The New York State Division for Youth project proposal read: “Participating in the Storytelling Project will be a targeted group of Division for Youth residents who are educationally disadvantaged, are members of ethnic and minority groups in need of services and are confined to institutions. Residents will be introduced to the ‘World’s Oldest Art Form.’ We hope the project will build their self-esteem by recognizing that their own stories are a part of a continuing tradition and by promoting problem-solving through creation of stories, songs and dramatization.”
I was hired last fall as part of this project—introducing storytelling to two workshop groups of ten boys each at Parker Center in Red Hook, New York. One of the groups was made up of kids who were so “educationally disadvantaged” that they could barely read or write. Some had learning disabilities; some had physical disabilities; all were sentenced to Parker by a judge for having committed a crime. They were a captive audience. And as it turned out, all of them loved storytelling. They found out right away that they were good at it—completely natural at imagining and performing stories. For some of them, it was probably the first thing they were good at in school, and that’s all they needed to know. We spent our time together creating our own stories: building them up bit by bit, acting them out, trying different endings, and finally recording them. Writing them down seemed out of the question. Nobody knew much about writing. But telling was definitely in. And when they saw that I was really listening, it was, for them, a sweet and cherished form of self expression.
On Friday at the end of our first week, we sat in a circle and told stories. I told one, and then Albert told about a nearsighted turtle name Bart. Angel had one about a boy named Jerry who went fishing with his father and caught tons of fish, and James had a pet snake—a python—who got run over by a steamroller.
We had been going on for quite a while when Edmund raised his hand. He had never done that before and I was surprised. Edmund only had one hand that he could use; his left hand was badly deformed. It looked like a crab’s pincers with only a thumb and index finger. Whenever he had to speak to an adult, he automatically hid it behind his back. He had done his best to resemble a piece of furniture all week, and I was amazed to see him wanting my attention.
Edmund was fourteen, quiet and watchful. He had the reserved dignity of a born leader. The other boys respected him but kept their distance. He sat in the back of the room, often with his eyes closed, sometimes obviously asleep. When I would ask him a question, he would consider it carefully, reply politely, and withdraw again into his well-protected space. Although I couldn’t really say why, I liked him and I was glad to have him in the workshop.
Edmund told us, in his quiet voice, that he had made up a story, even written part of it down the night before. He had a single scrawled-upon folded-up piece of paper in his good hand, and we all waited while he flattened it out against his leg. He began by reading from the paper, but soon ran out of written words and continued on his own. This is Edmund’s story:
Out on the streets there was a boy named Rap who was 14 and a very successful drug dealer. Came to school wearing a $200.00 bomber jacket, designer jeans, gold chains. He carried a wad of bills in his pockets. He was a mean boy. Nobody got in his way. The principal at his school asked him, “Are you dealing drugs?” and Rap said, “I’m not telling you.” He just smiled and left the building
Rap had little kids doing his running for him. They delivered the drugs and brought him the money. Rap had a gun he carried so that if anything went wrong with the deal he had protection from his supplier. He used little kids to run for him because you don’t need bail to get them out of jail. The Mother can get them out.
One of Rap’s boys was a ten year old kid named Anthony. Anthony’s mother was on crack and Anthony worked for Rap to get his Mother her drug. One day Anthony’s little sister ate one of the crack capsules off the living room carpet. She got herself a drink of water and started spitting up white and red blood. Then she just fell over and died.
One day Rap was waiting in the alley for Anthony to bring him the cash from a deal. But something went wrong because Anthony was late and when he came he didn’t have the money. Rap thought Anthony’s mother took the money off him. Anthony was crying telling Rap that the men had taken the drugs and beat him up. Rap was mad. He didn’t believe Anthony so he pulled out his gun, put it to Anthony’s head, pulled the trigger. Rap got out of there fast but later the police came looking for him. Rap tried to shoot the cop but the cop shot him in the leg. They arrested him and the judge sent him upstate to do time.
Everyone was quiet after Edmund told his story. He had told it so compellingly and with such conviction that although he had barely raised his voice above a whisper, he had held us all spellbound. I figured at least part of it must have been true. Anthony may have been his cousin or some neighborhood friend.
I was about to comment on what good storytelling it was when one of the other kids, Chris, suddenly turned to Edmund and said “Word up, Man.” Then someone else said “Word up, Man,” and pretty soon everyone in the room was looking at Edmund and saying “Word up, Word up.” I had heard them say it before when expressing agreement with the speaker. Like people exclaiming Amen! in church. Then Chris turned to me and said, “Rap’s his name, Miss Murphy. That story’s about him. That’s how he got sent to Parker.”
I stared at Chris, hardly able to understand what he was saying. Edmund was a dealer? Edmund was Rap? Edmund put a gun to a ten-year-old boy’s head and shot him? I looked at Edmund, waiting for him to deny it, to tell Chris he was a liar, but he didn’t move; but just looked down at the desk and didn’t look up again for a long time.
I felt as if I was going to be sick. I knew they had all done things against the law, but I thought it was stuff like shoplifting or writing graffiti on subway cares or running away from home. We had been having such fun telling stories to each other. But Edmund was a murderer and I was the only naïve jerk who didn’t know it. I felt as if I’d been lied to.
The session was almost over, and I was trying hard to control my voice as I gave out assignments for next week. When the bell rang, the boys pulled their books together and ran out, telling me they’d see me next week and to bring more stories.
Soon they were all gone except Edmund, who still sat looking down at his desk. After a few minutes, he walked over to where I was pretending to be busy, shoving books and papers into my bag. I couldn’t look at him. He said, “Are you mad at me because of my story?” I thought of Anthony with a gun touching his head, Edmund standing over him, how scared he must have been. “Are you mad at me because of my story?” Edmund said again. I opened my mouth to say something but started to cry instead. I didn’t know I was going to do that but I couldn’t help it. I stood there crying and Edmund stood there watching me, still waiting for an answer, I guess. When I pulled myself together I said, “No, Edmund, I’m not mad at you.” Then he said, “Can I come back to the storytelling next week?”
I looked at Edmund—educationally disadvantaged member of a minority group in need of services—drug dealer, corrupter of young children, coldblooded killer. Desperately tring to hide his grotesquely shaped hand behind he back, actually holding it behind him with his good hand. And I said, “Yes, Edmund, you can come back next week. See you Monday.” He nodded then and left the room.
A few weeks after I had finished at Parker, I got a bunch of “thank you for coming” letters from the boys sent by their English teacher. Among them was one from Edmund. It said:
Dear Ms. Murphy,
I wanted to say thank you for coming up and taking your time for coming up here at Eddie A. Parker and reading—or—telling us stories. I must say the stories you told was really excellent. Even though I felt asleep. But when I was—or—I did stay awake, your stories sound great. You know I wanted to say something to you. Telling stories is a gift. There aren’t that many people out their who could tell stories like you. You are a lucky person. You are a good person. Good things come to good people.
Edmund J. Austin
Copyright © 1994 Mary Murphy firstname.lastname@example.org