“There’s no way you’re gonna make me do this thing. No way.”
I looked out across the seated group of eight adolescent girls. Their high school
guidance counselor had referred them to this after school “Finding Your Voice”
storytelling workshop. Most of the girls were struggling either academically or
behaviorally, and although only fifteen years old, a few of the girls were already
being followed by a parole officer. What each of these girls had in common was
that someone thought they might benefit from four weeks of listening to each
other’s stories while uncovering and exploring their own.
This “thing” I was asking them to do, was to stand up on the stage of their high
school auditorium on Thursday afternoon and tell one of the personal stories
they had been preparing over the past four weeks. It wasn’t as if this news was
a surprise. All our story work together had been focused towards this final event.
In this last meeting, however, most were sitting silently, shaking their heads “no”
while staring at their shoes. “Shadow” was the first to break the silence. “I’m
not going to stand up in from of my family and friends and make a fool of
myself. There’s no way!”
“What’s the big deal?” I challenged and hoped that someone besides Shadow
Shadow rose to her feet. I felt her energy fill her large physique as she
sauntered over to face me. “Do you hear me, girl?” she taunted. “No way am I
gonna bring my group in here, never mind my Mama, to give them something to
take me down with later. I’m not that stupid.” At five feet ten, Shadow towered
over me. The room was warm, and the sweat glowed on her bare arms. She was
dressed in her signature black clothes that I assumed gave her the street name
of Shadow; black high top sneakers, black tight fitting jeans that rode her hips,
and a black bandana revealing the sideburns of her close-cropped hair. Although
I felt intimidated, I could also sense the fear beneath her anger.
“I don’t get it,” I challenged her back, knowing we had the full attention of every
girl in the room. “What are you so afraid of?”
“You sure don’t get it,” she retorted. “Cause your life never gave you nothin’ to
be afraid of. You’ll never get it,” she said, “and that’s why I’m not gonna do this
Her words knocked the wind out of my strategy and I retreated into defensive
mumbling. “Of course there are things I’m afraid of,” I retorted, (this interaction
being high on my list, I thought to myself.) “Everyone in the world is afraid of
“So what‘s your thing?” Shadow demanded. The room fell hushed as all leaned in to hear me.
“I’m afraid of fish,” I blurted. Shadow’s booming roar broke the silence.
“Are you messing with us? Fish? Like goldfish, or sharks, or what?”
“No, I mean it. I’m deathly afraid of any kind of fish.”
By this time all the girls were laughing. Nervously, I continued.
“When I was a little kid, just three years old, I got really sick. I went to the
hospital but just kept getting sicker. I had dangerously high fevers that led me to
have really strange dreams. At first the doctors couldn’t figure out what was
wrong with me, so they gave me all kinds of tests, some of which were painful
and scary for a little kid. Finally, they said that it was encephalitis, an
inflammation of the brain. They told my parents that there was not much more
they could do for me, except to keep me comfortable and wait to see if I got
My parents visited me every day and brought me cards and pictures to cheer me
up. They taped one of the prettier cards on the wall next to my pillow. It was a
picture of a goldfish swimming in a bowl. I fell asleep each night staring in to the
eyes of that fish. At some point, amidst my dreams and nightmares, I began to
feel like that goldfish caught in a bowl of water; alone, scared, cold, unable to
Everyone was quietly listening to me now, so I kept going. “When I finally did
get better, my parents worried whether my brain might have been damaged by
the high fevers. I was lucky, because I was pretty much okay. Except for one
thing; I couldn’t go near any kind of fish, dead or alive, without screaming.”
“You’re kidding me,” Shadow muttered. “So what happens now when you see a
“Even now, whenever I see a fish I feel like I can’t breathe. My skin gets cold
and clammy. My heart starts racing and I think I’m going to die.”
“Yeah,” Shadow spoke uncharacteristically gently. “That’s the way I feel about
standing up in front of a bunch of people and telling my story. I guess you know
now why I’m not going to do it.”
“But you can’t let the fear stop you! If I let my fear of fish control me, I’d never
go out of the house.”
“I’m getting out of the house just fine,” Shadow laughed sarcastically. “But that
don’t mean I’m standing up on no stage in front of a microphone. You seem to
be getting out of the house just fine yourself. But I don’t see you hugging no
fish. How close you been to a fish anyway?”
“Not very close,” I had to admit, realizing I had just lost this verbal chess match.
That’s when Shadow got this glint in her eye. She spoke slowly and deliberately
looking me straight on. “I’ll tell you what. I’m willing to make you a deal. You
bring a fish in here with you on Thursday, and hug it tight in your arms up there
on that stage, and I’ll stand next to you and tell a story. You do the holding, and
I’ll do the talking. We’ll both face our fears. That seems about fair to me.”
I could feel that cold, clammy feeling begin to creep up the back of my neck as
my breathing became shallow. The image she painted made me want to cry and
scream at the same time. I got it. I was pushing them to do something that was
pleasure for me and pure torture to them. Shadow had found a way to equalize
the playing field.
“Okay. You’ve got a deal,” I mumbled, shaking her hand. The room of girls burst
into cheers. “Man-o-man,” Shadow boomed above the raucous shouting, “I can’t
wait to invite my Mama to see this one.”
