I was caught off guard by what I saw when I entered the 6th grade class room. 29 students looked up at me with eager anticipation, 1 student sat behind a wall. It was a make shift cubicle made from foam – core. It wrapped around his desk so he could see nothing from the front or to the sides. I’d never seen this before!
Every residency I lead begins with storytelling performance. The heart and soul of the power of storytelling is not just in the listening. The connections are made through the eyes and the heart. You may hear a good story, but the power of storytelling is not fully felt if you cannot make eye contact between the teller and the listener. I was not prepared to sacrifice this vital piece of my performance, so I requested the wall be removed. There was concern voiced by all the adults in the room. Jake had a habit of making inappropriate comments and actions and it was felt this wouldn’t change simply because I was telling a story. I implored them to let me try. The wall came down accompanied by several threats.
I knew what would happen, but they didn’t. The magic of storytelling is that it fully engages the imagination. Frequently, the student most likely to act out is the student most impacted by storytelling. Their powerful imaginations which often lead them into trouble are fully engaged in the imagery of the story. They forget to act out, because they are immersed in the pictures within their mind’s eye. In other words, they are swept away.
Jake was loyal to me from that moment on. He loved the storytelling and would work diligently on his tasks in order to be able to hear more stories. Even his work improved. Towards the end of the residency his teacher showed me a copy of his first draft and final draft of the story he’d chosen to tell and write. Not only was it more detailed and creative, the penmanship was dramatically improved. The teacher told me, “It’s obvious he’s really taken pride in this work, this is so amazing.”
I’m not suggesting that storytelling cured Jake’s problems, though I do think it opened some possibilities for him. I know the entire process had a transformative impact. At the end of my final day with Jake he handed me a picture he had drawn filled with flames and graffiti style writing which said, “We Will Miss You.” Then he looked at me with sad honey-brown eyes and asked, “Who will see me when you are gone?” The question took my breath away. I couldn’t leave him thinking the difference had been me. So we chatted about his successes of staying free of the wall during my residency. We identified the positive behaviors that had allowed him to stay engaged. Then I challenged him to continue those and reminded him that it was up to him to be seen.
While few students will be forced to sit behind an actual wall, I know there are many who stand on the other side of unseen walls. I’ll keep using my art to transform their lives and bring those walls down.