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I tell stories. It began many years ago during lunchtime in my classroom with my preschoolers. I told a story about my childhood, The Peanut Man, which has become a classic story that children beg for, along with at least fourteen other stories. Yes, my stories actually have names. Imagine that!
My storytelling grew. They were all true, and every time I told a story I began with, “It happened like this”. That phrase has now become a magnet. When children hear those words, they are glued to my story.
Storytelling was also the start of my writing. I began writing newsletters to the parents and families of my preschoolers. I realized that telling children about my childhood adventures was as important as telling parents about the meaningful things that happened in my classroom. Both mattered. Both made a difference. My writing grew tremendously because parents needed to know not only what was happening in the classroom, but why it was important. I became a storyteller of sorts, in writing, for parents and families.
Then I had children write picture stories, encouraging them to express themselves and tell their own stories. Children seem to change when we sit down together and I ask them to tell me their story. They are empowered, so the stories they tell are really interesting and full of language. Too many people underestimate children. They have much to say!
Now, I realize that everyone has an important story to tell. They just need to be asked. Passing down oral history has been a mainstay since the beginning of mankind. I have started to do just that. Last week while traveling to Virginia, My husband and I stopped at a favorite pottery store close to the Bay Bridge Tunnel on the Eastern Shore. I asked the shopkeeper to tell me his story…
Theany Tor grew up in Cambodia. In 1975 at the age of thirteen, he and his family were in the middle of the Revolution, right in the heart of the crossfire.
“The Revolution was coming for the residents of the city. My Dad heard men say about a meeting and handcuffing everybody. He tell me, “They don’t take you and kill you. They tell you to go to meeting in town.” My Dad and older brother and older sister go to the meeting. My Dad said to me, “Run! Run!” I run back home for one night and two days. Then I go to the jungle. My Dad was killed. My older brothers and sister were killed.”
At this point in his story I was captivated, overwhelmed, touching history… you get the picture. I asked questions, plenty of questions. I asked Theany, “How long did you live in the jungle?” Without hesitating he boldly answered,
“Three years, eight months, twenty days!”
I hardly knew what to say. Clearly this was a most significant point in his life. He pulled out postcards of Cambodia and wanted me to have them.
The photos were a link to his childhood. He wanted to pass along his story. I felt honored, and humbled. Theany then said,
“I was a slave in the jungle. I lived with other people. We had to raise food to send to China. Not for us to eat. There was no education. No medication. I tried to come to U.S. in 1982, but was stuck in Tailand for six years. Underground, you know. It was 1989 before I came to America.”
That is the story of Theany Tor, a smiling, friendly man. A shopkeeper. He had a story to tell, as we all do. I now have added “Tell me your story” to my quest. Oral history is alive in my world.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
When a writer can deliver a message in few words, while leaving a lasting impression on both children and adults (including me), I buy the book. The Lion And The Bird, by Marianne Dubuc is that book.
The book has far more pages than most children’s picture books, which I found curious. As soon as I read The Lion And The Bird I understood why; adding text to what could have been a wordless book skyrocketed the message and put the book into the class of Goodnight Moon for older children.
A lion is tending to his garden in autumn when a flock of birds passes overhead. One bird is on the ground, injured. Lion hears a sound, thus the beginning of the story. While he tends to the bird, the story is developing. “Oh no! They’re flying away.” Those few words spark…well, silence and then a long discussion, the kind that brings worry to the surface. Children need to know worry. Those five words were powerful.
The lion and the bird stay together for the winter and into spring. The inevitable happens. Then one day, spring returns. And others, too. “Yes”, says Lion. “I know”.
“I know.” Those two words along with the illustration pack more power and emotion than paragraphs of words. Two words stop the story and ignite one of the most important conversations I have with children: feelings, right and wrong, friendships, and kindness. Oh, do we ever stop and talk!
I am educating the heart. Nothing is more important.
This is followed by, “And so it goes. Sometimes life is like that.” I simply put the book down and say nothing, as these are words that all people, children and adults, need to hear and know. I repeat the words, and I’m sure I have a look of “it’s okay” on my face. I sense that those words are water filling every child’s bucket. The faces of children tell me so.
Sometimes life is like that.
