When I was in the fourth grade, I was asked to help write a short Christmas play. (This pre-dated the ban on the reference to Christmas in schools). I fell in love with storytelling.
This affinity for simple, straight-forward narrative has helped me throughout my professional and personal life.
When I served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, I prosecuted many jury trials, including cases involving murder and rape. Unlike TV versions, real trials don’t proceed in time sequence like frames on a movie film. At best, they can be a confusing mish-mash of competing facts, scattered bits of evidence and conflicting testimony. My job was to distill that hodgepodge into a simple narrative a jury could understand—my job was to tell the story.
I also am privileged to have served as a public school teacher in Washington’s inner-city. In addition to normal problems associated with childhood development, my students were forced to deal with outside the influences of poverty, drugs, broken families and racism. Keeping their attention and motivating them to succeed was a challenge. To the extent I achieved any success in these efforts, it was in large part due to my practice of reducing every lesson to a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Many believe imagination cannot be learned, it is only something with which one is born. Bullfeathers!
I would play a game with my students to “teach” them to use their imagination. We’d dim the lights and I’d produce a flashlight. I’d start out the game with “Once upon a time, there was a ” then point the flashlight at a student. The student could say anything he or she wanted.—a boy a dog a house, a bear, a snake, a pencil, a can of Coke. “And the snake’s name was ” Point the flashlight at someone else—Tyrone. “And Tyrone the snake lived in” —a tree, car, hole, cloud, lake, TV. And so we’d go, building a story, each child getting to contribute and knowing his or her contribution moved the story forward, until the end where everyone would say together, “And they all lived happily ever after.” I played this game with my own children (we called ‘Campfire” at home) and they still talk about it. (I later learned there was a book series called Mad-Libs which used a similar concept.)
I believe the story-telling skill is particularly important today where not only children but adults have been conditioned, through the internet and social media, to expect instant answers with a tap of a screen. A story takes a time, it draws us in so we don’t want to tap to the end. This “experience and enjoy the journey” element in our lives is something we need to safeguard lest it slips away forever, and keeping alive the art of story-telling is a fun way to do it.