Monday, November 24, 2014
Are you underestimating the possible present impact of stories you wrote long ago?
Stories that have meaning from generation to generation: Do you have one of these stories that still provides enjoyment and has significance even after decades? Are you sure that you aren't underestimating the present impact of stories you may have written long ago?
On Wednesday last week, I was asked by Mrs. Grossett, the librarian at Franklin Town Primary, my favourite primary school, to visit and read and interact with the students. It was great seeing again some of the children with whom I had done the writing workshop earlier in the year, to feel the shared connection to story and reading. It was delightful to meet again the dedicated members of staff and the principal, Mr. Leroy Smith. I even met staff who want to write. This is great because I believe that staff can write for themselves as well as for their students.
Most wonderful, and a complete surprise, was the presentation of a plaque which read:
Presented to Diane Browne
Your service to Franklin Town Primary has been phenomenal
"We love and appreciate you" November 2014.
So my cup runneth over with joy, as you can imagine. I've been associated with Franklin Town Primary for some time. In the 1990s I used to work in publishing nearby, and we just came together in some way. They ask me to read from time to time, and as long as it's possible, I always go. Mrs. Grossett is an outstanding librarian. I remember when I first met her, realising that her library was not only a window to the world of books, but also a haven. My doing writing workshops with the children is yet another way she has thought of empowering her students.
I must say also, that a credit to the school and its staff is the fact that the children were all keen to read, when asked if they'd like to share in the reading of a story. Even if they might struggle with the odd word, they still wanted to read. This is the sign of a nonthreatening learning environment, where children want to perform, and know that they can try and try again until they succeed. This was even evident in the younger grades, where one might expect to find some children who might be less fluent in their reading.
And now to the story. Mrs. Grossett had asked if I had any little stories which were inexpensive enough for the children to buy, and then I could autograph them. I have none. Everything that is published ends up being too expensive. However, I thought, surely I can give what actually belongs to me? So I decided to send the text of the story I put on my blog every Christmas, Once Upon a Starlight, first published in The Big River and Other Stories by the Children's Writer's Circle with funding by Caribbean Greeting Company. The children would be able to make their own little booklets, and either colour the black and white illustrations or draw their own.
For this particular story, the group was from grades 4-6. We met in the room with the beautiful teaching aids which you can see in the photos. Many of the children had not yet got a chance to finish reading the story sent, so we talked about it. We discussed the fact that I had wanted to change the traditional 'Once upon a time' to 'Once upon a starlight'; and to make the giver of wishes be the 'Auntie of the Starlight', instead of a 'fairy godmother', both to make the story more Jamaican. (This was when and why I created Auntie of the Starlight.) I told them how when I was little we used to go down King Street on Christmas Eve and look at all the toys, and paper hats and starlights that the vendors were selling. Are you there with me, guys? The children were there with me. You know you can feel when you are one with your audience.
Angela, the little girl in Once Upon a Starlight wishes she could have a doll she sees in a store window, but her father can't find any work, her mother does sewing for stores, but needs a new sewing machine. Things are dire. Everybody understood about being out of work, of needing something like a sewing machine, of not being able to have the Christmas they wanted. This story was written in 1983. Was this when hard times first hit us? Surely not; Jamaicans have been dealing with hard times and migrating for years to escape it when they can. The fate of small island states! And we are in hard times now again, along with the rest of the world.
Of course, there were the mandatory and recognizable three wishes in the story, each to be stated upon the lighting of a starlight. We did not finish the story because we wanted the children to either say how they thought the story would end, or draw an illustration for the story. A rush for paper and pencils! Some needed more than one sheet of paper. There was the buzz of excitement.
Essentially, the children decided what Angela would wish for; definitely a job for her father; and that all wishes would be granted, including that of the longed for doll. The group had a vested interest in the outcome. The illustrations varied from a glorious big starlight filling up the page ( I contributed by showing them how to use the pencil to create sparkles), to a variety of beautiful 'Angelas', rivaling any of the traditional fairy tale heroines. Some children added her house and her little sister, who watches the wishing activities from the front steps, but who also wants to hold one of the starlights.
For the children, I'm sure this was an enriching experience. I know that many schools have activities like this. However, I suspect that there may be others who do not yet understand how this type of activity which relates to stories about us, empowers the children, boosts their confidence. For my part, I learned that stories forgotten can continue to be relevant, can bring meaning to children's lives long after you've relegated them to the past. As people we all wish for the same things, love and security for our family. And always from these activities the children learn: "My life is important enough to be in a story."
Notes on photos: One might think that I decided to show photos of myself. I do have lovely pictures of children reading, both boys and girls, but I try not to show children's faces in any document that will be available to all on the Internet. Those pictures of the children will be sent to the school for them to display as they will. However, I hope that by the pictures I've shown here, you can observe the interactive nature of the activity. Please note the interest shown by the boys. The final picture is of Mrs. Grossett with me donating two of my books to their library.