Storytelling lifeline for a homeless boy
Missing a chance to shine
“Sol’s” story is true, though I’ve changed his name out of deference for the young hero. I met him while working as Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, the US’s oldest senior theatre company
Marijo Joseph, a talented performer who often worked with Stagebridge, was teaching Sol and some of his classmates to be storytellers. The day of their school performance, Sol nearly missed his chance to shine.
When I stopped by the office to sign in, Sol was there on “house suspension”.
“Why are you here?” I asked.
“The teacher said I was talking, but it wasn’t me.” Whatever the case, at that moment Sol was about to miss one of his few chances for positive recognition.
Marijo set off to persuade his classroom teacher to give him a reprieve long enough to perform. I chatted with him briefly, then went to the auditorium.
Sol becomes the story
Minutes before he was to take the stage, Sol hurried into the room. When his turn came, he gave a first-person narrative of a slave who had rowed hundreds of others to freedom. Sol was a natural storyteller. When he performed, he was the story. Though he was the only white child in his class, Sol crawled so completely into the character his skin color didn’t matter.
My eyes were on Sol so I didn’t notice a few classmates lifting their arms to sniff their armpits in a gesture of disdain. The mockery was cruel, but Sol often did reek of unwashed clothing on an unwashed body. His home was a van with no electricity. If he did homework it was by the glow of battery-operated tap lights. Baths and clean clothes were luxuries.
The children’s teasing was not surprising. I’d seen turkeys do the same thing. They’d spot a bit of blood on another turkey and keep pecking at it, sometimes until the victim died. In this case it was Sol’s spirit they were pecking.
Sol was one of those children who talk easily with adults but have trouble finding a niche with their peers. He was one of the few white children in the school, but deep poverty and a lack of age-appropriate social skills were what isolated him from his classmates.
He adored Marijo, who inspired him to stand tall in spite of the stones life was throwing in his path. As we left the gymnasium after the performance, Sol came up to her. “Thank you,” he said. “Stagebridge has provoked my interest in storytelling.”
Wondering how to help
Success in storytelling did not improve Sol’s classroom behaviour. When she couldn’t handle him any more, the teacher transferred him across the hall, to a classroom with a male teacher.
At Stagebridge we pondered how we could help the talented but troubled young man. We decided on a modest plan to focus his energy on something besides stirring up trouble.
Aside from Marijo, he also knew one of our skilled elders, Lady Laura. She had been his classroom’s special storyteller. She was the one who had first sparked his interest in storytelling. We decided to enlist her in our scheme.
Lady Laura was a retired black school teacher. She had dealt with every kind of challenge a student could throw in a teacher’s path. She graciously agreed to go into the school and let Sol interview her, then help him write a story about her good enough to record on radio.
With Lady Laura and Sol’s teacher both supportive, I drove to the school and spoke to Sol. I reminded him that we thought he was a very talented storyteller and asked if he would be willing to interview Lady Laura and write a story for radio. He would have to agree not to act out in class between then and the radio taping, and he would have to keep up with his studies in spite of the extra work. Sol was thrilled and promised to adhere to his end of the bargain.
A small success
I’d like to report the next few weeks were smooth sailing. They weren’t. Lady Laura found working with Sol challenging. His listening and writing skills were not well developed. And, to be honest, being in close proximity to a child with no washing facilities was not always pleasant.
But they both persevered, and on the day of the radio taping, Sol was one of nine children whose stories were recorded for future broadcast on KPFA.
As usual, I had loaded my van with children and adults needing a ride to the studio. My last stop on the return trip was Sol’s. A day earlier, when I offered to pick him up at the school and take him home after the taping, he told me I could drop him off at the bus stop. He’d catch the bus home.
So I was honoured when he felt comfortable enough to let me take him all the way to the beat-up van he and his mother called home. It was parked on a freeway overpass in a neighborhood so rundown the police probably didn’t bother with anything as insignificant as a broken-down van piled high with a family’s few worldly goods.
The school year ended shortly after the radio taping. Next fall Sol was no longer in the same school. No one knew where he had gone. I’ve no idea what happened to him and don’t kid myself his life was forever transformed by his brush with storytelling.
I do know that for at least a while he knew others saw him as talented and valued. For at least a few weeks he believed he was strong enough to draw gems from the rough stones of his life. I hope the memory was a source of courage on the rough path ahead.
And sometimes, when I think of him, my heart just hurts.