What does an irascible 90 year old curmudgeon and a disruptive and seemingly thick-skulled 8 year old have in common? They have both have surprised me with deep life lessons they’ve imparted to me during the time I’ve spent with them telling, teaching and listening to stories together. Let me tell you about Alexi and Bill. Alexi is a student in one of our long running school residency programs. Bill is a resident at an assisted living facility where we’ve been volunteering to help with a monthly story swap for a couple of years. We’ve known Alexi since he was in first grade. I’ll start by revisiting something I posted 5 years ago that concerns him and then fast forward to the present.

January 13, 2010

images“With his hands trembling slightly, “The Listener” rang the Tibetan Bells and convened our class this morning. The care he took and the look of awe on his face might have led you to believe he was holding the Holy Grail itself. Alexi, is “The Listener. He’s a third grade boy who rarely speaks and when he does, often does so in a mumbling and not always coherent manner. He can be disruptive and often finds himself the object of his teachers frustration and even ire.

Last year, somewhat reluctantly, I let him join a smaller group of students who were practicing a story for our school-wide “Tellabration.” At first the goal was simply to have him in a smaller and more controlled group which might let the rest of the class proceed with fewer interruptions. When Alexi asked me what his ‘part’ in the story was I told him that he had one of the most important parts of all. He was the listener! From that point on, his demeanor changed dramatically. He listened with rapt attention to his classmates as they worked through their rehearsals. When performance day came, the storytellers took the stage. They were just getting ready to begin when Alexi, stood up from his place in the audience and took a place next to the tellers.
I was momentarily taken aback. What was he doing there? Alexi caught my surprised expression-and announced in a clear, confident and strong voice, “I’m the Listener!” No laughs from the audience, no snickers… the kids got it. This boy, so often the outsider, was there to remind us that without listeners, there is no living storytelling.

Who better than Alexi to ring that bell and call our attention to the need for deep listening ”

That was 2010. Alexi is now with a small group of 8th graders that we see once a week and we still ring the bell before every class. We haven’t had him in one of our classes since 5th grade. In the two years following the events described above- from all accounts Alexi pretty much continued to be a source of frustration for his teachers, but when he was with us he was a rapt listener though still pretty much ‘on the outside looking in’ when it came to other activities. To tell the truth, as much as I appreciated his presence with us, I’d come to think that he really didn’t have much on the ball or for that matter much of a future ahead of him. We lost track of him.

So here we are in 2015- working with an assortment of Aesop’s fables, Russian Wonder Tales, Spanish Fairy Tales and guess who our star student is? It’s Alexi who remembers story sequence. It’s Alexi who in a clear and confident voice can express the main idea of the story. It’s Alexi… still alert staying with the story from beginning to end. Alexi the “Listener!”

Every year we are surprised by students who seem to have come out of the shadows… kid’s who may not get as much attention as they deserve because they are quiet, or seemingly unengaged and who then amaze us- perhaps by announcing that they are ready to tell a story start to finish, or in other cases running down a long list of stories that they remember from years past. But surprised doesn’t even begin to describe my experience of Alexi’s transformation. Astonished is more like it. But here’s the lesson for me. I think of myself as someone who is tuned in and sensitive to kid’s potential. And I missed it with Alexi. Thick-skulled? Nothing on the ball? No future? Wrong, wrong and wrong! Alexi has taught me more about human potential then any class, book or seminar ever has.

Now, what about that nonagenarian curmudgeon Bill? What a pain in the ass he was at some of these swaps. He’s a fine storyteller, with a resonant voice, and a large repertoire to pull from. But what a contrarian he can be. One day there’s too much personal storytelling- he wants to hear more folktales. The next, it’s too many folktales. Sometimes his comments to others in the group- including the facilitators, seemed abrasive and designed to hurt. I’d find myself wishing that he’s stop showing up. And then one evening he told us that he was not coming back. Somewhere toward the end of a long story he’s been telling (and telling well) he lost the thread. It took him only perhaps 10 or 15 seconds for his memory to kick back in, but those seconds must have seemed like an eternity for him and this lapse troubled him deeply. It was the first time. Bill is a proud man and this laid him low. He was not about to let it happen in public ever again.

Exit Bill to the relief of the crowd? No! First of all his tales- and they were all folktales- were beyond question the most entertaining of all the residents. They didn’t seem as troubled as I was by his abrasive personality. Secondly, our co-facilitator had been counting on him as an anchor for the group. The facility liaison also encouraged him to stay. We all said what you might expect about all of us having our own lapses… about professional tellers having theirs, etc. etc. But it didn’t seem that we were getting through. And then the next session rolled around and as promised, Bill was not there. We had a decent night of telling but Bill’s absence was present.

But Bill did come back. Bill came back, having made peace with his own perceived shortcomings. And he seemed to come back in peace. He came back and told a personal and revealing story from his past about a failed marriage, and a place of sanctuary where he could heal.He asked people to think about that word sanctuary and tell the group what it meant to them. Not everyone spoke but everyone listened to Bill and those who did share, with as much attention and presence as Alexi shows now in 8th grade. We reached a place of conviviality and fellowship that evening that brought us unmistakably to a new level.

Here’s what I learned from Bill. Even at 90, if one has the will and the spirit… one can take chances, learn,adapt, grow and make a contribution. It took a lot of guts to return,to come back humbly,and share a leadership role… because that is exactly what he did. It is something I admire and aspire to.

So these are two of my teacher/mentors Thank you so much Alexi and Bill!

Dear readers… who are you learning from these days?