Every year Debbie, from the charity Home For Good, and I run a week long storytelling holiday club in Leicester for children who have been adopted or fostered. Every year is different and has its joys and its challenges so I like reflecting on the time, here are a few of my musings from the latest storytelling club in the summer of 2022. As I trotted gently towards the church, heavily laden with all of my storytelling ‘equipment’, I reminded myself of a modern-day Don Quixote excitedly and perhaps somewhat naively trundling towards another week of storytelling holiday club with Home for Good in Leicester. The fact is,
no matter how prepared you may be, no matter how detailed your plan, how brilliant your equipment, how fantastic your stories adventures are, by necessity, unpredictable. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The wonderful church, complete with cemetery and even (I was told by the vicar later) a grave of someone lost in the wreck of the titanic, nestled itself in a quiet spot next to the park. As I turned the key in the ancient wooden door, it creaked and time itself seemed to be standing still. How many people I wondered, had entered this building over the hundreds of years it has stood here. In a way the thought gave me comfort, the comfort of knowing that no matter what happened today that when everyone went home that we would, in a hundred years’ time, be just another group of people of many who had come and gone here. Every year I am nervous before we begin. Working with all children is unpredictable and exciting but when children have experienced difficulty or trauma, as many children who have been adopted or fostered have, these moments of unpredictability expand but so too does the potential of positive significance.
The Vomiting Crocodile
No matter how much I plan for storytelling or how perfectly that plan is executed, the most beautiful, sad, poignant, creative, kind and interesting moments always happen in those unpredictable, unexpected, liminal spaces in the lines between the plan. That is why I like leaving space for those moments and allow them to happen if they present themselves. At the end of storytelling after we had all shared our best and worst things about the day through Curtis (our puppet crocodile), C approached me, took Curtis from my hands and placed something in his mouth. The whole action took less than a few seconds and I barely noticed it. He handed Curtis back to me and we all continued our conversation. C suddenly and interestedly looked at Curtis and, appearing concerned, said to me, “I think Curtis has something in his mouth.” In my hands Curtis convulsed, gagged and choked and spat out a
piece of Lego. It caused great hilarity and animation amongst the children who looked amazed. C and I exchanged a wink, both knowing the magic behind it. For the next few minutes Curtis regurgitated the following objects from my pocket; keys, a phone, a pencil and a 10p coin. It is fascinating to see how hilarious a puppet vomiting things onto the floor can be so entertaining. Still now I wonder what was so amusing about it. I think there was something in the way that a mere puppet apparently engaged in such an everyday activity as eating and vomiting that transcended a line between unreality and ‘normal’ life that fascinated all of us. C, in particular, long before any of us knew about it, seemed to sense that this was an opportunity to exploit that line between animated and actual life and trusted me in the process of carrying it out. All the time, however, in the background he was the one with the plan, silently pulling the strings whilst he watched everyone else become amused by the joke. I inwardly applauded his ability to read the room and to enact a performance without seemingly doing anything. C, in fact, was in this instance, the puppet master, the ultimate storyteller.
Controversially, due to the church not being available for the entire week, we resorted to using the graveyard at times as a place to tell stories and eat our biscuits. There was an old titanic grave there and generally it was a place of peace and a place for inspiration. Personally, I was perfectly comfortable and almost enjoyed being in the cemetery, they have always been to me, in spite of being filled with skeletons and corpses, places of tranquillity. Indeed, one of the children with glee and excitement on his face took a couple of us on a tour around the cemetery regaling us with stories of some of his family who were buried there and in particular of some of his dad’s friends who had had a bench dedicated to them after stealing a car and crashing in a high-speed chase shortly afterwards. He told the story with an incredible sense of suspense and excitement, leaving us on the edge of our seats at each exciting turn of events.
It is worth mentioning however that for some people cemeteries are not pleasant or inspiring places. In fact, we actually had a lovely family join us for one day but because of religious reasons could not continue solely due to the fact that a part of the session was in a graveyard. This was a sobering reminder that no matter how suitable one might think the atmosphere of a venue might be for storytelling, in reality, by focusing on that we had unwittingly excluded a section of the community that might easily have been included had the venue been different.
