As I stepped off the train onto the now very familiar platform of Leicester train station, the train attendant standing by the ticket machine greeted me with a friendly smile and opened the passageway into that complex and fascinating city. I always find that for some reason the further north I travel the more friendly people become. I was in Leicester once again for Home For Good’s storytelling club, a club for children who have been adopted or fostered aimed at building confidence and friendships. Almost immediately upon my exit from the station I was hailed by my host family as they swung by to pick me up. Immediately, R, who would be part of the storytelling club for the week, began to tell me a frank and honest short story of how he had pushed his brother off a bridge into the river below. Subsequently, he had himself jumped off and landed fully on his stomach with a resounding “THWACK!”. “It was a bellyflop.” he said, almost as an aside. Since the conversation, I have watched the video and winced as the resounding “THWACK!” echoed through the valley and onto the faces of onlookers. It was a promising start to the week that in the first few minutes of arriving a story had already been shared. As I settled down for the evening, I reflected on five years of Home For Good’s storytelling clubs and wondered what would be in store this week. I laid down my heavy bag onto the bedroom floor and began to lay out my props for the week ahead.
Curtis the Crocodile with ADHD
Once again, we were fortunate enough to be based in Leicester’s Arboretum. A beautiful, hidden away spot filled with trees of all different kinds and most importantly perhaps, a storytelling circle embedded in the middle of it. The children began to arrive and somehow their normally nervous energy seemed somewhat less than in previous years. Many of them now knew each other through storytelling clubs of previous years and also amongst the plethora of other events that Home For Good Leicester run with adopted and fostered children throughout the year. We began the club with an introduction from Curtis the Crocodile (a favourite puppet of mine whose friendly and enthusiastic character is popular with the children but also inclined at times, as crocodiles will, to bite). I find puppets are an ingenious way of allowing children to communicate without embarrassment or feeling observed. Everyone is watching the puppet and therefore no one is watching them. The children each keenly placed their hands and forearms through Curtis’ long neck and embodied the puppet, telling everyone their name and favourite ice cream. We began and ended each session with Curtis or Ellie the Elephant (my more calm and slightly sensitive Elephant puppet), starting with our names and ending with our favourite thing about the day. Curtis and Ellie really break down a lot of barriers we all have in entering the storytelling club. They make people laugh, they do not judge or dictate, they invoke a sense of empathy within the children so that when they place the puppets on their arm, they become the puppet and come to an almost immediate understanding as to how to operate the puppet and know what the puppet will say and do almost before they themselves know. Adults, especially males with great beards like myself, can be terrifying to speak to or even listen to and so a puppet can break down these walls in ways that I myself could not. Curtis appeared to be in a particularly voracious mood over the first few days and he would at times give himself over to biting myself and the children which always resulted in a severe telling off but he just couldn’t help it. I decided to remove Curtis to give him a break for a couple of days. One of the children in the club, R, who has ADHD, suggested that Curtis perhaps also had ADHD and that he recognised that sometimes he and Curtis had a lot in common. “You know sometimes I just really have a lot of energy that I need to get out and maybe Curtis has that as well? Sometimes medication can help.” He added helpfully as an afterthought to my seemingly endless problems with Curtis the Puppet’s boundless energy. Although all the children know that Curtis is merely a piece of well-made fabric that they themselves are manipulating, there is a sort of liminality between Curtis as a toy and Curtis as a living, breathing being. His almost humanlike ability to misbehave and get up to mischief unlocks an understanding somewhere. R’s ability to see Curtis like this and draw a likeness to himself reaches deeper than a simple observation of personality. He is demonstrating empathy with Curtis and also an understanding that he is not alone in the struggles that he faces.
