A Storytelling Trip to the Bush: A Fellini film or A Goya Painting?

From Juneau, featured author Brett Dillingham joins us with the first of his guest posts, a fascinating vignette from his storytelling experience. An educator, children’s book author, poet, and playwright, Brett began his professional storytelling career in 1990. His most recent book, Performance Literacy Through Storytelling, which just came out on Friday, shows teachers how to integrate storytelling into the daily curriculum.

I make most of my living by teaching children how to write and tell their own stories. I also perform as a storyteller. This has exposed me to quite a few cultures and countries across the world. One memorable trip was up the Kuskokwim River. I found myself in a classroom of very unique children…

But it wasn’t until I started telling stories that I began to realize just how strange a mix it was. Or, more precisely, it wasn’t until I saw a dwarf fly through the air and roll at my feet that the bizarreness dawned on me- no, not “dawned”, but exploded. The dwarf was about 2 1/2 feet tall, with arms about as big as a medium sized brown trout. They appeared vestigial, like the tiny arms of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. His legs were barely long enough to function as legs (I later saw him walking in the snow with a pained, hobbling gait which must have taken an enormous amount of concentration and skill to maintain). After flying through the air and rolling in the middle of my story, he looked up at me and smiled a combination of wicked and cherub that almost stopped my tale.

Then I heard some African drumming coming from the CD player. Not wanting to break eye contact with my audience, I was a bit miffed that someone would play music during the telling of a tale. The rhythm followed the flow of my words. I was shocked to look up and see that there was no CD spinning in a boom box, but another “special education” student drumming on the seat of a blue plastic chair, a maniacal grin on his face, intently watching my gesticulations. Other students rolled on the floor like grub worms in a pan, not interrupting, but “stimming”, or stimulating their bodies while my words bounced around in their skulls. I was telling a tale of magic, and their bodies seemed to mimic the very tale I told. They appeared to melt into the carpet in one place, then reappear in another, often as a different student.

When I was done with that story, I told it again, this time with the students taking the roles of various animals. The children who had melted raised their hands, as did the dwarf, and I told it again. They acted it out perfectly. Then I asked if someone else would like to tell it. One girl raised her hand, and as I was about to call on her, the teacher behind her began to vigorously shake her head no, no, as if it would be a big mistake. I called on her anyway. She came up and I realized that she could not speak, only grunt. I told the tale and she pointed to the animals/people and she would make motions with her hands that imitated the motions of the animals to a T. She was great.

At the end I noticed a plump girl who constantly had green bubble snot enlarging, then shrinking, from her nostrils. She was not meaning to play with it, like girls do with bubble gum, it was just that she had a virulent infection that had not been treated. It was how she had to breathe. Suddenly she sneezed, but it wasn’t like a sneeze, more like a grenade blowing up, snot shrapnel flying everywhere. Her forehead was covered with old dried snot, as were her cheeks and chin. Who knew how long it had been since she had seen a doctor.

I later found out that the dwarf had a bad heart and that the drummer was his brother. Many of the students showed clear signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. One girl seemed extraordinarily intelligent. She answered a number of questions I asked before I had finished asking them. She focused on me with sharp brown eyes like a crow watches a bug trundling along.

Right before the crow’s beak gobbles the bug up.

I’ve been very fortunate to have experiences such as the one above. They make life rich. And so very interesting. Even if I sometimes feel like a bug.

1 thought on “A Storytelling Trip to the Bush: A Fellini film or A Goya Painting?”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wow, Brett — you made me laugh out loud with that generous tale of sharing your storytelling abilities and patience! Thanks for sharing, and I hope you give us even more glimpses into the Alaska that exists beyond Anchorage, where (I must admit) I spend most of my time.

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