On the last day, I told a story of three thieves who had stolen a golden ball of energy and had last been seen in the cemetery, I gave the children some clues as to where they might find them. The children excitedly unravelled the clues and ran off into the summer sunshine
searching for the thieves amongst the gravestones. They discovered the shoes, hats and
other clothing accessories I had carefully placed in different parts of the graveyard. They solemnly donned the hats (too large for their heads) and brought us the shoes eagerly explaining that the thieves must have been zapped up by the golden ball of energy. As they
hunted in the warm Leicestershire sunshine, I wondered how the dead of 200 years ago would feel about these children running around and in between them shouting with joy and animation at each discovery. I concluded that probably some of them would be grumpy and feel it was disrespectful but that most of them would smile fondly as they watched the enacting of everything that children should know and experience, the joy, fascination, excitement and wonder at a story coming to life.
One morning, as the sunshine glinted through the church windows, I explained a particular game that we would be playing. This specific game is called portrait gallery or statue gallery. The participants are split up into teams and then as a team they must create a statue with their bodies of a scenario. For example, if I said “make a street” then one person might be a lamppost, another a car, another a road sign etc. I then asked if anyone had any questions. One of the children put their hand up and in a slightly anxious but equally completely normal way asked one of the saddest questions I have ever heard, “Do we have to take our clothes off?” I immediately smiled reassuringly and said “Of course not.” The game and rest of the morning continued as normal but afterwards I felt furious and moved to tears. That someone had used this wonderful, brilliant child in that way, pretending it was a game. That possibly for the rest of their life when someone asks them to play a game or to do anything that it might ever be coloured in that awful, sickening question “Do we have to take our clothes off?” That whilst we all run around playing games that always in the back of that child’s mind is “What if I have to do something I don’t want to do?” It makes me shiver to think that whilst many of us freely walk down the street there are people who are using children to satisfy their own pleasures with no thought as to the irreparable harm and damage done to the child. How can we live comfortably with ourselves knowing these dreadful things are happening? And yet, we do, because to think about it for any length of time is unbearable, I can’t even write about this anymore, it makes me sick. But that is why we do what we do. Running a week like storytelling club is an opportunity to slowly repair the completely understandable anger and distrust. To be adults who are not there to exploit but are there to listen. To be a voice that encourages rather than manipulates. To be someone that gives life rather than takes it away. To be people of safety rather than pain. So that, in time, they too can be those people and possibly even develop the confidence and the courage to stand up and tell their own story.
Success vs significance
Towards the end of the week the numbers had dwindled somewhat and in one of the feedback sessions every child said that their favourite part of the day had been the biscuits. Now, fair play to McVitie's who create Digestive Biscuits but needless to say I was feeling
somewhat discouraged. I had a fantastic chat with Debbie however, who runs the storytelling club with me and she began to speak to me about success vs significance. She told me a story of a foster child she had had for just one week. It had been extremely challenging and Debbie felt that it had not gone well at all and in fact that it had not been a success. A few years later Debbie was speaking at a school and this child happened to be at the school. She ran up to Debbie afterwards with a beaming smile, hugged her and said, “I love you mummy.” Debbie explained this demonstrated to her the importance of focusing on significance rather than success. The fact that spending one week with this child had had such a significant impact on her showed that we don’t always realise and rarely see the impact we have in those moments. I thought about the storytelling club. Success would of course be 50 kids turning up every day, everyone enjoying it, everyone arriving at the end of the week ready to publish a whole booklet of stories. But we didn’t have that. In fact, what we had was possibly better. Debbie went on to tell me that C, who had found storytelling club quite challenging last year, had been looking forward to this week all year and told his mum it was the best thing this year. Another child who came this week had never met anyone who had been adopted or fostered before and we were told that she had made real friendships and no longer felt alone. Another child who was a selective mute felt secure enough to say a few words to me. Debbie also explained that the children felt ‘safe’ to be themselves, that much of the time at school or elsewhere some of the children felt they had to perform (ie be nice or cute or clever or funny) but here they felt able to be whoever they truly were. So yes, McVitie's, you may have produced a wonderful biscuit that everyone loves, you may indeed have the ‘success’ in this story. But biscuits, sadly for many of us, are in your hand one minute and gone in a bite the next. Perhaps success is also like that, here today and gone tomorrow, a biscuit in your hand. As for me, and I know for Debbie too, I would much rather be on the “significant” side of the story. Seeing children play together, feel safe, have fun, make memories, tell stories. I truly hope that the storytelling weeks we run do have that lasting significance of real impact in children’s lives and they come away with something tangible to hold onto, not just the crumbs of a custard cream in their hand.