Over and over, through the following week I tried to envision befriending a small
and beautiful rainbow trout with smiling eyes and warm, smooth skin. It was the
least terrifying picture I could imagine.
Thursday came too quickly. The girls’ presentation was scheduled to begin at
four. At noon, I weakly ventured out to find my fish. Making my way down the
aisles of Stop and Shop, I could feel my heart racing as I neared the fish
counter. Rows of brightly colored filets greeted me. For the first time I perused
the case hoping to make eye contact with a whole fish. I couldn’t find even one.
“Excuse me,” I called to the butcher when my number was called, “but do you
have any good looking, whole fish?”
Oceanic Ichthyology by Goode and Bean, 1896
“Any what?” he asked.
“You know a cute little whole fish, like a rainbow trout.”
“Nope. None in for awhile. Not their season.”
Not their season? Since when are fish in season?
My heart sank as I realized I would have to go to the fish market to fulfill my goal. Before entering the fish market, I took several deep breaths, preparing myself for whatever I might confront inside. I couldn’t remember ever seeking out something that gave me so much discomfort. Trudging across the sawdust
covered floor, I approached the counter with my eyes down, lifting them slowly
to take in one row of the display at a time. Again, white and orange filets and round scallops neatly lined up in front of me. To my relief and horror there was no whole fish in sight. Getting the attention of the burly man behind the counter, I tentatively queried, “Got any nice little rainbow trout in the back room?”
“Nope, not in season. Anything else you want?”
“Well, actually I am in search of a whole fish, any kind really, it just needs to
have friendly eyes and be sort of, you know, good looking.”
“Good looking?” I noticed his smirk, but I hoped it was a joining-in-humor-look
rather than a sarcastic judgment of my sanity.
“Yeah, good looking,” I repeated, feeling increasingly vulnerable and
“I’ll see what we got in the way of good looking fish out back,” he chuckled.
I waited with my eyes plastered to my shoes until I heard him approach.
“Will this do?” he asked.
My eyes rose to meet the clouded, dead eyes of a three foot long cod draped
over his extended arms. I screamed and ran from the store.
Back out in the safety of my car, I sat on the overheated seat with the windows
rolled up and tried to breathe in the stifling air. Tears streaked down my cheeks
as I struggled with the emotions stirred by the dead gaze of the fish. I realized I
could not do what I had promised. I started the car and drove in dread and self-
disappointment to meet the girls whom I knew were counting on me.
I arrived at the high school at 3:30, and observed that the auditorium was
already half full. Back stage, the girls gathered nervously about me, waiting for
me to speak. I paused, noticing something was very different. I barely
recognized this group of eight girls whom I had been working with so closely
over the previous month. Their hair was styled; their jeans and sweatshirts had
been replaced with dress slacks or skirts. Shadow stood squarely in front of me.
She was outfitted in a royal blue dress, high heels and matching earrings. She
“Look,” I stammered, trying unsuccessfully to maintain eye contact. “I haven’t
held up my part of the deal. I tried to find a fish I could hold, but I just couldn’t
Shadow began to laugh, quietly at first, but then with a growing physical
outburst that led the focus of the group to shift to her. I had lost them, and I
deserved it. Trying desperately to get their attention back for one last moment, I
spoke louder, “So you don’t have to go out there and speak this afternoon, if you
don’t want to. It’s up to you.”
“Tonight is not about you,” Shadow forcefully whispered back, “The fish thing is
your problem, not ours. Telling our stories is something we gotta do. So, let’s
get this thing going, girls. There’s people waiting out there to hear what we have
to say.” The group cheered, and proudly followed Shadow out on the stage to
begin their presentation.
Taking a seat in the front row, with the sweat pouring down the back of my
shirt, I watched anxiously as Shadow moved to center stage and picked up the
microphone. She looked out over the audience with the same commanding
presence that she had used in the school hallways, but there was something
different about her. She was smiling.
“Hey everybody!” she shouted over the crowd. “Put your eyes up here.”
The room fell into a hush as Shadow leaned down into the mic. “You all know
me as Shadow. But I’m here to tell you that my name is Jean-Marie. You call me
Jem now. And tonight I’m gonna tell you why. I been working on finding my
voice, and now I plan on using it.”
It’s been several years since that afternoon in the auditorium when Shadow
walked into her new identity as Jem. I heard from the guidance counselor she
continued to step into her power and use her influence to lead others in positive
ways. After our time together, I had no doubts that she could, and would. As for
me, I still haven’t found a fish I feel ready to hold, but I have a deep
appreciation now for what it means to ask another to step out of their comfort
zone. I hope that someday, with the example of Jem to guide me, I’ll find a way
to face more of my own fears and have a different story to tell.
*Fish plate from Altes Museum, Berlin
Lani Peterson is known for her personal tales of wit and
wisdom. She is not only a storyteller, but also a psychologist,
teacher and coach. With a specialty in the use of story as a
healing art, Lani has been storytelling, leading workshops
and speaking at festivals, universities, organizations,
homeless shelters, museums, hospitals, prisons, and street
corners for twenty years.