Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Family folklore and legend--vitamins against the culture of the day

Our family's story is not unlike that of many families these days. My husband and I have been married to our first and only spouse for almost 25 years. We've been contributing members of society. Teachers. Community volunteers. Members of the church board and active in the life of our church. We have two sons. They have been given every opportunity, as well as clear limits when needed. In other words, in a loving and stable home, they've been trained up in the way they should go...and one has seemingly been derailed much of the time. It's not easy from the outside for others to see the frustrations and heartbreak parents experience watching bad choices and lost opportunities for a bright and talented kid. It is easy from the outside to fix blame on family. On the inside, we know it isn't about us, it's about a sensitive and reflective young man trying in the worst possible way to make the break from his parents in blazing fashion. It's not easy, as any other parents who've traveled this way will tell you.

Yet, sometimes those rare windows of time open up in which the whole family can recall the stories and legends of the past 18 years in smorgasbord style. The boys were both home from school with some flu bug the other day, though I suspect it may well have been the medium rare venison roast Dad made the night before. Whatever the cause, they were sick puppies. I called from work to remind them that sick puppies could not go sniffing in garbage cans that evening, since they weren't well enough to leave the kennel for obediance school!

The 18 year old grumbled and groaned, but told those friends who called he had to stay home.
Yeah. Cause I didn't go to school. Long pause. Yeah, I know. (Which I believe is code for "yup, my parents suck!) They predictably didn't want much to eat for supper. Neither did I, for that matter. No cooking tonight!

I suggested we all sit down at the table and play a game, even if we didn't eat supper. No one wanted to do anything requiring much thought. We used to play games all the time, so there were many choices from within the game cabinet. We settled on Parcheesi. The older one groaned, telling me "They don't call them "bored" games for nothing, Mom!"

At first, the prodigal son just played in a perfunctory fashion, not allowing any expression to escape his face. After a short while, though, recollections of other times sitting at this table, playing various games, began to be retold. The time all three of them started a rhythm chorus, "Stomp" style, with the dice cups in order to drive me to distraction. The time Dick rolled a 9, and began chanting a la the Beatles, "Number 9, Number 9, Number 9," while the younger son, then still wearing footie sleepers, lay on the floor, spinning in time to the chant. The image of that bit of family folklore sent us all into hysterics, even the dour prodigal.

By the time we'd reached the end of the game, many bits of the legends that bind us together and allow us to call each other "family" had been retold. My son was smiling, even laughing, and he relaxed into the family from which he's spent so much of his effort lately trying to break away. He was reminded of the shared history he has with the rest of us, history he can never capture in his current group of friends.

I'm glad we have this shared folklore in our family. Television is rarely on in our home. Books and stories have always been abundant, along with arts and crafts and outdoor experiences and music and service and faith. Though the older son will continue to make mistakes and try our patience, though I will not stop worrying--ever--I know that he's already been given a lifetime of love, seasoned with family stories, to carry him through these dark days into the light.

Postscript--An excellent resource to help families build their own family folklore can be found in the pages of the Call of Story website.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Honoring our men and women in service

Today is the traditional Veterans Day. At the school where I teach, this has always been a huge remembrance, even prior to 9/11. Any veteran in the community is invited to attend a special observation, during which the students perform songs written especially by our music teacher, poetry is read and thanks are given to those in attendance for their service. The program is timed so that any veterans who wish to have lunch may stay. Children are assigned to guide them through the lunch line, to serve them by bringing things to their tables, and the entire lunchroom is set up to look like a huge restaurant. We're encouraged to wear red, white and blue. It's quite a different scene from most days in the grade school lunchroom, as the kids are quiet and respectful. Why? The vets are encouraged to share their stories with the kids, and the kids have been coached to draw these out. As with any subject, a story will capture our attention like nothing else, but never more than when our veterans share the stories they have.

This is becoming more and more important for many reasons. Unfortunately, as a nation we find ourselves in these conflicts far too often. It's something we don't care to discuss, but often find ourselves in verbal conflict when we do choose to discuss it. Yet ask any vet about his or her service, and though they won't likely share the ugly stuff, they have many great stories about the places they've been and the unique experiences they've had, the friendships they've formed with those in their unit, and perhaps the stories of cross cultural contact into which wartime placed them.

We tend to avoid the stories they might have to share. War is ugly, and the presence of veterans often brings that to the forefront. I don't think there's a vet around who doesn't agree with that point of view, but they still have stories to share. There is a movie that came out several years ago, based on a real event during World War I. The movie is called "Midnight Clear," and it retells the story of German and US soldiers, facing each other during the height of a nasty winter, deciding to call their own truce, since support was not reaching either side, and holding an observance of Christmas in an abandoned house. The movie was based on a story that was told by one of those soldiers. It is a truly moving tale, and one that might have been lost had that soldier not shared it with someone.

