some props from my story bag. I acted out my role as the donkey (using a llama puppet!), taking direction entirely from him. The tiny crowd hung on his every word and were nearly in tears from laughing so hard when we finished our collaborative impromptu tale!
For the library’s sake, I wish there had been more people at this event. But part of me can’t help but believe that perhaps this boy needed this moment. In fact, later the librarian would tell me that he’d never seen this young man at the library before and that the school he’d mentioned attending was not nearby. It appeared that he and his grandfather had come specifically for this program. Had there been a larger crowd, the opportunity to improvise a story together would never have been possible.
So whether I tell for 1 or 100 I remind myself, “Someone might need this story.” And it’s my honor and privilege to share it with them. Thanks to all of you who give me the opportunity to do so.