Children today are drowning in the violent seas of extreme academic testing. I find no other way to say it. Extreme is the word for it when our educators are mandated to spend more time instructing towards testing objectives than teaching to the needs of the child.
I have a few teachers across California whom I call “my patrons.” Traditionally, no matter what society you examine, every bard had patrons who supported their music and storytelling activities. Without these benefactors, bards had no means to consistently ply their trade. Most of my patrons are teachers who, personally, schedule me to visit their classrooms; usually sometime during the end of mandated state and federal testing periods in their schools. I drop in to a classroom for about an hour to an hour and a half to try to bring some levity, humor, but also attempt to redirect the young minds back towards a joy of learning; which testing never did nor never will provide.
I went to visit one classroom in particular because this teacher explained to me that her students were “totally stressed out” following this testing period. Imagine that… 7, 8, and 9 year olds stressed out. Alright this is not the time or place for me to rant on the misguided, testing monstrosity that mires the minds of our children in a muddy mess of linear thought patterns and an overly aggressive need for compartmentalization that subliminally chants, “Don’t teach to think instruct for test.”
Oops… I apologize. I guess that was a bit of a rant, wasn’t it?
Anyway, back on track… this particular teacher made an urgent plea for me to come to her class and share music and storytelling. She, in her own words, was in desperate need of her children to decompress and unravel from the anxiety associated with their recent testing. She was also desperate for her room to regain the feeling of warmth that it had prior to being transformed into its’ current pressure cooker like condition.
When I arrived to the classroom, it was a sad, indescribable heart pain to see these gaunt visages on faces so young. As resilient as children can be, it didn’t take long before many of the expressions broke into bright, cheerful smiles. What was the reason for the smiles you might ask? Well, today was, definitely, not going to be a routine day. Often teachers and I will work in consort and not tell the children that their storyteller is coming. The benefit this has in breaking from routine is obvious.
I didn’t waste any time at all. I gathered the children around the storytelling area and plopped myself on the floor with them at their eye level. My benevolent benefactor positioned herself just to the rear of the children, smiling as much, if not more, vigorously than her learners at the heightened anticipation of our start.
I started with gentle harp playing and low-tone singing before transitioning into a fable about appreciation. These children had learned some of my songs on previous visits so they were primed to jump in and help out with the singing. I made sure to continue playing in a relaxed manner, somewhat larghetto, nothing allegro or prestissimo. I transitioned from one song to the next embedding tales within the music and proverbs within the stories. A well placed joke here or there to lighten the mood and continuous, soothing harp strings. It wasn’t long before I witnessed the dark eyes of all of the children brighten from dark mood I had initially encountered when first entering the room. I could sense the children relaxing and that affirmed my presence for me.
Sometime during the first 15, maybe 20 minutes, into our session, our little concert was interrupted by very soft, but audible, sounds of someone snoring. Seated in a small chair, to the rear of the children; there she was, my sweet supporter, the children’s teacher, passed out sleep and adorned with the calmest countenance I had ever seen on her. She was snoring a very peaceful, blissful snore. The children all turned to see where the snoring was coming from and immediately began giggling. I placed an index finger to my pressed lips and did a very quiet shush. I went back to playing my harp, just as softly as before and continued talking in relaxed, low tones launching into, yet, another tale. The children soon were immersed in the details of the tales, offering character suggestions, setting descriptions and their own ideas on advancing the plot.
I continued playing my harp for another 30 minutes or so. I wanted her to enjoy this rare, quiet, stolen moment in time. She had earned it.
After I finished, as if by magic similar to that possessed in the kiss from the handsome prince, our sleeping beauty awoke as the final note of the song faded into silence. Needless to say, she was embarrassed beyond belief and oh so apologetic. I tried to assure here that she had given me the greatest compliment a storyteller could ever receive.
Whenever I think of this particular session, I always break into a wide, spontaneous smile. These spontaneous smiles happen with me a lot and I have a fear that one day someone will choose to have me committed for them.
Here we had a teacher who was so concerned about the stress and anxiety that testing had wrought on her children that she never stopped to consider the ill effects this same situation was having on her.
There is a proverb that I love which sums up this incident better than any other words I might try to offer and it simply says, “When a mother is hungry she will ask… have the children eaten?”
Dooni dooni kononi bè nyaga da
Baba the Storyteller