Friday, February 24, 2017

All I Have Are Stories...I Know It Is Not Enough - Telling in The Schools of America

I am often unaware of the stories going on around me until they slam into me in such a way that I cannot avoid them.

One lovely spring evening in my early twenties, I was sitting in my apartment in Evanston, Il;  knitting. I used to do that quite a bit. I was listening to a Broadway album, and drinking tea. The phone rang. It was my mother. My parents lived in South Korea at that time.

Mom: (Panicked) Are you okay?

Me: Yes. Why?

Mom: Why?

Me: Yes. Why?

Mom: You aren't caught up in the riots?

Me: The what? What are you talking about?

Mom: The Riots! They are burning everything down! How could you not know about this?

Me: (Laughing) Mom, I have no idea what you are talking about. There are no riots.

Mom: This is about Rodney King!

Me: Who?

Mom: Turn on the news!

Me: I don't even own a television.

(This was before the internet)

Two days later a television arrived in the mail. That turned into a story.....but I don't tell it on stage. 

One lovely fall morning I was sitting at the table with my almost two-year-old daughter. We'd dropped my son off at pre-school, and we were playing language games at the kitchen table. The phone rang.

Aunt Anna Fae: (Panicked) Where is your father?

Me: What?

Aunt Anna Fae: Where is Milton? (my baby brother) Your mom?

Me: I don't know. Why don't you call them?

Aunt Anna Fae: The lines are all down.

Me: Well, I haven't spoken to them in a few...

Aunt Anna Fae: Doesn't your father work in the Pentagon?

Me: Yes, but....

Aunt Anna Fae: (Calmly) The World Trade Centers have come down, and a plane hit the Pentagon.  Where are your father, mother, and brother? Are they safe? Are they alive?

It took my two days to reach my family members. That turned into a story...but I don't tell it on stage.

I have become much more plugged into the world since my children are older. I follow politics, get involved in local events, and I often have an opinion or two about events both national and international. 

Even so, I am not always ready for the moments when what I know from the news intersects with the actual world.

This last Thursday I left my hotel, headed out to a school in Charlotte, and met my PTA contact. I set up in the gym. While I was waiting for the three hundred fifty kindergartners, first and second graders who were going to spend forty-five minutes with me, I asked a standard question about the population.

Me: What can you tell me about your kids?

Principal - We have a very diverse school. Over half of our children have undocumented parents. We also have a high population of refugees. I have some babies who came here from Syria, but I guess we won't have the opportunity to save any more of those precious children. Our school has over twenty-five different languages. Almost none of the students have English as a primary language at home. Most of them will become polyglots just so they can converse with their new friends. They are learning quickly, and most of them are doing really well with English. By fifth grade, they are ready for middle school. You'll see some kids who you might assume are African American, and they are, but all of them are Somalian, most of them just got here. We have only a smattering of children who were born in Charlotte, and they are speaking other languages too in order to make new friends.

I looked out over a sea of little faces. They were laughing, talking to friends, wiggling, just being kids. Every possible shade of human skin was sitting in front of me. Every type of hair, every type of smile, eye, and body shape. 

Me: How are they doing with what's going on in the current administration?

Principal - Not well. The children are so stressed. The teachers are also stressed. Anytime a policeman comes to the school, the children cry and shake. They come to school with their coats even when it this warm because they are afraid they are going to be taken away, and they want to keep some of their things with them. If someone is absent, they are scared that they will never see them again. What is happening now is the worse thing that could be happening to these babies. They are terrified.

The principal thanked me for coming and told me that even though the children might have some trouble with the language, they were going to love it. 

Before I began, an older white lady came into the gym where I was doing the telling. This one group of kindergartners went crazy when they saw her. They waved, started bouncing up and down, and couldn't contain themselves. She came to the front of the room. The entire class got up and swarmed her under with hugs and patting. 

I wondered who she was. Maybe she was the ESL teacher? I went over and asked her.

"I'm just the assistant in the classroom. I love my students and they love me. I've been out for a couple of days. I'm very attached to them, and they are very attached to me."

She looked fierce.

