A few weeks ago I arrived at church early since my husband was playing in the worship band that morning. Just as I’d settled into one of the pews to listen, three little girls came up to me and asked me if I would go into the multipurpose room with them so they could get some breakfast. My church puts out cereal each Sunday morning for those who don’t have the means or the time to eat beforehand. Ours is a very diverse congregation, both racially and socioeconomically. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11am on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week, but that couldn’t be further from the truth at my church, and that’s the way I like it.
When I entered the multipurpose room, I immediately became the minority, but it didn’t bother me because here we are like family. I saw my friend, David, a man so humble and soft-spoken that you’d never imagine that he was once a hardened drug lord. He faithfully brings his children, Marcus and Elicia, to church each week, and they often bring friends along as well. Such was the case today as I saw three unfamiliar faces around the table and took the time to greet each one before joining the girls with their cereal at a nearby table.
A little while later one of the boys I’d just met, Jayon, a 13 year old 7th grader looked at me and said, “You look really young. You look like you could be a kid.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “Most days I feel like a kid!”
At that point, Marcus began telling Jayon that I was a storyteller.
“Oh yeah?” said Jayon, eyebrows raised. “Tell me a story.”
His words surprised me. I wasn’t expecting the 13 year old in the old black t-shirt with his arms pulled inside of it, arm-holes empty, to want to hear a story. Was his request genuine or was he just testing me?
“Okay,” I said, “but why don’t you come over here?”
To my surprise, without hesitation, he left his chair and exchanged it for the one next to me.
“Where would you like to hear a story from?” I asked, explaining that I tell stories from all over the world.
He thought for a moment and then said, “China.”
“Great,” I said. “China it is!” And I launched into a Chinese folktale – the same one that is part of my new “Treasure Trove of Asian Tales” program.
I was just getting started when he turned to his friends at the other table and said, “Why don’t you come over here? I’m listening to a story from China.”
His friends didn’t move, but I noticed how they sat with their heads turned in our direction the entire time, their eyes wide. They may have been unwilling to take that step toward us, but they were hanging on every word I said.
Later Marcus and Elicia who’d been helping their father to clean up after breakfast came in from the kitchen, and Jayon invited them to hear the story as well. They accepted the invitation. No chairs needed, they stood with their whole bodies leaning forward on the table as I told. When the story concluded, we talked about our favorite characters, and I asked them what they treasured most in the world since that is one of the story’s main themes. We had a great conversation, and I got to know more about each of them. Much more than I’d have gotten to know without the story, that’s for sure.
This experience caused me to reflect on how important it is to be “ready” with a story whenever the opportunity presents itself. Of course, I spend a lot of time preparing for presentations at libraries, schools, etc; but if I want to call myself a storyteller, it’s every bit as important to have a story at the ready in those everyday moments of life. Because you never know when you’re going to be asked to take some kids to get some cereal in the next room and when it’s going to lead to an opportunity to share a tale.
I was also amazed at the way in which a 13 year old boy was not too proud to ask for a story. Too often, storytelling in our society is considered an activity for small children, not an activity for all humanity. So I believe that for a 13 year old black male to ask for a story takes a certain degree of courage. It also suggests to me a deep hunger. A hunger to listen, to dream, to imagine and maybe to be in touch with that part of ourselves that is the most childlike, that doesn’t care about our image or what everyone else thinks, that is free to be.
Adolescents are a tough group to work with. I say that from experience. They are no longer children, not yet adults. They are still trying to figure out so many things (then again, aren’t we all, no matter our age?) Sometimes they come across as hard, uncaring, too cool. These attitudes can lead me look at them and say, “They won’t want to hear a story,” or “I’m sure they’ll think they’re much too cool for this, so why bother asking them to join in?”
But these assumptions are unfair, because all too often those hard, too cool attitudes are nothing more than defense mechanisms that our young people build up to protect themselves from getting hurt, from looking like a fool, from failing in the eyes of those that matter to them the most. And if that is the case, maybe what they need more than anything else is a story. Why? Because stories show people who live lives that are open to love, adventure, and mystery, and therefore, hurt as well. They show us how to deal with the pain of hurts and heart-ache and how to let it make us better, not bitter. Stories don’t present us with perfect characters, but with imperfect heroes and wise fools, full of foibles and failures, who somehow manage to accomplish great things, not only despite their short-comings but often as a result of them.
I believe that our children are hungry for stories. Some are brave enough to ask for them. Some are willing to sit on the sidelines and listen. Some may need to be drawn in. But all of them need the invitation.
The only question is: Who will invite them? Will you?