11.10.2005

Commentary: Tell Us A Story

Last week I visited Michael Olson’s AP English high school classes in Spanish Fork, Utah. Michael, who also runs The Payson Chronicle, asked that I discuss “the writing process” with his students and talk about tensions that may exist between what the reader got from a story and what the writer intended in writing it. He wanted me to read from my novel, too. I hadn’t stood before young students in years. I’d forgotten how much work it takes to keep a class of kids together, moving in some meaningful direction.

In both classes enough desks stood empty that the room itself seemed to hang between sizes. The students sprawled a-gangle in their seats. The classroom atmosphere reminded me of a teenager’s bedroom, an enclosure filled with draped clothes and tossed comments, all being rapidly outgrown. I liked these kids; I envied Mr. Olson’s good fortune in getting to know them. An unstated quo vadis* hung between us, a specter of my interest in them, one I supposed only I could see. I’ve loved students since my days teaching English 115 and Philosophy 105 at BYU. I miss the whole teaching adventure.

Sometimes the kids sat up sharp listening; sometimes their heads sank onto desktops. Some appeared to be out cold, but I learned I couldn’t trust appearances. A student might lie slumped onto her desk like a spruce tree branch overloaded with snow, then she’d spring up suddenly and split the classroom with a question. The rustle of notes passing back and forth underlaid all words spoken aloud like subtext.

I proposed that when it came to storytelling the storyteller ought to allow the audience to play a strong role at times. “A good story should contain some of the qualities of a good stone soup. Do you know the story ‘Stone Soup?’” Some thought they did. They tried to tell it but faltered; they’d forgotten. When I discovered this gaping hole in their education I tried to fill it. College-bound students shouldn’t leave high school without knowing about “Stone Soup.”

Whenever a word or two snagged their interest, questions flew: What? Where? When? Why? How? “How do you know,” they asked, “when to use who and when to use whom?” The question seemed to cause genuine distress. I tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry about it. The English language is evolving, that usage is dying out.” I joked it would be gone in thirty years. “But I notice when you speak you use it correctly,” Mr. Olson said. (Who/whom is one of his pet peeves.) “I’m the last one. When I die, it’ll be gone,” I said. The students weren’t satisfied; I saw in their eyes they still wanted to know what I knew, but I let the matter drop. Let who/whom remain a trick we grammatical nerds keep dark.

“What is ‘archetype?’” “What does ‘esoteric’ mean?” “What does it feel like when you see your book on the shelf at a bookstore?” If I spent an hour answering each of these questions, I imagined I’d still see that look, the one that says, “You’re not telling us everything.” “But why do we have to experience evil?” one young woman asked. This was in the context of archetype and the archetypal story’s engagement of the conflict between good and evil, not only as it plays out upon story battlefields but also as it rages in the hearts of readers immersed in the struggle. How could I demonstrate in a few minutes that even a question like “Why do we have to experience evil?” has a dark and dangerous side?

I couldn’t; I took the easier road. “The cool thing about reading good literature,” I said, “is that you can confront evil in a relatively safe manner, in a text, often in a familiar and secure location, rather than going out and finding evil in more dangerous and unexpected circumstances.” Blank stares. “Where do you read?” I asked. “In my bed.” “In the living room on the couch.” “In the car.” “All safe, comfortable places. If you become frightened, you can stop and find yourself back in familiar surroundings.” An idea struck me. I asked, “Do you read folktales in school anymore?” They shook their heads no. I pitied them for their loss of fundamental narratives, plain yet well turned-language that supports imagination. I told them how, when I was young, I cut my reader's teeth on such stories as “How Bear Lost His Tale,” Aesop’s fables, Br’er Rabbit tales, etc. Then came a surprise, one that erupted spontaneously in both classes and that snagged my attention. “Did you bring any good stories for us?” they asked. “Tell us a story!” The shine in their eyes was like the glistening of tongues whetted by appetite.

At this point, speaking with them became easier; no longer was there any need to keep them together. At the prospect of hearing a story they all ran up to me in complete attention and we gathered around that linguistic fire ring where people meet to tell and hear stories. I read an old Kalapuya tale, “Coyote Takes Water From the Frog People,” then tales of my own making that I’ve put in my novel, a different one to each class: “The Fox That Was Raised By Dogs,” “Why Is Coyote So Smart?” The subtext stopped rustling. In both classes students’ faces opened like morning glories in the first real sun that had shined into the schoolroom.

Looking back I realize that stories were what these students wanted all along. As a storyteller, I should have known that. I see the undying need for good narratives in my own children, in my fifteen-year-old’s retained interest in bedtime stories, albeit more complex ones that when he was eight. It's in my eight-year-old’s astonishing appetite for Grimm’s Fairytales and her willingness to engage more complex stories when I read them with her older brother. I hear it in my disabled daughter's cooed “yes” when I ask if she wants me to read to her. I have my own hunger and thirst after fine narrative, original to my earliest consciousness—the need to engage and be egaged by story that I myself have never outgrown.

Thank you, Mr. Olson's AP English students, for calling my attention to an important matter I'd overlooked. I learned a storyteller’s lesson from you: If I speak to students again, high school or otherwise, I’ll go better arrayed with stories and do what comes naturally to a storyteller facing a young audience. Inbetween tales I’ll dazzle the class with such esoterica** as what archetype means and when one ought to use who and whom, rather than doing things the other way around. Whatever I think I know about evil, grammar, and how I feel about being an author I’ll let the stories tell, because good stories, even modern ones, contain the stuff of ancient wisdom; they're much older and smarter than I.

*quo vadis: Latin; literally, “Where are you going?”
**esoterica: mysterious matters