I don't think I've ever started crying before a set. I wanted to hold all of them in my arms. I wanted to say, 

"I am so sorry that we are failing you. I am sorry that we have created a country in which you are not safe. I am sorry that we have created a country in which you are not able to just be children. I am sorry that we have created a country that makes you afraid, turns you away, and marks you as "less than". You are just children. We are failing you."

I don't have anything to give anyone. 
I can't promise them that their families won't be ripped apart. 
I can't promise that they won't be sent back into war.
I can't promise them that they will be able to become part of the story that is America.
I can't promise them that bright future that America is supposed to stand for.

All I have are stories.

For forty-five minutes those children laughed. 
For forty-five minutes nobody in that room was scared.
For forty-five minutes the horrors of the lives they fled were forgotten.
For forty-five minutes there was nothing to do but be children and play with language and be silly.

That's all I have to give.

It isn't enough...but it is all I have.

I've often thought that instead of History it should be called Ourstory. 

To love that fiercely, to share with passion, to hold onto the best of what we can be, to face a child who is afraid and say to them, I will fight for you if you let me...that is what it is to be part of Ourstory. 

That is what it is to teach.

I didn't really know anything about what was happening with the Rodney King incident. It happened all the way across the country and didn't really know anyone involved in it.

I became aware of 9/11, but there was nothing I could do to stop that. I was across the country. it was over before I knew it had happened. 

What about now? What can I say now?
All I have are stories.
I can share them
I can make safe space for a little while
I can help build some community
I can offer comfort for a little while

All I have are stories....Ourstory

Despite how hard some things hit me....they never end up on stage.

I hope you find someplace to share your stories.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

― Emma Lazarus

Tell Fiercely!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Joy - Teaching by Arthuretta Martin

I wasn’t born to be a grade school teacher.  
Let me rephrase that.  
I wasn’t trained to be a teacher.  
Hmmm that’s not quite right either.  
Wait. Let me explain.

The first 30 years of my life I did something other than teach young people but clearly, I was born and trained to teach.  That sounds better. 
I love teaching children. I love teaching adults.  I believe teaching is my calling. During this second half of my life, I’m finally answering that call. I am excited when my students “get it.”  I love it when they don’t “get it”; when they must stretch their minds to understand new concepts and ideas.  
For about 20 years I taught adults. I taught adults the complex and often contradictory concepts of Federal Acquisition.  What is that you ask?  It is teaching how and why the Federal government buys goods and services.  This field also includes training people how to manage those contracts.  
I’ve found similarities and differences between young people and adults in learning.  I came with a pre-conceived notion that I had to work harder to teach young people.  I don’t.  I must work differently.  
Just like adults, young people take classes because someone told them they had to do it.  Just like adults, young people take classes because they’re interested in the topic.   The student that knows more than the teacher?  I get that with both students and adults.  Both are pliable but there is no question that adults do not stretch like children.  
Adults must sometimes unlearn biases before we have room to open to new ideas.  Young people come with biases too but their biases were usually placed in their precious minds by well-meaning adults.  The joy comes when you can help a young person place those biases in perspective and embrace a different way of seeing the world.  Stories, and helping young people learn to write their story and listen to each other’s stories have given me the opportunity to do just that.

I teach public speaking. One form of public speaking is storytelling. I teach children not only how to tell a story but what makes up the craft of storytelling.  
Their imaginations are as vast as the ocean.  
In the processing of speaking, you must improve listening.  We live in a world where people do a great deal of talking but don’t always listen to each other.  In my class, we not only focus on public speaking best practices but we teach listening and how to give feedback.

 The joy comes at the end of the quarter.  Each student gives a prepared speech which will always include storytelling.  
I have one young man who began taking public speaking with me two years ago.  He had some challenges.  I worked with him.  Today I do believe he’s not only a good speaker he can compete as an orator.  
Some of us go through a lifetime without ever experiencing joy.  I’ve have found joy through children telling stories.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Guest Blogger Next Week: Arthuretta Martin

Arthuretta Martin

My first blogger of 2017 is on deck!

Next week Arthuretta Martin will wield the pen.

She has a wonderful piece about her passion for storytelling.

