Sunday, December 9, 2012

Listening to the Siren's Call

Ulysses and the Sirens'
by John William Waterhouse, 1891
The Sheer Folly of Callow Youth Age
By Judith Black © 2012

Red faced, I cried out threateningly “Put that thing away or I will flush it down the toilet!”  Kismet (yes, that is what her mother named her) rolled her eyes at me and simply palmed the electronic communication device.  For the 100th time I explained:

“You can’t be here and there at the same time. Please, I will give you a break to check your phones. You need to be present, here, now, with us!”

If she had been the only one that had this almost physiological dependence on frequent, ritualized interactions with their cell phone, the situation would have been easier to cope with.   She was merely the queen offender.

This was not how we began.  The CDC Healthy People 2020 Grant promised that I would work, in cooperation with two other community organizations, with teens from under served communities, to create Story Theater around the issues of bullying/violence, nutrition, and substance abuse and then tour this program to their peers in Salem, Massachusetts (USA) in hopes of affecting their health choices. Unable to rally older teens, it looked like we could only tempt 7th and 8th graders to participate. In my humble opinion, seventh and eighth graders belong roaming nature like feral beasts, collecting knowledge through direct interaction. Alas, seventh and eighth graders were what I was going to have.  Knowing that all of the 14 participants came from homes with a single or no parent, all were economically strapped, and most from cultures where education was not a priority, I had to make some quick planning decisions. There would be a few immutable rules and lots of affirmation of their work and persons.

1. They had to attend every rehearsal.
2. No cell phones during the rehearsal period.
3. In this space we would listen to and be kind to one another.                    

Rule #1 bit the dust on the first day. Meeting time arrived, and six of the fourteen were not there. The program would have to develop flexibility.   

It was rule #2 that would be my undoing.  To my senior citizen brain the fact that warm, living, potentially loving people spent many hours a day contacting and responding to cyber friends in a small electronic box was oxymoronic to actual friendship.  They were living in a half real, but very consuming world that kept their attention off of the vital present. All of the kids who could and couldn’t afford it had a phone, and those phones were more attractive to them than the Sirens were to Odysseus’ men.  I would turn to talk to a single youth and you could feel the rush of air from them pulling them out and checking their text messages.  Without a doubt Kismet was the greatest offender. She carried about 35 extra pounds, dirty blond hair, and an attitude the size of Texas. “I can check my phone and listen at the same time.”  She’d sneer.  “I’m not stupid.”  

In keeping with rule #3, I assured her that her intelligence was not in question, but that I yearned for what she might do if it was all focused on our project.  She’d ritually roll her eyes or turn her back. She spent a good portion of our time with her back to me. Who knew what she taking in?

The good news was that these kids, all of them, loved stories and the theater games we were playing in order to bring them to life.  They were, after all, their stories.  The stories of friends and relatives who became caught up in drugs or alcohol, the ones about bullies, their fears of them and what their most courageous selves might do if given an opportunity to stop them, and the story of what they put into the mouths each morning and how it might help or hurt them. We worked for days and weeks and months developing these stories, but there was never an entire 10-minute period during which I did not hear myself beg, “Please put the cell phone away.  You can’t be there in the future and here now at the same time.  Kismet, that includes you.”After four months or development and rehearsal we were ready to tour our program.  Kismet, with a starring role in the longest piece did not show up for the final rehearsal.     I tracked her down to an aunt’s house from which she promised to be there by show time the next day.  She wasn’t and I had to replace her, but welcomed her to stay with the company.  She was spitting mad, but surprisingly, attitude unabated, continued with the smaller roles she had in the other pieces. Then, going into our 6th show, one of kids was held up by a teacher.
“What shall we do?”  I asked the cast.

 “I know her part,” said Kismet.  “I know all of them.”

And she did!  She replaced the missing actor that day and did it perfectly.  Four days later, at the last minute, she was called to replace another teen in a very different part.  She performed it seamlessly. When I congratulated her, she rolled her eyes and said, “I would of done the other one good too.”

What did I learn? Three lessons:

  1. Don’t make immutable rules
  2. They can be looking at their cell phones and be in the present!
  3. In this space, in all spaces we should listen to and be kind to one another.
If you would like to view their work follow the link:

Judith Black, one of America’s foremost storytellers, Retells history from new perspectives, tickles familial dysfunction, and offers ironic explorations of aging.

Featured on stages from the Montreal Comedy Festival to The Smithsonian Institution, to eight features at the National Storytelling Festival, she is the winner of the Oracle Award, storytelling’s most coveted laurel. She teaches two classes annually:

Locally she sings with Calla Lilly, is social action chair of the Marblehead Harbor Rotary Club, directs Bridging Lives, a community peer mentoring program.



If you missed any of the other terrific Guest Blogger articles this link will take you to a separate blog post where all of the links are listed.

Judith Black is a guest blogger for Karen Chace and Catch the Storybug blog. All rights to this article belong to her. Distribution, either electronically or on paper is prohibited without her expressed, written permission. Of course, if you wish to link to the article via Facebook or Twitter, please feel free to do so. I you would like to be a Guest Blogger contact Karen at for the details.



Mark Goldman said...

Judith, thank you for sharing the story of your revelation. I have “been there, done that” and constantly strive to remember the lesson.

Some years ago, a facilitator who had worked at Disney’s Imagineering, started a workshop by placing many small toys, magnets, colored pencils, etc. on our tables. He encouraged us to doodle and “play” with the items while we listened to him and participated in the workshop. He said that learning can still go on (and more likely does) while we simultaneously play.

In nature, “water seeks its own level”. I continually struggle to remember this and apply it to my work with others. Your story will help me to remember. Thank you.

Eileen DeLorenzo said...

Thanks for sharing, Judith Black. I learn so much from tellers who write about their storytelling experiences. From these posts, and comments, I store what is shared hoping to tap into and put to use the lessons learned and wisdom gained in my future storytelling ventures.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing! The age group is 'feral' to my perception only because I never work with them. I appreciate and respect the fact people like you do help them get a different perspective, a creative outlet. I saw Chess Game & Cereal Wars--very diverse topics but written & performed well!

Mike Speller said...

Hello & thanks for sharing!
This age group is 'feral' to me only because I've never worked with them. I appreciate & respect the fact people like you do. I saw Chess Game & Cereal Wars--very diverse topics but written and performed so well!