K is for Knowing Your Audience, or, the Middle School Challenge

Every storytelling audience is different. Each person in the group comes to the event carrying their own baggage: sometimes it's good things like a happy mood, restless energy, or the memory of a recent funny thing that happened to them that still has them smiling. Or maybe they come with a need for quiet and space, a bad day, a fight with a friend, too much coffee or a poor night's sleep. However large or small the group, the emotional, mental and physical energy varies widely from one person to another. And somehow the storyteller has to bring all of these together and into the story.

Middle school students can be especially challenging. Some performers say that this age group is their least favorite audience because of the zany energy levels, unpredictable hormones, the drive to be different and yet not too different, and the seeming lack of interest this age group can exhibit for anyone over 19. And when the artform is an ancient one, requiring no technology, no musical instruments, and no external razzle dazzle--well, the storyteller has his or her work cut out to make storytelling "cool."

Ever since my days working in a public library with a vibrant, active group of teen volunteers, I have enjoyed working with the middle-school group. I like their combination of child/adult impulses, their angst over who they are and who they want to be, their efforts to stand out from the crowd and at the same time their fear of being left out or left behind. They require energy, respect, directness and the ability to laugh at oneself. And if there are any stories perfectly suited for this age group, it's ghost stories.

This week I had the opportunity to spend a full day telling ghost stories to eighth grade students. It's been a standing gig for the past 5 years. I volunteered for it the first time in appreciation of two English teachers who had convinced their students to enter the local writing contest I had helped organize. Since that first year, I've been back each year on a paid basis to tell stories and share information about writing a good story. It's been exciting, surprising, touching, and funny. Each year I hear new stories, tales passed down in families about strange things that have happened, ghosts in houses and caves, weird lights--you name it, I think I've heard it.

This year one young man (I'll call him Jimmy) told us the story of a huge sinkhole. Jimmy said he walked to the edge of it and looked down. Below it seemed to be lighted up, and he saw an animal that looked like a fox walking around and around in the hole. It scared him so badly he ran away. What a strange story! And yet he swore it was true and I could see by the look in his eyes that he was recalling the scene in vivid detail. I suggested that he write it down, and he did.

A few class periods later Jimmy was back in the classroom for a writing class, and he shared his written story with me. I asked him if he would read it to the rest of this large class of about 40 students. Afterwards his teacher told me that this class was a planned combination of high and low achieving students--and the boy who read his story was in the low achieving group. "You touched something in him," she said. "He never writes like that."

I credit the stories, and the sharing of them, with this inspiration in Jimmy to write his story. I hope he will continue to write because he has a strong voice and stories to tell.

I also credit the two teachers who see the value of storytelling for their students of all levels. Storytelling encourages the imagination while it reminds people of their own experiences, feelings and dreams. As each group left me on that storytelling day, I felt a bond with them that storytelling creates--and I know most of them felt it too as they smiled shyly, stopped to tell me a story or tell me they knew my grandchildren or some other little nugget of connection between them and me. Stories erase age differences, social barriers and social awkwardness. We're all one in the stories, and my day with the eighth graders reminded me of that, once again.