Tuesday, March 11, 2014

On Bad Guys

The other day in class, my K-1 students sat in a circle to create a story. We went around the circle, each student building on what the others had shared, until we reached "The End." (I side-coached, of course, so every student got to go exactly twice.) If a student ended a phrase by saying "and," "but," or "then," or terminating a sentence, it was the next student's turn to go. All I gave them was "Once upon a time, there was a girl with a balloon."

It was going amazingly well. Everyone was listening to everyone else, the story was taking silly but logical turns, and no one was randomly yelling "ELEPHANT!" (I swear, that happens more often than you'd think.) One student set the story into action by introducing an owl character, another student added, "The owl said, 'Come here!'" and a third gave us, "The girl realized it was a trick." Awesome, we've got a real story going, I thought.

Until the student who introduced the owl said, "No, it's a good owl!" and wouldn't let it go. Over and over she insisted that the owl was a good guy, that she couldn't play a trick, that she couldn't be in league with the witch another student made up. Until I had to side-coach one of the students, "How can we make the owl good now?"

I talked to Owl-Girl's mom after class, and let her know that we're working on building stories as an ensemble, and that she needs to accept what other students bring to the table, even if it's not an idea she's totally into. Her mom told me that when they play at home, she leads the characters they create towards being nice. "Can't the dragon be nice?" she asks. And "Let's make the princess nice."

I shared with her the same thing I told my class: a story without a conflict (and in children's literature, that often translates to a story without a clear-cut bad guy) is totally boring. I paraphrased a Little Golden Book from the 1950s that The Kid absolutely loves: Once upon a time, there was a guy with a tow truck. He loved driving his tow truck. He waved to his friends when he drove the tow truck. He gave some farm animals a ride and they had fun. He returned them to the farm, waved goodbye, and drove away. The End. Holy hell, that's boring! No conflict at all. The farmer looks a bit perturbed when the dump truck driver takes his animals, but that's it. If he had chased them even a little, that would have been more exciting. But nope. Nothin'. The guy drives the truck, the animals have a great time, and that's it.

I do understand the impulse toward nice stories as a parent, don't get me wrong. This week, I've been telling The Kid the story of Purim, and completely white-washing over the parts where Ahasuerus divorces Vashti because she won't dance naked for his drunk friends (go, sister!), where he finds Esther in a beauty pageant (she's more than her good looks, you know), where Haman wants to kill the Jews ("He says not-nice things about Jewish people, can you believe it?"), and where Haman gets hanged with his wife and nine sons (he gets...fired...from the palace). I'm trying to reconcile what I know to be true about storytelling with my impulse to show my son that the world can be a good place. And it's tough.

Every story--I teach my students--has a beginning, a middle, and an end, a problem, and a solution. And more often than not, the problem is presented by a "bad guy." A witch tries to track Dorothy down for her silver slippers; Mr. McGregor tries to protect his garden from greedy bunnies (yes, I sometimes skip over the "he wants to skin them and turn them into soup" part, but I'm working on that); Captain Hook goes after the boys who won't grow up. And our heroes triumph. There's no triumph without conflict!

All I can do is try to impart that to my students and my Kid. That there is bad in the world, but (usually) good triumphs. Beginning, middle, end, and conflict. Storytelling.

1 comment:

  1. Back when I was working at the Boys and Girls Club, I told 6-12 year olds the story of Purim, and I wondered ahead of time if I should whitewash it. My coworkers (other AmeriCorps volunteers with me) and I decided to tell the story as is--and the kids didn't bat an eye at Haman's fate, which was what I worried about traumatizing them.

    This experience made me realize that kids can handle more than we often give them credit for. These days, other than making some things age appropriate (like that Vashti was embarrassed to be seen at the party--true, but not the whole naked truth), I try to keep the stories as full of conflict and true to the original as possible. Because stories are an excellent dress rehearsal for real conflict in life, and through stories kids can learn that bad things do happen, conflict is resolvable, and that life goes on.