The Sad End to the Alien of Leicester
An alien crashed his ship over the arboretum on the Wednesday morning before storytelling club scattering numerous pieces of their craft around the arboretum. The children were instructed to find pieces of the alien’s ship and rebuild it as best they could. “But that’s not real, is it?” D asked sharply, her eyes searching me piercingly. I was caught between two unexpected forces. On the one hand, a desire to suspend belief for the children who were wanting to unravel their imagination. On the other, an understanding that during some of these children’s lives parents, carers, social workers and other adults had not always been honest to the best of their ability. So, with all this in mind, I smiled at D encouragingly assuring her that it was just a story. She happily joined in after that, forever questioning me as to when I hid the “spaceship parts” and what the items were. The items included; a super 8 camera, a joystick, tinfoil, a camera tripod, a metal rod, a tin box and various other spaceship parts discovered around my home. The children created two very credible spaceships complete with antennae, cockpits and lasers. In teams they answered the questions of how the alien left their planet, what caused the crash and what the alien did in Leicester. Both stories were acted out by the children who performed as aliens and other characters in the story. In one of the stories the alien returned peacefully to her home planet. In the other story the alien arrived but because of the unbearable atmosphere it died. Previously, I have been tempted to dissuade children from telling stories with an unhappy ending but I have realised both in practice and in research that sometimes stories can be a vehicle to deal with sadness, violence or even death in a safe environment. Within the safety of the storytelling circle, the alien (with red camera lenses as its eyes) gave a last gasp and died. The death was so comical that it allowed a laugh but also a sombre sadness as we gazed at the alien on the ground. There are times in all our lives where death and sadness come suddenly, outside of our control, with no warning or time to prepare. As the storyteller announced those final words, “…and then he died.”, there was a pleased but serious expression on his face demonstrating his control over the situation. Stories in a safe environment are an excellent conduit for these difficult topics as they give us time and space to consider them at a safe distance from the stark and close reality of our lives.
Normal but Magical Friendships
When I first began running the Home for Good storytelling club with Debbie five years ago as part of a research project for my masters I asked the fundamental question, “Can Storytelling help build Friendships?”. To this day, I am still asking the question and still finding the answer to be a resounding yes. A real priority of ours throughout the last few years has been to establish and build connections between the children. Being a child who has had to experience the UK care system and go through the fostering and adoption process is a challenging journey and one that all too often is experienced in isolation. Year after year as the children have connected with each other, there is a real sense of encouragement in the children but also in the adopting and fostering parents that they do not have to walk this road alone. I can cite numerous tiny but significant moments this year of friendships forming and developing during the club. R’s attempts to fly his X-wing through C’s ever closing encircling gap of lego minifigures with exciting results, all the children gathering together to resurrect the fallen tree (one of the children) in the story, everyone giggling as they watched a robot (one of the children) clunkily running away from a burning house, L holding K’s hand as they searched for hidden teddy bears together in the forest, D helping the smaller children to find insects and tell stories, L telling a story and getting every single person to act it out so there was no audience left, L becoming more comfortable to share what she had made with her friends, B’s tear-filled eyes as he says goodbye to everyone. All of these tiny magical moments are no different to many other moments we all experience in life but the stories shared along the way act like a glue, cementing the friendships established in these tiny moments. There is something about storytelling that transcends a liminal line between the completely ordinary and the spectacular. Just like Curtis the Crocodile, stories somehow are completely accepted as they are, a normal part of life, and yet there is a magical mystery surrounding them that reaches deeper into our souls, hearts and minds. They take us places that nothing else can, bridging the gap between this normal world we live in and the world of our imaginations. And that, in essence is why stories are so good at building friendships. We all want friends who are there and present for our everyday normal lives and yet we want something magical about friends as well, something that sparks beyond the ordinary. As we tell stories together as friends, the invisible bonds between us tighten as we walk together along the tightrope between reality and imagination. Even for myself, for my friendship with Debbie and the rest of the team, a part of me knows the utter and complete normal nature of Home For Good storytelling club. My own limitations in telling stories, my nervous anticipation beforehand, the unpredictability of attendance, that not every story is a mind-blowing revelation, wiping down sticky clay off the tables, sweeping the floors all serve as reminders of that. But there is another part of me that is amazed at its utterly magical nature. The power of the puppets, the inspiring stories told, the friendships made, the joy, wonder and delight caused by hiding stuffed animals in the forest, the cosy nature of the storytelling circle all seem to me like an incredible fairy tale that I can’t quite believe I’m living. I sincerely hope that, as C remarked to me in his feedback, “Storytelling club should go on forever… Or at least, every year until you die…”