Thomas Doty – Storyteller

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Sixth Grade and Beyond

When I was in the sixth grade, I had a math teacher who seated us in the classroom according to what grade we got on the last test. There was an A row, a B row, a C row, and, of course, a D row and an F row. Being a future artist and not very good at math, I was always in one of the last two rows.

That same year, I had a writing teacher I adored. She was a wonderful woman. One day she took me aside and said, "Tommy, you do pretty well with words." She got a glimmer in her eye. "I bet if you worked harder on your writing and got better at it, it would matter to you less which row you sat in in math."

That was a revelation for me. And that day -- in sixth grade -- I decided to become a writer. I also became a listener and a watcher of things. I was the kid on the playground who always stood back from the crowd, and I listened and I watched. I took it all in: the sounds of the playground -- the laughter, the shouting, the crying -- and the way things looked: how the sunlight slanted down, how clouds rode on the wind. I began to write stories and poems about what I heard and what I saw.

Years later, when I decided to become a storyteller, I told my ninety- year-old grandpa. He considered this, and then his eyes started shining. "That's good," he said. "You never were very good at math. Just make sure you know how to figure so you don't get done over!"

At first I thought he meant to make sure I charge enough money when I tell stories. But as I dove into the stories, I began to understand how deeply stories affect us, and how long they stay with us. Bit by bit I figured out that Grandpa was referring to much more than money.

These days I'm still a listener and a watcher of things. That's how I get stories. By spending time in the magical places the stories come from, by listening to the language of the landscape, by listening to wise people tell their stories. By paying attention to the details.

I eventually returned to my elementary school as a storyteller, and the only teacher still there from when I was a student was the math teacher! I went into the school office to introduce myself to the principal, and the secretary said, "Mr. Doty, have a seat. She'll be right with you." I plopped down in an ancient oak chair and began to feel uncomfortable. I had spent plenty of time in this same office as a student, and this was probably the same chair I used to squirm in. I glanced through the window into the principal's office and recognized the scene. The principal was talking seriously to a young boy. Neither of them looked happy. And then I laughed to myself. Not much has changed, I thought. Here I am sitting in the office waiting to see the principal and thinking about which stories I'm going to tell. But this time, I'm getting paid to be here.

Grandpa would be proud -- proud of the paycheck -- and so much more.