Tell it again, please
The two-room school was on the river side of Highway 97, about halfway between Wenatchee and Chelan. Fruit trees in central Washington were covered with the blossomed promise of a good crop.
Orondo was too small to offer much more than housing for farm workers and a handful of other families. Their tiny settlement was strung along the east bank of the Columbia River.
A quarter of a century ago there weren’t more than sixty children in the school. Kindergarten through third grade met in one room. Grades four through six had their own teacher in the other room. When I parked outside the school, curious children ran up. They knew the storyteller was coming and greeted me warmly.
I told stories to the younger classes, then to the older group. They were sponges, absorbing the stories through every pore. They were so eager, so responsive I was as entranced by the stories as they were. And then it was over, and I had promises to keep in other schools.
Two years later I toured the same schools in central and eastern Washington. Once again, I turned my vehicle into the small parking lot. Once again, curious children ran up to greet the visitor and escort me into the school.
I started with the younger children and told them a whole new set of stories, ones I knew I hadn’t pulled out of the hat for my first visit. Then I joined the older group. Two-thirds of them had been in the younger group two years earlier. I was eager to tell them stories that would be new to them, more challenging, more suited to their growing maturity.
They would have none of it. “Tell us about the hen and the giant. We want to hear about the giant pumpkin.” And so it went, story after story. After the fourth and fifth graders had heard the stories they remembered, the sixth graders insisted on hearing the ones they had heard in fourth grade. Forty-five minutes stretched to an hour, then ninety minutes, until I finally had to stop because the school day was nearing its end.
The children taught me an important lesson that day. I was still a fairly new storyteller and assumed audiences always wanted to hear new material. I was feverishly adding stories to my repertoire so as to never repeat one to a group I’d performed for before.
Stuff and nonsense. When we hear a song that stirs us, a melody that haunts us, we want to hear it again and again. We learn the words, sing it in the shower, belt it out as we drive, buy the track.
The same is true of stories. When they resonate, we want to travel that path again, and not just when we are children.
Years ago, Professor Spencer Shaw told me children want the same book read to them over and over because “the children know what’s going to happen, but the characters don’t”. The children in the two-room Orondo school knew what was going to happen in those stories. They also knew the characters didn’t. So I sent my mind back into the world of those earlier stories. Together, the children and I found out.