Storytelling for a Community in Transition

by Elisa Pearmain.

“We are looking for a storyteller,” the acting principal informed me on the phone. “The school is going through a big transition. We are a thirty-year-old alternative public school that has just lost its only principal of 29 years to retirement. We are also being forced to move to a new building that we will share with another school that does not share all of our philosophies. My vision is to have you come in and collect the stories of the school, and to share them with the students, grades K through six, over six assemblies, January through June. “

That’s how I came to work at the “McT” School this past winter and spring. My job was to listen to the teachers, former teachers and staff tell stories of the school over the years and to cull from their reminiscing stories that would appeal to the K-6 crowd. In listening to their musings, I was to hear what was important to them, and how their stories reflected the values of the school. I wanted to present the stories to the kids in a context that would be meaningful and allow the students to own them, to feel a greater sense of community, thus easing the grieving/transition process.

The story-gathering process came first. Over three lunch periods I sat with a tape recorder in the principal’s office listening as the former and acting principals and waves of teachers came and shared their memories over lunch. A second session took place a few weeks later with former teachers.

I heard mostly animal stories that day. The students and teachers at McT were fierce advocates of animal rights; wild animals inhabited the old building and new local and exotic animals and insects came and went. The stories reflected the way that teachers and students worked together, protected animals and dealt with loss. The school had acquired such a reputation for animal support that one year when two elephants were removed from a small zoo in Rhode Island due to neglect and were being taken to a new home in New Hampshire, their keepers chose McT for a half-way stopping point. The elephants got out in the parking lot and all the kids in the school came out to see and pet them.

Listening in these story gatherings was challenging. This was my first meeting with these folks. I found that I was listening on many levels at once. I was trying to keep an open mind to imbibe the qualities that made the school and staff unique. I was trying to be sensitive to the style of sharing in this community. I was also ruthlessly mining for the “good” stories that would fill six assemblies, because I had a terrible feeling that it was going to take me a lot more time than they could pay me for. (I was right!)

I had come to these sharing events with copies of my “memory prompts.” For the most part we did not need them. People in this school had done some reminiscing before and knew a core number of old standards which they wanted me to know. The fact that I had my tape recorder on allowed me to be more relaxed and to trust that I could miss some details.

It was fun hearing the first group of teachers raise some story nuggets and then to have subsequent groups flesh them out or even add conflicting data. I listened to the way that they referred to one another, and got used to teachers being called by their first names. I gained a sense that this community had an easy sense of humor. With both principals present I was able to witness the casual open nature of the school in which people could admit mistakes and laugh about them later. This gave me a wonderful context to explore the parameters that I could tread when fleshing out the stories.

Many of the tales that the teachers told me were used during the assemblies. I listened to their language and tried to use it in the stories. I often spoke at length to teachers on the phone to fill in the details. I felt as if I had been handed a sacred gift and had to give it back even more beautifully.

Once I had finished these early story-sharing sessions, I began to think about how I would enter into this community to present them. A gnawing question was growing in my head: Who the heck was I to come into this community and tell them their stories? I also wasn’t sure if the stories told in a straightforward manner would hold the interest of such a wide age range. I felt that I needed a storytelling persona that wouldn’t fit the context. I soon realized that such a persona would also offer me an imaginative in, and an emotional connection. I needed to be part of the context.

Perhaps it was because my daughter and I were in the midst of the Redwall series by Brian Jaques, whose heroes and heroines are often mice, that a mouse character came to me. Mice had frequented the school over the years. When I mentioned the idea of the mouse persona, the staff were immediately excited. I had been encouraged to take license freely around the basis of truth in the tales. The only license I actually had to take was creating the character and telling all of the stories through her eyes. This allowed me to solve mysteries and to fill in the gaps from a perspective that the kids could embrace.

So Mattie came to be: A thirty-one-year-old female white-footed deer mouse who had stolen into the principal’s office through an open window 30 years before. This perspective worked like a charm. The formation of stories in the context of an animal’s perspective went smoothly. I felt emotionally connected to the community in my new role, and the community welcomed me. I did not wear a mouse costume, only some gray leggings, a gray velour top, and white socks. Pausing for a drink of water halfway through my first assembly a Kindergartner raised his hand.

“Are you really a mouse?”

“Do you want me to be?”

“Yes.”

“Then I am!”

I soon found that because the stories were about their community, the children stayed engaged across all grade levels. There were no behavior problems during my assemblies. Never did I have to ask any groups of kids to stop talking. Teachers also did not talk during my stories. I believe that the degree of attentiveness was due to the fact that these were their stories. They really mattered to them. They could not take or leave them. The more recently the stories had happened, the more excited the kids became. Sometimes in the stories I would ask the audience questions that all could respond to out loud simultaneously, as a way of joining them in the story. Sometimes the kids would become so excited by recognizing a name, or with the nature of the story content, that they would have to be brought back down with the school “peace sign.” This was acceptable to the teachers and helped to make a connection between the kids today and the stories of long ago.

I also made sure to include stories of transition and loss. These tales allowed many difficult feelings to be expressed and this aided in resolving those emotions. In this way I was letting the kids feel vicariously, developing empathy but also practicing and collecting stories, and cultivating a sense of hope for a time when they might experience such difficult feelings.

There is a personality to each community that makes it special. Stories help to clarify this. What is created is a mythology of a commonly held history, with characters that reflect the values of all to follow. Kids feel like they belong to something when they hear stories of a person or place that they are connected to. ITie story of the school is told: This is how it started. This is what we believe in. This is how we treat one another, get into trouble, celebrate together. This is what we take from the school when we graduate to help us in the future. These are the teachers and staff who mean something to us. This is the story of how some of us even come back to teach here as adults. This is the story of their community – they are included in it. They have a mythological character who loves them, and their tales, enough to come out of hiding, and share them in a gym of 600 kids and teachers.

How did they further internalize the stories? The classes took turns working from my scripts and creating collages of each scene with each story. They went up on the wall in the main corridor between my sessions. These sequenced stories will be turned into tiles to be put up on the walls in the new school.I also gave a “best of “ concert for the kids and their families on a Friday nignt in June. Families are a very active part of the school and were a part of the stories as well.

The sixth graders had an additional transition to make as they were graduating. They created their own story memories and we worked on developing them for telling. I felt that both of these exercises would help them to acknowledge feelings, and to take time to process all that they were feeling and what the McT school experience had meant to them. Some of them shared with the assembly on my last visit.

Mattie lives on at McT School. The school found out in May that construction of the new school would not be complete until next November. Therefore Mattie will return to ask the kids to help her think of how she will get to the new school and where she will live. Classes will create stories together which Mattie will share in assembly. I have also been informed that the stories and some of the kid’s illustrations will be transferred onto large tiles that will be part of the walls at the new school.

It was such an honor to be welcomed into a community through its stories, and to help to shepherd it through a difficult transition by helping it to know who it was. What a joy to be a maker, a crafter and a teller of tales, and to witness the power of story.


Originally published in Diving in the Moon, Issue 3, 2002.

Elisa Pearmain M.Ed, M.A., is a professional storyteller, a mental health counselor and the award-winning author of Doorways to the Soul: Fifty-two Wisdom Tales from Around the World (Pilgrim Press 1998).  www.wisdomtales.com


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