One of the many reasons I read “children’s” books is that they keep my sense of wonder and hopefulness alive, even when the world seems bleak. And even though they have a simple and familiar structure, sometimes a book meant for children not only encapsulates a moment, but resonates throughout my life and thought processes.
I’m participating in an inter-generational storytelling group here at my community Bridge Meadows. Bridge Meadows is set up to support families adopting children out of the foster care system. We have single family housing for those adopting children, and affordable housing for people 55 and over who help provide support to the families. We’re like the village that it takes to raise a child.
Two of the women in our support team created the group Once Upon a Time. Elder residents and children ages 7 – 12 use storytelling, play and theater to help build community, connection, empathy and self-esteem. That’s a way of saying we meet to tell stories and have fun.
The facilitators bring a suitcase of props and a book to help prompt our own stories. Recently, they brought The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martin and illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho (Enchanted Lion, 2015). It had big bright illustrations of what can happen in a second. In 23 scenes, it takes you all over the world and shows what is happening in one second: a boat caught in a sudden storm in the Baltic Sea, dogs feeling a tremor in the ground in Venezuela, an orange falling in a Portuguese orchard.
The illustrations have strong lines and deep color. The characters represent all races, cultures and many lands in the world. It’s a great book to explain the concept of time, of the earth’s movement, and the geography of our diverse planet. At the end of the book there’s a world map and a chart of all the places illustrated in the book – as well as the time it would be in each place – 1:32 p.m. in Xangongo, Angola, is 9:32 a.m. in Florianopolis, Brazil. Sharing this book with a child will inspire many conversation on time, geography, culture, and even animal behavior.
Our facilitators used scenes in the book as story prompts. Our group of about 12 elders and children broke up into small groups to create the stories. My group of 2 women, a 9 year old boy and an 11 year old girl, got the prompt of people being stuck in an elevator in a New York City skyscraper. The children were given large scarves to wear anyway they saw fit.
The boy wrapped his black scarf around his head. He was going to a costume party. The girl unfolded her blue scarf and tied it around her shoulders so it flowed like a cape behind her. She was the queen of the deep blue sea. She was not stuck in the elevator. She was the person we were all going to see on the top floor of the skyscraper. We acted out being stuck, the boy acted out calling for assistance, and the queen opened the doors to free us all.
We watched the other groups act out their stories – “a thief opens the door,” and “a book reaches the end.”
The children were boisterous and the energy in the room was high. They wanted to jump and spin and climb on the furniture. But when they acted out a scene, they did their parts with utmost concentration.
At the end of the session, one of the facilitators made an announcement at the request of one of the children, the girl who played the queen in our group. She was moving to a family outside our community.
And in just a second, all the boisterous energy in the room deflated and my heart felt the puncture wound.
We’d known that the girl’s situation was in flux. Sometimes, in spite of the best efforts of everyone, a foster situation doesn’t work out. Families are complicated and those with foster children doubly so. We knew that changes were in the works for her, but it feels like a defeat when a child moves away from us.
The queen of the deep blue sea, however, seemed happy. She’was moving to be with a family she was familiar with, and was looking forward to living with them. She’d be back to visit the community, maybe even once a week during our Happiness Hour, where we all gather to eat and share news.
The children all raced out of the room to play together in the courtyard for the few minutes they had to themselves before being called home to dinner.
We adults stayed in our seats, pressed down by the weight of uncertainty, our fears of the big mean world, and the loss of a bright child from our midst. We’re all committed to helping children find permanence, but it’s not always a commitment we can fulfill. We talked about what we could have done differently. What part of the story could we have influenced to assure a different outcome?
In reality, in spite of our best efforts, we can’t know how a story will end.
I left the Once Upon a Time group dazed and sad. When I got to the building foyer, I saw the girl by herself, doing cartwheels across the open space. She’s always been a buoyant girl, although she’s been through things no child should have to go through. She once told me, “I like being happy. I try to be happy all the time.” I know her ebullient spirit will help her as she navigates her journey to find a family. I know we’re all a part of her family – not just those of us who know her, but the whole world, every person – we’re all part of what makes a world safe or unsafe for a child.
Hopefully, we’ve planted a story seed in this girl and she’ll grow up wanting to tell hers. And who knows, maybe it’ll be a story powerful enough to shift the world towards goodness. After all, the whole world can change dramatically in just a second. Who knows but this queen of the deep blue sea may one day open an elevator door and help us all rise up into a better world.
…in a darkened room, a very old woman closes her eyes to sleep