This engaging educator and performer did not set out to teach or tell. She did get here eventually, and once she arrived, she put the pedal to the metal!

As a teaching artist, she shares the gift of story through writing, storytelling, acting, and singing.  Her vocal talents span several genres including classical, opera, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues.  She’s a member of several performance and storytelling guilds including the Washington Revels Jubilee Voices, Voices from the Earth of Davis West Va and the Ollie Players of George Mason University.  She has been a featured teller in several local performances sharing the stories of famous women like Frances Ellen Watkins-Harper, Sisretta Jones, and Marien Anderson.  She’s been a featured teller and vocalist at events and festivals around the country and recently at Panafest in Cape Coast, Ghana.  Performance venues include the Kennedy Center, White House, Wolf Trap, and the Black Theater Festival in Wilmington, NC.  She’s an alumnus TEDx speaker of TED Wilmington, Delaware, She’s a Distinguished Toastmaster, a member of the National Storytelling Network, Virginia Storytelling Alliance, the National Association of Black Storytellers and the National Speaker’s Association.

I met Arhuretta in real life about two years ago. Prior to that, she was one of those virtual Facebook connections.

She is an infectious person who just makes me grin. I can't wait to share her insights on this space.

Check her out in this clip!

Arthuretta Martin tells true story at SpeakeasyDC - July 2012

See You Next Week!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Guerrilla Storytelling, Personal Stories, Historical Fact, and Convenient Fictions

This has been a week of listening to stories.

This has been a week of telling stories.

This has been a week of watching stories take shape.

This has been a week of watching history distort, change, and become clear.

Sometimes, looking at the world with a storyteller's eyes is frustrating. You see stories morphing and changing, and you wonder if anyone else is seeing it like that. I see the streams and stamps of stories everywhere, and I don't want to just talk about a single event, but all of the story that preceded it. That makes it hard to find words at times.

Linda Gorham, Arianna Ross, and my humble self in Raleigh
On Saturday, I was at one of the Women's Marches with two of my friends. I didn't bring a sign. I wanted to take pictures, talk to women, and find out why other people decided to come. I wanted to catalog my favorite signs, listen to the chanting, and see who turned out.

Arianna Ross and Linda Gorham, two wonderful tellers, were with me, and we had a great time. Each of us, at times, was in deep conversation with someone around us. Going to something like this with storytellers is cool.

Before the march began, there was a woman standing next to me with a little blonde boy. He was three. His shirt said, "Feminist In Training". He was not having it. He was upset and fussing. Not crying, but making that annoyed child sound in that pitch that just makes you wish you had earplugs.

I dropped to my knees and told him Johnny and Suzy thumb. He was mesmerized from the first second. He watched my thumbs, listened to my voice, and was completely silent and smiling by the end. I stood up and he kept smiling. In fact, he didn't make that noise the rest of the time we were near them. Every now and then I'd look over and he'd be looking at me. Whenever I caught his big blue eyes he'd flash me a big grin and then snuggle close to his mother.

I told his mother that the three of us were storytellers...professional storytellers. We made a few jokes. "Have Stories Will Travel" or some such thing, and then we moved on in the march.

Guerrilla storytelling can always be a useful thing.

During the march, I heard lots of personal stories. I heard about women who'd driven to Raleigh from other states instead of heading to Washington DC. I heard from women who had items of clothing or names of women who couldn't march, but wanted something of theirs there. I heard stories about cancer survivors, women who were encountering others of different ethnicities for the first time in years, listened in on a conversation between a black woman and a white woman where the black woman explained that she no longer tries to talk to white people about her activism all the while talking to this white woman about her activism. The white woman was fascinated, and begged to know more about the activism and why the black woman had disengaged. At the end, they hugged each other and went back to their various groups. I saw lesbians out holding hands and kissing. I saw gay men holding hands and cheering. I saw some fabulous signs. I saw lots of kids. I saw women live streaming their experience for daughters, sons, other women and husbands or boyfriends who couldn't be there. I met photographers, journalists, moms, children, gentlemen from all walks of life, and I listened to them.

They weren't all there for the same reasons, and they weren't all angry.