About five years ago, a young man attending one of the two high schools in the district where I teach chose to do an oral history project to enter into competition for National History Day. He wanted to interview as many veterans in the LaCrosse area as possible, saving their stories for posterity. He started early in the school year, gathering names of potential interviewees from various organizations, such as the VFW as well as simply asking around. He gathered nearly 70 names, which included vets from all armed conflicts back to WWI. By the time he was finishing his work in the spring, about 1/3 of the contacts had either died or had medical complications due to aging that made it impossible for this young man to gather their stories.

The young man still went on with his project in the National History Day competition, and I believe he competed at the national level. His comments in an article in the LaCrosse Tribune reflected upon the need to save these stories for our national history before it's too late. As a result of his work, our US Congressman, Ron Kind, managed to put forward a bill that provided monies to gather these oral histories.

I'd encourage anyone reading this to honor the veterans you know by asking them to share their stories--then retell them yourself, keeping this important history of ours alive.

(For more information about the story of the Christmas Truce, here is a great link to Aaron Shepard's storytelling website. He has created a version of this story for telling, and includes some interesting background information).
(And for information straight from the Congressman himself about the Veterans History Project, check this link).

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Just an old fashioned light show

Stepping out into the brisk November night on Sunday, we found ourselves gasping in awe. No, the Christmas lights hadn't been turned on for the first time this season; an incredible display of aurora borealis, northern lights, was dancing through the night sky. Seeing the aurora wasn't a completely novel experience--after all, my husband is from "up north" as is my dad. Even near our home in southwestern Wisconsin, seeing the northern lights wasn't a totally unique experience.
Yet the solar flare that swept across the globe on November 7 was particularly strong. The entire dome of the heavens shimmered with blankets of green, even a touch of pink greeted us as we looked up at the night sky.

As my family and I stood and watched the show, better than any reality tv, I could see why the shimmering lights of the night sky inspired. Though the night was dark and moonless, it seemed the entire sky was awash in green flame. Green flame! I tell a story in which a bad spirit, trapped in a burning lodge, explodes into a green flame and travels up into the sky, becoming an owl. Aiming my camera at the sight before me, caught in the tree branches, that story came back to my consciouness. Telling the story, I'd always puzzled about the green flame aspect.
Green flame? Why green? Looking at the awesome grandeuer before me on this night, green suddenly makes sense. How else to explain something supernatural than to recall that which seems so in the natural world?

I brought my digital camera to school the next day to show the kids what I'd seen. As one of my more imaginative little second graders said, "Oooh, look, it's spirits! The spirits were there, in the sky!" I had to agree. Yes, it is spirits indeed, the kind that inspired stories of bad spirits transformed in a blaze of green flame into an owl. Far better than any display on the cathode ray tube--or plasma screen--the lights of the northern sky inspire me days after they've faded from all but memory.

Northern lights in southwestern Wisconsin Posted by Hello

Monday, November 01, 2004

Validation is a wonderful thing!

Last Wednesday at school might be what one would call a wash; just past a full moon, the last day before the four day weekend in Wisconsin, and most critical--the day of the classroom Halloween parties! I knew as one of those teachers who doesn't have her own classroom, aka "special ed," I'd be twiddling my thumbs if I didn't take some sort of decisive action. Right away in the morning, I emailed all the first and second grade teachers, offering to come and tell age appropriate "scary" stories during their parties. Two teachers took me up on the offer. I think most of the others just view my "storytelling in education" crusade as some sort of charming eccentricity, despite the volumes of research I've found backing up the claim that storytelling is good news for standardized test scores.

Dressed in my witch costume--despite claims by some co-workers I don't really need the costume!--I entered the first classroom right after the costume parade. The kids were, as they say, abuzz. Once I started with the story of the "Naughty Girl and the Hideous Beast," they were *mine!* One little boy kept making comments, but he was with me more than I've ever seen that child with a teacher. His eyes never left my face, and though he protested that "I wasn't scared!" he looked like he might have jumped the highest of any of the kids.

I thought they'd be all set to gorge themselves on punch and treats, but when I was finished, they just sat there. Still as the proverbial church mice! I looked at them and asked, "Do you want me to tell another?"

I told the story of the tiny tiny ghost, and I had them all for that one, too. I've been doing this long enough not to be too surprised at the response of my little audience. Still, today when I went out to the playground for recess duty, the classroom teacher strode right up and said, "You can come tell stories ANY time!" Doesn't matter if they're doing math, reading or anything else, if I have time and the inclination, she'll drop whatever they're doing to have me tell them more stories. ANY time. As often as I want. All year.

It's a wonderful thing in these days of high stakes testing for another educator to see the value of something not "tested," and validate that with an open invitation. Truly, the kids will be better for it--I have plenty of research to suggest the test scores will improve as a result.

But it still feels great! So what story should I tell them next?

(For just one position paper on the importance of storytelling, see what the National Council of Teachers of English have to say).