Between my junior and senior years of college I was hired to be a recreational therapist in a large mental hospital, in charge of a building of 300 women. When my supervisor told me I had to meet with a psychiatrist, my first thought was to wonder what I’d done, if I was somehow going to be transformed from staff to patient.
The psychiatrist, a bear of a man, did not waste time. “Miss Rubin, I hear you’re a storyteller. We have some children who are patients here. Your supervisor has changed your schedule so you have time to tell stories to the children for half an hour three times a week.” What I didn’t say was: What? Me? Work with mentally ill kids? I don’t know anything about mentally ill kids. “You can begin now. A staff member will take you to their playroom.”
No one asked if I wanted to do this, or even if I could. It was simply assumed, based on the few stories I’d told my women patients. Dumbfounded, I followed the grim-faced woman, hoping she’d give me some suggestions. I was too intimidated by her to ask. When we got to the playroom she unlocked the door, practically pushed me inside, then locked the door behind her.
The room was filled with eight kids fighting. Kicking. Screaming. Shouting. Yelling. Crying. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave. There was no place to hide. I sat on the step watching, hoping they wouldn’t turn their wrath on me.
It seemed forever, but was probably only a few minutes when the chaos began to wane. One by one the kids stopped what they were doing and looked at me. ‘Who are you?” asked one of the boys.
“I’m here to tell you a story.”
“We don’t want your story,” sneered one of the girls.
“Okay,” I said, not about to impose what I wanted or was supposed to do on them. “Maybe we could sit in a circle and make a group story.”
“What’s that,” asked the smallest boy.
“Come sit in a circle with me and I’ll tell you about it.” I got up and walked a few steps then sat down on the floor. One by one they slowly sat down, leaving a lot of space between them and me. The fragile quiet seemed like the lull in a storm so I quickly said, “I’ll start with: Once upon a time, in a place far away, there lived . . .” I looked at the girl sitting closest to me and said, “You can say a few words and when you’re finished, look at the boy sitting next to you and he can add what he wants to say. We’ll keep going until everyone who wants to be part of the story has told their bit. Okay?”
The girl picked up from what I’d said and added a few bits before nodding to boy on her right. One by one they created a story from what had previously been said. The last boy to participate added a little, then said, “But the story isn’t finished. You finish it.” I asked the group if this was okay with them. They nodded. I wove the strands they’d created into a whole and ended with what I hoped was a satisfying ending.
“That was good,” said a girl with a contented look. Judging by the peaceful silence and their relaxed faces, I guessed they agreed.
The boy who asked why I was here, now asked, “You coming back?”
“If you want me to.”
“We do,” they said, almost in a chorus.
“Okay, I will.” I asked them to tell me their names, and when I tried to repeat them, the children giggled, helping me with my mistakes.
“Maybe next time you come you can tell us a story,” added Robert, the boy who’d challenged me.
“I’d like that, “I told them. Just then, the door opened. The grim-faced woman opened the door, visibly shocked by the peaceful way the kids and I were interacting.
“Time to leave,” she said, hurling her words. I thanked the kids for making such a great story and told them I was looking forward to being with them again. “Time to leave,” she snarled. I could see the kids tense so I smiled and left as quickly as I could.
Out of the turmoil they had made a story and forged what was to become a kind of community—caring replacing chaos. In time, sharing stories became our way of talking about feelings, creating a framework for trust that deepened over time.
What would you have done?
Nancy King is a widely published author and a professor emerita at the University of Delaware, where she has taught theater, drama, playwriting, creative writing, and multidisciplinary studies with an emphasis on world literature. She has published seven previous works of nonfiction and five novels. Her new memoir, Breaking the Silence, explores the power of stories in healing from trauma and abuse. Her career has emphasized the use of her own experience in being silenced to encourage students to find their voices and to express their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with authenticity, as a way to add meaning to their lives.