Category Archives: storytelling

First Wednesday in Advent: How Long?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Psalm 13:2

The counselor at our school isn’t sure how much longer she can play the role of Wise and Compassionate Listener. Every day the students at our middle school tell her stories of incest, murder, rape and substance abuse. When the counselor leaves her office, she feels as though sorrow has gripped her heart all day long. She has a “soul-ache.”

I hear some of the same gut-wrenching stories from my students and their friends. A couple of years ago, W-Girl’s sister disappeared. Her badly decomposed body was found many months later. She had been murdered. W-Girl visits the counselor several times a week in an attempt to exorcise the demons that haunt her.

Fifteen-year-old L-Boy brags that he is going to become a father in February. The mother of his child is four years older than he. Both father and mother are still in school, but just barely. How will they support a child without having earned high-school diplomas? Apparently L-Boy doesn’t worry about not graduating. It’s rumored that he makes plenty of money running drugs in the evening or on weekends or on those all-too-frequent occasions when he’s suspended from school.

A casual glance at several of our students will tell you that they were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. They have poor socialization skills and a multitude of learning difficulties, including poor memory, the inability to understand concepts such as time and money, poor language comprehension, and poor problem-solving skills. Most of them are impulsive, anxious and unable to concentrate—all because Mom couldn’t stay away from alcohol during her pregnancy.

In this high-poverty area, there is an abundance of hurt and seemingly little hope. Those of us who care about the children of poverty often feel overwhelmed, just as the author of Psalm 13 did. His “soul-ache” compelled the psalmist to cry, “How long?”

When she feels as though she can no longer bear her “soul-ache,” our school counselor echoes the psalmist’s cry. How long until the murders cease? How long until violence against family members is no longer condoned? How long until substance abuse is rejected as a favorite form of recreation?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Sometimes there are no answers at all.

But there is Advent, the season of waiting, the season of looking forward with faith and expectation to the time envisioned by one of the prophets of old when there will appear “…a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19).

The pleasant way and the healing rivers may not come in our time. But they will come. And the waiting gives us hope.

A Gift Well-Given

Words are the building blocks of thought—and stories. Words spoken by a blind poet around the campfires of old celebrated the cunning ways of a rogue named Odysseus. Words written by Hebrew poets on parchment still tell the tale of the origins of our world: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

My students use words every day, not to tell stories, but for far more mundane purposes:

“May I go to the restroom?” “I need to sharpen my pencil.” “What’s my grade?” “Can I go to the nurse?” “Can I get a drink of water?” “Do you have a tissue?”

My students’ vocabularies are limited, and one of my jobs is to help them increase their vocabularies, for words are the building blocks of thought—and stories.

On Monday, I opened one of our test-preparation booklets to an exercise on correct spelling. Because I work with kids who have IEPs, I encouraged them to use a dictionary to check the spelling of each word in the list.

On Tuesday, I selected five words at random from the list—wrinkles, envy, odyssey, untidy, falcon—and asked my students to find the definitions. I also asked them to use each word in a sentence. When that task proved too daunting for more than half of them, I made up sentences, wrote them on the board, and asked my students to copy them.

“Get acquainted with these words,” I said, “because tomorrow we’re going to use them to write a story.”

And we did:

Once upon a time there was a falcon named Julian (although sometimes he called himself Joshua). He was a very confused falcon—probably because he lived in an untidy nest.

One day he decided to start an odyssey. The odyssey would take him to a magical land where the phoenixes rise every morning.

The odyssey lasted so long that wrinkles appeared on the falcon’s face. He grew wise, and became the envy of other birds who lacked wisdom.

“I like that!” I exclaimed as we finished our story. “I think I could turn what we’ve written into a book.”

Even if I never expand the story of Julian the Confused Falcon into a book, this little writing exercise engaged every student—even my non-readers. Like the blind poet of old, they eagerly shared their ideas orally as I wrote them on the board. Unlike Homer, however, my students opted for brevity in telling their tale.

Who’s to say that a long tale is better than a short one—or vice versa? What’s important is that I am giving my students the gift of words so that one day, without my help, they will be able to tell their own tales as their eager children gather ’round to listen.

A gift well-given keeps on giving.