Thursday, January 24, 2019

When Murphy Strikes: The Aftermath


This has not been a stellar week in the world of storytelling for me. I find myself wondering how children taste if you have the right recipe.

I also wonder about the administrators at some of these schools.

In the last two days, I've been hit by all of the things that make me question whether or not I am the best person to be in schools.

I have no patience.
I am annoyed when administration treats art experiences like a babysitting service.
I am disgusted when teachers spend time surfing the net on their phones during the set and then get upset with their kids when they don't pay attention.
I am annoyed when they leave two special teachers in the room and everyone else leaves, thus encouraging the handful of really defiant kids all over the room to show their worst behavior without there being anybody there who really knows the best way to deal with them.
I hate having to enforce discipline from the stage because nobody is doing it and the kids around the disruptor are having trouble paying attention.
I really hate having to call out a kid who has Pokemon cards or a phone.
I hate seeing the preschoolers file into a show for 3 - 5th graders because they are going to sit and stare at me without a clue in the world about what is happening.

As I said, it has been a rough couple of days.

When things like this happen to me while I'm performing, I stop having fun. The only thing that saves the shows at this point is all of the training I've had over the years. I can get through a story and the kids enjoy it, but they are not getting the best of me, and my attitude by the end is hanging on by the skin of my proverbial teeth.

What happens when Murphy comes to visit me?

My usual fall back position after I leave a show where my body is in a knot because of the circumstances is to decide I was the biggest problem. Somehow, if I had just done SOMETHING different, that would have saved the whole thing. Placing it in my court makes me feel like there is something I can do to deal with the situation better the next time it happens and I start strategizing.

Despite my utter disgust at myself for not giving what I felt was the best possible experience to this school, the kids left saying...

You should be a comedian!
You are really funny!
I loved those stories!

When I'm this disappointed in the overall show, it is hard for me to hear those things. I am too annoyed at myself at not having done a better job at...SOMETHING.


First, I reach into my glove box and get a small piece of emergency chocolate. You can put what you want in your glovebox, I try to keep something decadent in there that I wouldn't normally eat. I take a small piece. This prevents me from pulling into the next drive-thru I see and ordering a shake or some other thing I will instantly regret the second I've swilled it down.

Next, I call The David

I yell, complain, and generally pout out loud as I drive. He listens and talks me down off of whatever ledge I might be standing on at the moment. Then, he talks to me. He uses his "Baby, be calm" voice.

He tells me about his phone calls, meetings, contracts, politics he has seen, whatever thing the cats have been up to, and any news of our college-aged children he has been saving. He will even tell me dad jokes. 

Whenever I am no longer homicidal, we get off the phone. I put on a playlist and drive home.

When I get here,  I curate my little library.

I get on facebook and waste some time.

I play a couple of games.

I make myself some lovely tea.

This time of year I make a nice fire....even if it is sixty degrees outside.

And, if it is non-fiction Thursday, which it is, I have to try to write a blog post about something.

So, tomorrow I have another show. No matter how it goes, tomorrow is Friday, so there is that.

Oh, and for those of my friends who are worried that I am cracking, I had amazing shows last weekend and a practically sold out show at the Carolina Theatre last weekend.

It isn't that I am fighting some huge uphill battle and debating the merits of my career.

No, I'm just having a few days when every audience I've seen makes me think I'm doing something wrong.

I think that it is important for artists to have these moments because they remind us that we are on a journey, not at a destination. We are not bulletproof, and we are often defined by the last audience we see!

So, tea, fire, and pampering tonight. Tomorrow? Kindergarten and first grade least, that's what they booked. Who knows what it will be when I get there.

Murphy is with me this week. He's a pain, but he doesn't ever stay long.

Enjoy the journey...even the potholes. All of them teach us something.

Happy Telling -

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Telling Stories and Literacy: The Things You Don't Usually Get To See

Photo Credit Jonathan Van Ark
I am an unrepentant bibliophile and logophile.

I love words and word games and reading. I could spend months sitting by a lake with a stack of books and little else and I would be in Heaven.

I can't imagine a life without books.

I know, however, that not everyone feels that way about literature.

Apparently, there are people who haven't read a book since college. There are other people who haven't ever read a book at all.

There are lots of reasons why people struggle to read, and those reasons are as varied as the people who have them.

If you are a literacy specialist working in an elementary school, you get to peek into those worlds. Today, because of a very specific set of circumstances, I got to peek into one.

I had three shows at a school today. This basically means I'm there for half a day. I don't do my usual run in, do a couple of sets, and then head out of the building.

The kids in the first couple of assemblies leave me and have time to go do a few other things before I am out the door.

Today was pretty perfect. I had K - 2, 3 - 5, and 6 & 7.

I got to do my traditional sets, and I let the middle school group decide if they wanted the family story I normally tell for the seventh grade or the gory scary set I tell for the sixth. Not surprisingly, I ended up telling Morgan and the Pot of Brains and The Boo Hag. They never pick the family story even if I promise them it is fun and they will love it.

I got to the school at 8:30am and I left at 1:15.

After my last set, I was chatting with the artist liaison. (the person on site who volunteers to babysit me! They make sure the space is set up properly, get my room temperature bottle of water - snacks sometimes - and ask me if I need anything else. They are wonderful. I wish I had one for everything, but alas, the second you leave the school you are once more on your own!)