There was also the backlash. There were people who were angry or confused about why so many women came out to march. There were the people who derided the marchers, called them names and said they were stupid or hysterical or foolish.

Senator Joyce Krawiec
Senator Joyce Krawiec of North Carolina had this to say about the women's march.
“Message to crazies @ Women’s March – If Brains were lard, you couldn’t grease a small skillet. You know who you are.”

She has since apologized for this tweet.

It made me think about stories.

-What stories do you have to believe to decide to spend a chilly Saturday marching? (Actually, it was a nice leisurely stroll)

-What stories do you have to believe to decide that insulting the marchers is the way to go?

-What stories do you have to believe to announce that George Soros paid most of the women to march?

-What stories do you have to believe to feel excited by watching three to four million women protest something?

-What stories do you have to believe to feel disgusted, threatened or angered watching three to four million women protest something?

The stories we believe have a huge impact on what we see when we look at the world. If you believe something is true and you see something that does not conform to the story you believe you have some options.

A) You can accept the new story, or at least try to understand it.

B) You can reject the empirical evidence of the new story and dismiss it.

C) You can just tell a completely different story in place of the one you are observing and substitute that new story for reality.

D) You can reshape the new story so that it conforms with societal norms no matter what the actual story might be.

Why does any of that matter, and how does this impact what happened last weekend? Last year? Last Decade?

We have always reshaped our stories. George Washington chopped down the cherry tree, and he couldn't tell a lie. You know, the stuff we proclaim that isn't true, but we repeat over and over again.

Sometimes, however, when we reshape or try to reshape our stories, we run into problems. Here are two examples of stories that we tried to shape. In one instance we failed, and in the other, we succeeded too well.

An artist wanted to sculpt a 9-11 statue of the firefighters raising the flag over the wreckage after 9/11. That artist wanted to depict the firefighters as a multi-ethnic group even though it was caucasian firefighters who put the flag in place. They canceled construction of the statue.

"A controversial bronze statue planned for Fire Department headquarters was scrapped yesterday after angry protests from firefighters. The statue was based on a photograph of three white firefighters raising an American flag amid the World Trade Center rubble. But the artist hired to cast the $180,000 statue used one black, one Latino and one white fireman, prompting firefighters to accuse the FDNY of abandoning historical accuracy for political correctness. "We heard the reaction of the firefighters, and we decided to take another look at it," Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta told the Daily News. "I was not there when the original decision was made, but now it's my responsibility to come up with something appropriate, and that's what we are going to do."

I remember the flap about this. The artist was trying to say something about how 9/11 was a national tragedy, and these firefighters represented all of us. The story was meant to be uplifting and one of shared sorrow and hope. The pushback on that was immediate.  The original designs lost.

That does not mean there is no statue. In fact, there is a statue depicting the three white firefighters. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a problem.

Jinxed 9-11 Statue in Trouble Again

"...The statue’s dedication marked the end of its saga — until recently, when it was reported that the statue’s construction was financed by investor fraud. A company named Coadum Advisors gave Watts $300,000 in 2006 to build the statue, which then was valued at $4.8 million and which Coadum hoped to write off its taxes. The SEC now says that Coadum was just a Ponzi scheme, using money from new investors to pay off earlier ones and pocketing the difference.
The SEC can’t seize Coadum’s almost $19 million in offshore accounts. But it’s seized the statue, and is looking for someone to buy it so that Coadum’s investors can get some of their money back."

This statue ended up on the FEMA training camp grounds in Emmitsburg, MD. I had no idea how this story ended when I started researching this in the morning. A moment that was originally meant to be memorialized for the nation ended up as the end result of fraud, greed, and acrimony. However, it does accurately depict three white guys raising a flag.

The second story that came to mind was a new one for me.

My uncle told me about watching the Lone Ranger at the picture show with his grandfather when he was just a boy. They had to sit in the balcony because that was the colored section of the movie house. He loved the film.

I remember watching the Lone Ranger on television when I was a kid. The show was in reruns at that point, but I did love it.

The Lone Ranger was this uncomplicated hero who was out there keeping the west safe from outlaws and evildoers. He was a strong man. He was a courageous man. He was what the American Man of Action and Mystery was all about.

