The Storyteller’s Torch

Painting of the Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse.

In my 31 years as a secondary school teacher, the students who have passed through my classroom have never failed to teach me even more than I have hoped to teach them. I would never say something along the lines of “I’ve done this for so long that I’ve seen it all.” Any teachers who might say that are falling into a state of complacency and need to stay on their toes in anticipation of the statement or lesson that will make them take pause and realize that each day has the potential of bringing the experience they have not yet faced. Just the other day, I was reminded of this truth once again in no uncertain terms.

My Introduction to Literature course (a college-credit bearing class that is part of the “College in the High School” program, in cooperation with a nearby community college) is nearing the end of their unit on the structures and elements of poetry. As a summative, unit ending activity, they are in the process of analyzing Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.”

This poem does it all, and is a beautiful narrative through which students can draw many modern parallels with their own world and experiences. Before we delved into the poem itself, it was necessary to provide the students with some background on the universe in which the poem is set, specifically the world of Arthurian legend. When I asked the students, all of whom are seniors in high school, if they knew the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, I was mostly met with blank stares, some shaking their heads “no.” One student muttered something about “the sword in the stone,” but had only a vague memory of a cartoon that they had heard of once, but had not actually seen. Beyond that it was crickets. I sighed inwardly, wondering how it was that they could get so far into their schooling and life experience without having even a passing familiarity with such a famous and lasting tale.

Well, before moving to Tennyson, we clearly needed a crash course in Arthurian legend. I told the students to move their desks forward and form a semi-circle in front of one of the white boards, where I had posted a map of Great Britain. The rest of the board was blank. I picked up a dry-erase marker and wrote the word “Cornwall” on the board, pointing on the map to the southwestern portion of Britain that shares that name. Setting established. “The story begins in a land without a king…” I began, proceeding to share with them a condensed version of the stories contained in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, wherein the legend was first set down. It took us about four class periods to cover the essence of the story, but it was a necessary step to enable a deeper understanding of some of the references made in the Tennyson poem, such as “Camelot” and “Lancelot.” Without that context, their understanding of the poem would be only superficial. I had them take some notes on the story as we went, just to keep them focused. As it turns out, the notes didn’t seem to be necessary.

As we started class on the day of the final background session, one of the students came up to me as the others were moving the desks back into “story time” position. “Mr. Worthy,” she said, “are we going to have a test on this story?” My heart sank a little again (prematurely as it turns out), assuming that she was only concerned about her grade and would only continue note taking if I answered her question in the affirmative. Before I could answer her, she continued: “Well, I think we should, because I have never paid such close attention to anything in my life.” She wanted a test on it. Some of her classmates had overheard that conversation, and doubled down on her statement. I hadn’t been ready for that. Never had a test (something I don’t often do anyway, preferring other methods of assessment) on the background information crossed my mind, as it was considered supplemental material to assist them in the poem analysis work to come. Without committing to whether a test on it would come to pass or not, I finished taking visual attendance and stepped out into the semi-circle of space in front of them, all looking at me, pens or pencils in hand and poised over fresh note sheets, actually eager to write the rest of the story down.

“So, where did we leave off yesterday? What was happening where we stopped?” Every hand in the room went up. I chose a student at random, who proceeded to give me an account in his own words of what was happening in the story when we had been forced to stop the day before because, well, the bell rang. The others, unable to wait for me to call on them, started throwing out details they felt the first had omitted. They remembered everything, down to the last detail, of a story they had heard only once, and without looking at the notes they had taken from the days before. Here was yet another rarity–a group of students displaying an uncanny degree of recall of specific details I had only mentioned one time.

How many other times in my 31 year career had I gone over instructions for an assignment in meticulous and even repetitive detail, only to have a student raise his or her hand at the end of that instruction session and ask “So…what do we do again?” I was pretty amazed. What was different? Well, it was something that I had always known the power of and had always worked to integrate into my teaching wherever I could. It was the power of storytelling.

Great stories have a timeless appeal. They speak to the innermost truths of our collective humanity. They resonate with us on a fundamental level, so long as they are crafted soundly enough for readers or listeners to connect and identify with the characters and situations they relate. They teach us the most foundational lessons learned about life, passed down through the centuries in oral and written traditions from countless cultures across the globe, and they do it in language of such beauty and complexity that it moves us just to hear the phrasing of master literary craftspeople echo in our minds.  We have a duty to future generations to preserve and pass on the greatest stories, the ones that have stood the test of time and teach us the most about what it is to be human. Never has that duty been a more urgent one to fulfill than now, because our children are not learning them.

