In fifth grade, Mrs. Perkins read to us, “Where the Red Fern Grows.” She did it so well, we could smell the wood smoke and feel Little Ann and Old Dan’s wet noses in our palms. As she got closer to the tragic chapter where Old Dan dies, she kept saying, “Ohhhh….this is so sad, I just can’t read this to you, I’ll cry.”
Was it by chance, or deliberate, that Mrs. Perkins didn’t come to school the very day she was going to read the impossibly sad chapter? In her place was a bearded student teacher. He couldn’t bear to read this chapter either. He groaned. He burst out laughing, telling us he couldn’t stand to read such utter and complete slop. Oh this was killing him!
We’d listened, for weeks, to Mrs. Perkin’s every nuanced word. Now we’d been dropped off a cliff. Later, I read it to myself, crying thoroughly over the sad parts. The magic of Little Ann and Old Dan survived.
I believe in stories – we simply can’t resist them. From the jokes at the water cooler to the Greek myths, stories have a magical hold over us.
I first felt the power of a story one Halloween, when my Aunt recited the poem, “Little Orphan Annie.” The suspense kept building with each refrain, “…and the goblins will get you if you don’t watch out!” I was embarrassed when, without meaning to, I gasped out loud in fright.
I teach a class of 12 squirmy five-year-olds every Sunday. We get through the lessons with chairs tipping, legs kicking and fingers poking. Then I say, “Everybody sit by me, and I’ll read you a story,” and watch the magic happen. They don’t wiggle, poke or kick. Their mouths drop open and they’re mine for the next 15 minutes.
Every Sunday night my Grandpa Joe came over to tell stories. Each one had its own opening line that never varied. “No,” he’d say, “I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t been fast on foot.” Then we knew he was telling the one about almost getting robbed of the cash payroll when he was 14.
Born in 1900, his stories were history lessons. We heard how the flu epidemic of 1917 kept him home from college. A year after the San Francisco earthquake, he and his dad saw the destruction firsthand as they passed through on a train. He described to us standing in the cotton fields of his New Mexico farm and seeing the flash of the first atomic bomb test. Listening to him we were steeped in the humor and cadences of our family vernacular.
Stories are the glue holding generations together. They are subtle teachers of morals and values. They liven up long car trips. Strories are bedtime’s sweet balm. They’re irresistible. Don’t you want to hear the one about my Dad and his buddies digging for Pancho Villa’s stolen gold?
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