Thomas Doty – Storyteller


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A Storyteller's Rant!

What could possibly go wrong in this seemingly-quiet country school?

Well, plenty!

Yesterday I got pelted with the worst school experience I have had in several decades of storytelling. I visit dozens of schools a year, so that's saying something. And I'm certain I heard the infamously offensive Coyote of the native stories, that mythic lover of chaos, laughing his fool head off at my expense!

During the first performance there were no fewer than 25 disruptions all caused by -- wait for it -- the principal and his badly-behaved hoard of child-herding teachers!

The kids were great. But if a boy glanced sideways for half a second, a teacher would yell across the gym at him to, "Pay attention!" If another child uncrossed her legs, a different teacher would yell, "Sit Indian style!" (I particularly dislike that one). This yelling was done while I was speaking! And if that wasn't enough, every so often a teacher would stand up and walk in front of me to scold a child for doing something I hadn't even noticed. With each interruption, I had to stop and restart a sacred story.

It's as if those teachers had adopted loud and self-serving Coyote as a role model for appropriate behavior. It didn't take long before I realized that their fearless leader was making sure that there was more than one Coyote in the gym at the same time. Here was my first clue....

Early in the performance, the principal walked up in the middle of a story, stood next to me, and started taking photos of the kids with his phone. I stopped the story -- I had no choice -- and reminded him that photos during the traditional stories are not allowed. Only afterwards during the question/answer time. He knew this. I explained to him that when he is in front of the kids he is "on stage." Everyone is looking at him, not me, and that makes it impossible for me to tell a story. Even though I whispered this to him so the children didn't hear me, he stomped out of the gym like a scolded Coyote pup -- tras ... tras ... tras -- and went somewhere to pout for the remainder of the storytelling. The Pit River Indians have a name for this kind of behavior. They call it the ha-has. If it happens too often it prevents one from growing up properly.

If I could have kicked those out who were being disrespectful to native stories and culture, I would have ordered most of the teachers and their leader to go to the office! Fortunately, Coyote-As-Principal left on his own.

While my Coyote in the stories might have been enjoying this bizarre comedy-of-errors attempt at education, I was quietly praying for a fire drill to put me out of my misery.

In spite of everything, there was one beam of pure light. During a quiet story toward the end, the offending teachers actually shut up -- maybe my glowering stares aimed their way finally got through to them -- and the story connections I had with the students were magical.

Before a storytelling I always inform the staff that I'll handle any discipline issues that may arise. These are extremely rare. If I need help, I'll ask for it. All they have to do is sit quietly with their students and enjoy the stories.

During a performance, if I notice a child drifting from a story I can usually draw him back in through gentle eye contact or a gesture or a subtle shift in voice, without disrupting the story, and without singling out and embarrassing a child who has done nothing wrong. My method works and has no effect on the story except, perhaps, to make the telling a little better.

The second performance was great. Those teachers behaved themselves, and the principal sulked out of sight in the dim back corner of the gym, quietly engaging in his adult version of the ha-has.

This school made my very short list of venues I will not be returning to any time soon. Fortunately, yesterday's experience is extremely rare.

It is my responsibility as a native teller to make sure that the stories are shared with respect. Despite my efforts, that didn't happen at this school. And to add a bit of irony to the day, these performances were funded by a local Indian tribe. The first performance was attended by folks from the tribe, including an elder. She saw first hand how the culture was disrespected. Yikes!

Thank goodness I have nothing but good memories of the 20 or so performances during the past couple of weeks. Not to mention decades of amazing experiences. I so appreciate those schools and their caring educators who lovingly create wonderful learning environments for their students.

To be fair, I recognize that there are a couple of teachers at this school who are gifted, caring educators. Unfortunately, during that first storytelling, they were body-blocked into the sidelines by the controlling, disruptive behavior of their principal and colleagues.

A few years back I was sharing horror stories with an actor friend of mine. His worst experience was during a performance of Hamlet. He played Hamlet. There was a woman sitting in the front row who had memorized his part. She not only spoke his lines out loud, she was always two or three words ahead of him. Drove him nuts!

I suspect that every performer has a repertoire of rants. At the moment, this one tops my list!

When I get past being bent out of shape and Mister Mythic Coyote stops snickering -- probably around noon today -- we'll take deep breaths and walk on down our story path. Next week we're on the coast. I'm looking forward to the cleansing power of good salt air!