Bass Reeves
I just found out that The Lone Ranger who shaped so many young men's fantasies of justice and power was based on a black man.

I found that really hard to believe.

Bass Reeves (July 1838 – 12 January 1910) was one of the first black Deputy U.S. Marshals west of the Mississippi River, working mostly in Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory. During his long career, he was credited with arresting over 3,000 felons and shot and killed fourteen outlaws in self-defense.

I think about all the little black boys who could have grown up for generations with one of our huge culutral icons being a black man who was brave, strong, unafraid to stand against evil, handsome and a complete badass. A real live gun slinging superhero who was part of the fabric of the old west was just like them.

Maybe it is time to recast that story and tell it again. Hmmm.

Does it matter if our stories depict real things?

Does it matter if our stories are understood?

Does it matter if we have different reasons for telling those stories?

Does it matter if we see the same things and come away with different images?

Does it matter whether or not the stories we tell ourselves as a nation are true?

Is it more important that we shape the stories to fit the nation because the stories are definitely going to shape the nation, or should we let the stories play out as they fall?

The only thing I am sure of in all of this is that it matters that we listen.

Listen to the three-year-old, and tell him a story.
Listen to people who are different from you. They have a story.
Listen to the people marching in the streets. They have a story.
Listen to the politicians who have something to say, they are going to try to shape the story.
Listen to the stories we tell as a nation, do they actually tell our story, or are they leading us away from who we are?

What I am asking is a hard thing. Especially if we think we already know what we are hearing before the sounds ever reach our ears.

Happy Listening.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day, 2017

I was recently asked why I thought folktales were a good vehicle to help people understand Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

Here is my response:

The thing that Martin Luther King Jr. did for our nation was to retell our story including black and brown people in the narrative. Up until he came, we had no national story that included people of color that didn’t consider them as less than or worthless. 

It wasn't just that we had no voice; we had no place on which to hang our voice. There was no national place to even think about how people of color fit into the world…only in its shadow.

Go and See This Movie!
Even when people of color were doing amazing things in the shadows, there was no way to tell their stories. No context in which they would have been understood or accepted.

There was no national idea that black and brown people even had a right to have a voice. Anytime we tried to speak in our neighborhoods, communities, states, or regions, we were met with beatings, blood, fire, and persecution. The terrorism of the establishment in America was so fierce, that it made most people too afraid to do anything about the obvious discrimination.

Dr. King’s voice resonated not only with people of color but other citizens who had watched the systematic oppression of their fellow citizens and decided they could not let it stand.

Together, we began to tell a new story about what America could be and what we wanted to see.

The themes in folklore are clean-cut and powerful. They are about hope, love, equality, justice, persevering in the face of fear, the importance of community, treating each other with respect and the dangers of what happens when we don’t, and many of the other things that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about in his life.

The universality of folklore also brings us closer together as we realize that our ancestors all wanted the same things no matter where they were in the world. They wanted us to find ways to live together. They wanted us to love and care for each other. They wanted us to learn from our mistakes, and they wanted us to think about the consequences of our actions.

The story of the country in which I live, America, is a powerful one. It is filled with triumphs and places we failed; soaring dreams and nightmare cruelty; determination and despair. These things march hand in hand through the actions and inactions of those in power and those who fight for human rights.

Our story continues on this day as one administration leaves to be replaced by another.

There will be new battles, concerns, triumphs, hopes, disappointments, and possibilities.

Some people feel like a long national nightmare ended; others feel as if a long national nightmare is just beginning.

We will continue to write the story of who we are.

We must not forget where we started.  

We must remember that we can always be better than we are as long as we keep working together to move forward.

Most importantly, let us never forget to keep dreaming of a better world: Martin’s world.

January 20, 2017

Friday, January 13, 2017

Art Is Not An Elective For Everyone

James Ransome

He did this one
I met the incredibly talented visual artist James Ransome about a decade ago. He illustrated one of my books.

I sat in an auditorium and heard the tale of how he'd discovered his love of graphic arts by reading comic books. He showed an amazing image of the first pen drawing he'd ever done. It was fantastic. It was difficult for me to understand how he'd done the work with a ball point pen, but that's because I'm not a visual artist.

