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Our Stories - Our Selves

by Kali Ferguson

May 8,2009

I did a residency in Alabama recently on stories and dance of Spain. One elementary school I visited had an ominous fence around it and a security system that required visitors to be buzzed in. The main office was inaccessible to us – lots of thick glass and little counters with holes where you slide nametags and such without ever breathing the same air as the receptionist. We were processed in and escorted to the performance site. There were some potentially unruly fifth grade boys in one section who looked too cool for stories even at ten years old. Undaunted, I told my story, taught basic flamenco hands and ended the program. The boy who may have been the coolest dude in school called me over to him. He wanted to know how to say all of the Spanish words from the story and also how I did the voice and posture of the magical old lady. I was glad he had been affected by the sharing, relieved he was still a little boy. 

Then he started making signs with his hands I’d never seen before, still smiling at me. His cohorts came over and did the same thing, all with searching grins that showed they were trying out something new they had been wanting to share. My gut told me that even though they were smiling, I wouldn’t be pleased to know where they had learned this language. I asked them (harshly) what they meant by the hand motions. They quickly put their hands down and claimed not to know what the gestures meant. My intuition told me they were gang signs. I imagined their older brothers or cousins or neighbors teaching them how to say various things in the secret code of their “set.” 

The irony is that these boys were still children, just at the turning point of leaving the wonders of childhood behind. They still loved an interesting folktale. Problem is, the folks who spin them compelling yarns these days are gang members or TV producers who care very little about their psychological wellbeing. I began to think of the power of stories in all forms – dressed up on a movie screen with special effects or hidden in the fingers of a knucklehead with little resources himself. It is time to take back this potent mode of communication for the sake of our youth’s spiritual development. 

I think of my own families’ stories and how I still delight to hear them. Especially the ones that have no apparent moral, just lots of images of how human my elders were. Like when my mom thought she was giving Ms. Lola, a haughty real estate agent, a compliment by innocently telling her, 

“Good Morning, Ms. Lola. You look just like a monkey in that pretty hat!” 

There are countless others and they do not fade in the shadows of blockbuster movies I see or fairytales I’ve read. They are extra-real because they come from my people. 

With the expansion of commerce and more visibility on the global scene, Charlotte’s “movers and shakers” are constantly crafting stories about what our community is. It is the same with Hollywood filmmakers and marketing geniuses on a larger scale. They are not the only ones who can influence the life of a reluctant teenager or an eager pre-schooler. My nieces and nephews, ages four through fifteen, still remember anecdotes I told them seven years ago. 

We possess a simple-yet-potent tool for influencing our families’ perspectives of the world. Our stories. We all have them, if we have lived at all. Look at old pictures: they will come. Talk to old friends (or Facebook them). The stories are there. If they mean something to you, it will show through. They can be made up or merely embellished. They can be told on the way to the store (toss the ipod for a minute) or in the yard or before bed. They just need to be told. It empowers everyone involved to share our experiences. The teller is listened to and valued. The listener is engaged. The community is validated and preserved. And our collective story is rounded out, evened up, by the power of words, connections, and memories.

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