We were laughing about something as we went down the hall towards the front office. I'd had a chance to see all the kids in the school, and they were shocked to see me walking through the halls like a normal person. They said the usual things:

"I loved that!"
"You are the best storyteller ever!"
"That was amazing."
"You are very good at telling stories."
"Thank you for telling us stories."

As we passed one of the closed doors, a teacher opened it, let a kid out and saw me.
She said, "I am so glad to see you! I have to tell you something."

A kid that she has been working with all year came to see her right after the assembly. The literacy specialist said that this girl has lots of struggles with literacy. She reads the words one at a time with a flat affect, and her comprehension is almost nonexistent.

She said, "I always tell the kids to read with expression, but they never do."

Today, when the girl got to her session, she read the sentence. "The. dog. was. angry." The specialist said, "After she read the sentence she looked at it for a second and she said, "No." she read it again, and this time she made it really dramatic. "The dog was angry!"

 She looked up at me and there was a huge smile on her face. She said, "I have to learn how to read this the right way so I can go home and read it to my parents!"

The specialist said the girl was so excited about the story that she worked on it until she had it so she could read it all the way through with inflection.

"You helped her make a connection between words and stories that I have been unable to get her to do all year. I have never seen her so excited about reading. I just wanted you to know that. You made a difference for her."
One of the bookcases in my kid's rec room

I rarely get that kind of immediate feedback about the work I do.
Normally, I just hope stories clicked with someone.

I walked out of that school today with so much joy. I was so proud of that kid. I don't know who she is. I might never meet her. She may never see me again, but if she keeps hearing the words with emphasis and images...reading could very well go from a struggle to a friend.

Don't ever doubt that what you do makes a difference just because you aren't always there to see it.

Happy Telling -

Thursday, January 10, 2019

We Are Our Stories - Nothing More. Nothing Less.

I love doing sets that challenge audiences when I work in schools. I'm always trying to challenge them linguistically and developmentally. I try to challenge their imagination and their assumptions.

We are the sum of the stories we believe, and the stories we reject. We can't incorporate any story into our world view we haven't heard. As a storyteller, I try to expose people to as many stories as I can!

Nobody should be shocked that we are the stories we believe. We start teaching our children the story of who we are, and who we expect them to be as soon as they arrive. We also tell them who everyone else is. 

Sometimes the stories we surround our children with are dark and frightening. Sometimes the stories are light and fun. 

As we go through life, those stories come back to haunt us. They shape what we see and how we interact with people. They close us or open us. We cannot escape them, and often we don't even question them.

Yesterday I was in a school that had an interesting population. They have everything from kids who live in gated communities with million dollar homes, kids who are bussed in from government housing to kids who live on a Reservation. 

I asked the principal if he would like the Trouble set or the Social set. He listened to the descriptions and announced, "Both."

I said, "You have to pick one."

He said, "Both," and started laughing.

So, I split the baby on it. I did part of the Trouble set and part of the Social set.

The kids really enjoyed Brer Possum and the Snake, but they were over the moon for The Debate in Sign Language.

They were shocked at the callousness of the king, the foolishness of his behavior, and his nonsense assertion that the only people who were worth anything were the rich and beautiful. 

They loved the ending, and most of them said it was their favorite story. The teachers who saw me before I left the school felt compelled to tell me that the last story was perfect because of the population of their school. I just nodded. 

Today, I was in a school that I visit every single time I am in the area. I wasn't here last year, and all the teachers let me know that they noted that I didn't come. The principal told me that as soon as they saw my name on the list they booked me this year. It is an arts school, and I have now seen every single kid at that k - 6th school at least once!

With such a seasoned storytelling audience, you can tell interesting stories. So, I broke out Clever Manka.

(The version I tell is not the written one here. It is a compilation of several of these clever girl tales, but this is a good variant of the one I know.)

I begin by telling them that I was potty trained in front of Sesame Street. I explain that I loved Prairie Dawn because she was saying things to girls nobody else was. She said girls were smart, and strong, and capable. I explained that when I was a little girl, most people were telling girls if they were too smart, nobody would ever love them. Smart girls were always shown to be alone, teased, unloved, and every other thing until they stopped trying to be so smart and looked pretty.

"Boys don't make passes at girls who wear glasses."

The kids were shocked that this could have been true. They couldn't imagine it. I asked them what year women got to vote. It took five minutes of guessing before someone finally remembered it was 1920.

I told them that from 1776 to 1920, women in the country had been unable to make decisions that really affected our government. 

I told them that I found out that Prarie Dawn is the first feminist I'd ever met. Being a feminist means that you believe that girls are smart, strong, and capable. If you believe that, then you are a feminist. 

Then, I went into Clever Manka. The refrain I use in that tale?

"Nothing good ever comes of women who are clever!

As I was leaving today, one of the girls turned to me and said, "Girl Power!"

I don't remember what I was thinking about when I was in fourth grade, but I am pretty sure it wasn't girl power.

There are so many stories that tell us that acting with knowledge can change the world for good one decision or action at a time, just as acting in ignorance can destroy beautiful things.

 We change the world and ourselves for good or ill because of the stories we believe and those we reject.

I am just a storyteller. All I can do is try to offer up stories so that we can see each other and ourselves in different ways. 

I want to believe it is possible to see each other and accept that we are not all the same and that is perfectly fine.

Some days I am daunted by that. Today?

Today I had 

Happy Telling.