Lion understands, and continues with his life through the seasons. Spring returns and he has many thoughts. Again, the book has few words and plenty of illustrations that pack a powerful message. When spring returns he hears a sound:
Of course the floodgates opened, beginning with my asking, “What is that?” Watching the children figure out that it was actually music, and it must be from the bird was wonderful. The excitement and anticipation grew. Rapidly!
When words are carefully crafted, they are like magic. They open doors and chambers in the mind that the reader never realized were there. Those words make them see and understand.
Finding a good book like The Lion And The Bird is finding hidden treasure. I found this book at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, a treasure museum in itself. My book collection has been lovingly collected over the decades and is filled with the best, not necessarily the award winners. I only buy a few books a year, great ones such as The Lion And The Bird.
Chickens don’t sweat. Really, this is absolutely true. I was behind a chicken truck driving along the Eastern Shore yesterday.
The moment I saw this truck (I was driving) I yelled at my husband, “It’s a chicken truck! Get the phone. Please get a picture!” I had to capture that memory of forty years ago.
We lived in Virginia back then, and it was the hottest summer on record. So hot that animals were dying in huge numbers, specifically the chickens destined for the big processing plants along the Eastern Shore, like Perdue and Tyson.
In the height of this chicken tragedy, farmers with small chicken farms, and farmers who simply raised chickens, were the heroes. They put their chickens in trucks and drove them around, just to cool them off. Chicken trucks were running day and night to keep the animals cool and alive, basically saving the farm. It worked!
That summer was a scorcher. My childhood in the south had many such summers. And my memories are much like the chicken truck, piling into the back of a pick-up truck with my sisters and friends and driving around. I remember the breeze. There was nothing better than an evening breeze and an ice cream cone after dinner. We had no air conditioning. Our big old house had a whole house fan. My Dad knew just what windows to open and close to pull in the cool night air. And, it was lovely.
A summer breeze does wonders for the soul and mind. It brings us familiar smells ands sounds. It can evoke memories, even forty-year-old ones, of chickens, summers, and childhood. I still have no air conditioning today. Some things are too good to let go.
The first bolt of lightening:
One year ago this week, I was recognized as one of seven Early Childhood Educators in Massachusetts. It was an honor, and a celebratory event. I stood among top educators and also the movers and shakers in the field of Early Education. This event has now come full circle at school, exactly one year later. It’s a really good story. Oh, how I love to tell a story.
The conversation in the car with my husband headed to the event last year focused on what I might say.
“Will they give me a microphone to make a speech?”
“Of course they will.”
I knew that. I was just coming to grips with the reality of preparing myself. I had no idea what I would say. Then the moment came and the microphone was put into my hand. People stepped aside, like the Red Sea parting. I hoped they weren’t waiting for Moses…
I talked, and I told wonderful stories about children and teaching. The audience was all ears, particularly one man in the front row. He sat forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands under his chin. He kept listening and scooting forward to hear every word.
There was a tap-tap-tap on my shoulder. I was being told to wrap it up as others needed a chance to speak. Gee, I could have talked and told so many more stories. As I left, the man in the front row introduced himself as Tom Weber, the Commissioner of Early Education in Massachusetts. He is the man directly under the Governor. We struck up a wonderful conversation. “Jennie, I want to hear the rest of that story!” Of course I invited him to visit my classroom and school. We exchanged emails, and that was how the evening ended.
Three is the charm, they say. After three scheduling attempts, Tom Weber visited me and my school this week.
The second bolt of lightening struck.
He was wonderful! Well, I wasn’t surprised as I had discovered that a year ago. What was new was watching his interactions with children. He never forgot a name, listened carefully to everything a child was trying to say, and genuinely had fun. In my classroom children were busy in a Pizza Parlor.
“Tom, are you hungry for some pizza?”, I asked.
Of course he was! I had the pleasure of stepping aside and watching the Pizza Parlor in action. It is good to know that the person in charge of Early Education in our state is equally and actively engaged with young children. Ground roots. I had to drag him away…it was time for the whole school to sing for him. Our songs of peace and bucket filling (doing kind things for others) were terrific. Every child belted out the words with heart. Then, we sang “Love Grows”. Well, Tom Weber figured out the hand signs in a heartbeat and sang along. Loud! As children left, he high-fived or smiled, or simply dropped to his knees to greet a child. Children know. They couldn’t get enough!
Posing with Tom Weber, and a group photo with our school’s Director and Assistant Director. It was a big day. Big for the children and for the school. It was the second strike of lightening for me.