I work with hundreds of adolescents a day, who are growing up in a time where the great stories have been supplanted by the instant gratification of social media and the “content” it provides them. Their minds are being literally transformed, their attention spans reduced, their ability to concentrate and focus deeply on complex ideas eroded to the point where they are unable to connect with so many of the stories that were once at the very heart of their education. Most of the students I encounter proudly announce that they have not read a book since the fifth grade, and no longer see the purpose of a library thanks to the Internet’s existence. If reading a book is required of them, they will go to great lengths to evade the task.

There are summaries of classic stories widely available to them through a simple Google search. They can purchase ready made essays on just about any subject so that the actual torture of reading the book themselves can be avoided. Now, with the advent of ChatGPT, students can simply have artificial intelligence create literary analysis essays for them. If asked to write by hand (the majority cannot write at all–they print; cursive handwriting is no longer taught to them), many would rather cross their arms and stare at the wall than try to construct full sentences with a pen or pencil. Some will spend whole periods drawing on the assignment’s form, usually anime characters, so there’s that.

This isn’t the case for all of them, but the numbers of those who can engage with complex texts and really delve deeply into the timeless human truths of them are diminishing with each passing year. The fault does not lie with them; the culture around them and the companies creating these technologies for profit no longer value the lessons that the great stories have to teach them, so the kids turn to the vapid and the inane to be temporarily entertained until the next text message arrives in the group chat–or whatever. They suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), and cannot bear to be separated from their devices so that the uninterrupted connection to the peer collective is not severed.  I know if they are given the choice between a work of classical literature that has the potential to change their life forever and the latest anime or manga collection which direction they’ll go.

I often hear the argument “Well, at least they’re reading!” Fair enough, but the content of what they read very much matters. If they wish to read graphic novels on their own I am certainly not going to stand in their way. I have hobbies too. In a school setting, however, we need to encourage them to challenge themselves with content of much greater and timeless value so that the great stories are not lost to history in this age of rapid fire simplistic content consumption. They are losing the mental capacity to even process passages of complex construction or those containing advanced and vivid vocabularies. If they are not made aware of the stories that shaped human civilization for the last several centuries, we risk raising a generation of anti-readers straight out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (read this book if you haven’t; read it once a year for the rest of your life and urge anyone you know to do so too). For those who have read it, when I say that the “parlor walls are now in their pockets,” you’ll know what I mean–and it should terrify you.

Those of us who know the power of storytelling and of the stories that the children of today need to hear must pass the torch to them in any way we can. I have seen the power and effectiveness of gathering a group of young people into a circle and transporting them to other lands and times through the sheer enthusiasm conveyed through the storytelling act. Thorough knowledge of the content plus eye contact, vocal modulation, and physical gestures to bring the events alive will have children clear up to 18 years of age sitting wide eyed and transfixed for as long as you can sustain it. Seek out opportunities to share the great stories with any young people in your sphere of influence. Learn the stories so you can do more than just read them aloud while still being dependent on the text–act them. Feel them. Live them. Plant the seeds of fascination and curiosity so children will once again physically go to the library (while we still have them) to check out the versions of the stories you recommend after sharing enough to whet their mental appetites. Trust me–I’ve seen it. They LOVE great stories, especially when told by someone else who loves them too. I think they are, deep down, hungry for them. They just don’t even know they are out there. If they can be shown the power and influence that the great stories can have on their lives, then perhaps we can pull them back from the brink of the electronic abyss. We’re in the eleventh hour here, and the situation is bleak.

Light the storyteller’s torch and carry it with you into the fray. Even Beowulf, entering the cave to do battle with the dragon, knew he would not emerge victorious. He went in anyway, defiant to the last, because giving up and fleeing in cowardice was not an option. We can actually still win the battle with the social media dragon, for our kids, our culture, and our civilization–if only we light that torch and pass it on.

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2 thoughts on “The Storyteller’s Torch”

  1. Jeff, thanks for relating these interesting insights into the power of stories.

    You might get a chuckle out of this anecdote from Gregory Bateson’s “Mind and Nature” that speaks to the importance of stories for humans, which I’ll paraphrase here:

    A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private computer. He asked, “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine set to work to analyze its own computational habit. Finally, the machine answered: “That reminds me of a story.”

    Reply
    • Thanks for that, Thomas. The day computers can tell stories as good as we do is the day I become obsolete. Fortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever get there. If we do, I hope the computers prove to be good listeners too. I’ll use them as test audiences 🙂

      Reply

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