I've met a number of talented artists in my life. A good friend of mine, Clay Carmichael, who is the award-winning author of Wild Things and Brother, Brother, and a fabulous illustrator to boot is married to Mike Roig.

Clay Carmichael

Mike makes some of the most beautiful kinetic sculptures I have ever seen.

This week was another one of those experiences where I got whiplash. I started in Swan Quarter, NC at a small school. I had Kindergarten through fifth, and then sixth through eighth.

The principal told me that the eighth graders at the school had arrived as Kinders when he was the elementary principal. When he moved to the middle school the kids had come with him. Now he was the high school/early college principal. He reckoned if he stayed long enough, he would be the only principal in the state who'd shepherded one group of kids from kindergarten to associates degree.  He was very proud of that.

He told me to watch the eighth grade while I was performing. They were not the most academically gifted kids, in fact, he confided, they were considered at risk kids, but they were really talented. He told me a story about how they'd written and choreographed their own piece for the Christmas play when they were in fourth grade, and it was better than anything the teachers had done.

I did the show. We had a great time. As I was leaving, the principal was geeking out about how into the whole event the eighth grade had been. He kept telling me how they weren't "smart" or anything in the sense of school, but they liked things like this. As I was leaving he said in parting, "It's a shame we don't have a music teacher here."

So, a group of kids who like music and dance don't have an outlet for it at the one place they spend most of their time.

This "at risk" group of kids who might very well respond to arts centered education doesn't have access to the arts. They don't have performing or visual arts. Brilliant.

This morning I was at Durham Academy in Durham, NC. It's a private school...with a gorgeous modified black box theatre, state of the art sound system, music rooms, Djembe drums, choral rooms, grand piano, and a full-time dedicated music teacher. Their facility is less than a decade old and it is envy inducing. They also have a theatre program, visual arts curriculum, band...the whole suite of arts.

Before my show this morning, the music teacher had a small group of third and fourth graders who sang a call and response song for their peers and parents. Before the event began, I heard one of the little boys say, "This is the coolest thing I've ever done at school!"

For some kids, art isn't just something fun they get to do. It is a fundamental part of how they interact with the world.

My son is studying three-dimensional digital design and animation.

Here are some of his pieces.

He is also a pretty fierce beatboxer, has done some theatre, and is pretty amazing at putting together stories.

My daughter is not planning to study visual or performing arts. She is a logical, science oriented girl. In fact, she is really interested in physics or engineering. She attends a boarding school that specializes in such things.

 That does not mean she doesn't find joy and stress relief in the arts. She's been in a number of plays including being Anne in the Diary of Anne Frank. She loves attending musical theatre and she is an excellent fiction writer.

She also designs and draws mandalas.

She did this one for my parents

She made this one for my niece and nephew

She made this one for my sister and her husband

Both of my kids use art as a way to relax and refocus, and my son hopes to make his living as an artist.

How different would their lives be if their father and I were not drawn to the arts, and there were no arts in their schools? What if they never even knew you could be an artist as a career? What if they didn't have any place to practice their talents with people who understood and nurtured them?

What about the kids who learn best through the arts? What about the kids who could learn math through music? What about the kids who could use visual arts as a way to reading? What about the kids who could use singing as a way to increase literacy or vocabulary?

When the budget hammer drops, art is the first thing they cut. Imagination is the first thing on the chopping block. Dance isn't all that important, right? Forget that having it might help that really hyper kid learn how to focus on his/her body.

Theatre Arts aren't important, right? Forget that they might help that kid learn how to stand in front of a group of people and speak with confidence. I mean, when is that ever going to be a necessary skill?

Music? I mean honestly. It isn't like there are reams and reams of studies about how music aids in learning math and patterning, right?

It isn't like any of those things are life skills. Oh, and it isn't like any kid in that school will ever actually want to become an artist. 

Ax the arts!

I sat in that state of the art building this morning listening to jazz come through the fabulous speakers as the first, second, third, and fourth graders filed into the room and thought, "Every school should be so lucky."

For some kids, art is not an is the only way.

When will we ever learn.....

Happy Creating.