Later in the afternoon after the dolls play, a beloved caregiver at the home entered the room and sat on the floor. In the context of welcoming two children who were visiting for the weekend, the caregiver began to reminisce about when those children lived at the home. The other children joined in, laughing at the funny things the children had done at the home when they were little, describing characteristics that distinguished them from the other children, features that made them recognizable as unique individuals. One boy was an athlete from birth and when he was put in a baby swing he would kick off the wall and sail back and forth like a little boomerang to the delight of the assembled children and caregivers. I realized as I listened to them that the best way to help children tell their stories was this way – in spontaneous informal contexts, sitting on the floor of the bedroom, remembering. I also knew that our emphasizing the value of stories and beginning the process with the caregivers was a factor in this successful experience.
In my teaching at the Napa fellowship program this past weekend, I invited Molly to come and help me present our experiences at the children’s home. In Molly’s presentation, she recalled a wonderful story that was told to us in the workshop by one of the male caregivers, “tios”, at the home. He said that as a child he used to go to church with his grandmother, not because he was interested in the church service, but because his grandmother would take him out to lunch afterwards. During each worship service, the congregation lit candles. He would play with the fire of his candle, just lightly singing the hair of the person in front of him and then snuffing out the barely ignited hair. He was able to control the results of this play to the degree that nothing untoward ever happened – except one day. On that day the woman sitting in front of him had hair spray on her hair, and when he got the candle too close, her whole head burst into flame. Since he was the person most immediately aware of the chain of events, he was able to come to the rescue of the flaming woman and put out the fire, with no dire consequences. This won him the role of hero in the church. Only he knew his guilty secret.
Beneath this amusing story is another story – that of a young boy whose parents gave him to his grandparents to raise, and of his relationships to his very different grandparents. His grandfather, who had been in the military, was very strict. When he came home from school one day with a story of being bullied and hoping for his grandfather’s protection, his grandfather’s response was to demand that he return to school and fight his bully – “let the best man win”. His bully beat him up again. His grandmother, on the other hand, was kind and nurturing. One could imagine that it was not only the lunch that the boy craved from his grandmother, but her loving presence.
After our return from El Salvador, the director of one of the homes, whom we will call “Ana”, sent me some emails. She described the following stories. She took “Jessica” out to breakfast at Denny’s for her 14th birthday. She talked to Jessica about the jobs she had at her age. Ana, who grew up in the U.S., told Jessica about how she had worked at Denny’s in the U.S. when she was 15. She also told Molly and me that we “would have loved last night”. She sat with “Pablo” (9-yo) and “Kevin” (5-yo) in the kitchen, listening to them tell her stories about how they both got to ride in Santa’s sleigh. Kevin also told her a story about how he went to the U.S. in a man’s suitcase. This, she explained, originated in a story that her aunt had told her as a child and that was now a favorite story for her to tell the children in the home. The story is about a little girl named “Dida Dida” who gets into a suitcase to go visit her grandma.
Later, when they were alone together, “Fernando”, another 5-year old, told her that everything Kevin had said was a lie. She explained to Nando that what Kevin was doing is called “using your imagination”. They talked about it for a long time, and she gave him some examples. After a while, he said, “When I was 1-year old, I could walk and talk!” Then he quickly added, “That was my imagination!” She said, “The cutest part was hearing him try to pronounce “imaginacion”.
In another home, I received an email describing a caregiver telling her about how for the “first time ever,” the boys asked her to tell them a story about her before they went to bed. She told them a story about escaping to her mother’s bed during rainstorms.
It seems that Molly’s idea has taken hold in a good way. I will have to try to support this story telling in my ongoing contact with the homes.