At 16, I was hired to be a junior counselor at a camp for “underprivileged kids.” We were in a building with a tin roof while outside, a storm was raging, rain pounding relentlessly, flashes of lightning cutting through the too-sudden darkness, cracks of deafening thunder making us all jump. The girls began to cry hysterically, clutching each other, terrified.
There were too many to hold or hug, to help them feel safe. Out of desperation I suggested we pretend we’re alone in the forest in the midst of a scary storm. The nine-to-ten-year-old girls stared at me as if I had suddenly gone crazy. I threw out a bunch of questions without stopping: “Who are we? Why did we come to the forest? How did we find a place to shield us from the weather?” I kept asking questions until one of the girls answered.
“We’re a group of scientists who got lost,” said Julie, big for her age, who shouted over the storm’s noise,
Edie, her face contorted with fear, yelled, “No, we’re a bunch of campers who are stuck in a leaking tent and there’s a bear outside.”
Soon they were all screaming to be heard, brimming with ideas about who they were and why they were out in such ferocious weather.
I invited them to sit in a circle, close to each other, as we created the details of our story. I noticed in amazement that as we made the story, their fear seemed to disappear, their faces relaxed—all focused on the story we were making. As they talked, I wrote down what they said, crossing out changes, erasing what they didn’t like, doing my best to make my handwriting legible. When they were satisfied with the story they’d created, I read what they told me to write.
Peggy sighed with contentment. “I’m not scared any more even though the rain’s still making a lot of noise. As soon as we started making the story I sort of forgot to be afraid. Next time I’m scared I’m gonna write a story.”
Years later, my boyfriend and I were scheduled to lead a workshop in stage combat. We’d just had a big, unresolved argument and I was still enraged as we prepared our scene. Thinking back to the girls in the storm, I realized that in order to play the fury required by our staged fight, I had to let go of my personal rage. I couldn’t play anger and be angry at the same time. Who knew?
Have you ever experienced a situation where you had to set aside your feelings to behave in another way? What helps you deal with strong feelings at difficult times?
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.