I’d been working at the mental hospital for about a week when I was told my supervisor wanted to see me. Immediately. Wondering what I’d done wrong, worrying that I’d be fired and have to try to find another summer job, I walked into her office ready to hear bad news.
Instead of being fired or disciplined, she said she’d heard I was a storyteller and that the psychiatrist in charge of the small group of hospitalized children wanted me to tell them stories. I would be given time off from my work with the adult women. She told me when and where to go. I was not asked if I wanted to do this.
Before meeting the children I met with their psychiatrist. He admitted they were difficult. “But,” he said looking at me, “they’re children. Children love stories. You’re a storyteller. Tell them stories.” He told me there were seven children between seven and eleven. I’d see them in their playroom.
As an attendant walked me to the children’s room, she warned me, “They’re like wild animals. They bite and scratch and kick for no reason. I told my boss, I’ll quit before I have to work with them again. Don’t know why you’re here, but if I were you, I’d leave. They’re dangerous. And, I’m not the only one who feels like this. No one wants to be with them.”
Even through the locked door I could hear yelling, banging, crying, cursing . . . The attendant had experience; she was much older. Why would anyone think I could do what she and others couldn’t? The attendant stopped outside the door. “If it were me, I wouldn’t go in. You’re a kid. Who knows what they’ll do to you.” Before I could think of a response, she unlocked the door, opened it, pushed me inside, and locked the door.
There were three steps leading down to the room that had padded walls and floor. I sat on the top step, terrified, wondering if I’d be attacked. I’d never seen children so furious and violent. I felt hopeless and helpless, resting my head on my knees, wondering how I could get the attendant to let me out. I don’t know how long I sat there, but after a while I realized the noise had stopped. I looked up. The kids were staring at me.
“Who are you?” asked a boy, his hair a mess of tangles, his voice full of anger.
“I guess I’m a storyteller.”
“We don’t want to hear any stories,” said a small girl with red messy pigtails.
“I want to hear a story,” said a skinny boy, seemingly the youngest.
“What kind of stories do you like to hear?” I asked him, hoping the others might settle down if I told a story that interested them. That seemed like wishing for a miracle.
“No stories. We can tell our own,” said the girl with messy pigtails.
“I’d like to hear your stories,” I said, grateful the kids seemed less dangerous. “Would it be okay if we all sit in a circle and whoever wants to tell a story can tell a lot or a little. If someone wants to add to it, that’s good too.”
I walked down the steps and sat on the floor. Much to my surprise, they sat around me in sort of a circle. The boy who asked me who I was began. “My name is James and no one likes me. That’s my story.”
The girl sitting next to him said,” My name is Elora and no one likes me.”
One by one they said their name and the phrase, “No one likes me.” It didn’t take long for the story to come to me. I couldn’t help myself. Laughing, I said, “My name is Nancy and none of you likes me and we all lived happily ever after.”
What I said was ridiculous. Maybe that’s why they laughed, as hard as they’d been fighting. Laughter is contagious and it took a while for everyone to stop.
Much to my astonishment, Elora asked, “You gonna come back?”
I didn’t really have a choice but I said, “I will if you want me to.”
“Yeah,” said James. “You tell good stories.” They thought this was hysterical and started giggling.
I had no idea when the attendant would come to let me out. I had no idea what to do next. The small boy, Eric, looked around the group and then at me. “Could you tell us a story?”
James, seemingly the spokesman for the group, said, “We don’t want to hear a “happily ever story, do we?”
The group shouted, “No!”
“Okay. No happily ever after. What about a story I make up?” This seemed acceptable. Having no story in my head, I stalled for time by beginning: “Once upon a time, long ago, in a place far away, there lived a group of children.” As I started to describe the characters in the story, how they lived, what they wanted, the children drew closer to me. I spoke slowly, having to image the story in my mind’s eye.
When the attendant opened the door, she found us in a small circle, nestled like puppies, the kids listening to me tell the story I was making up as I went along. I told them I had to go, but I’d be back to finish the story. I felt like Scheherazade.
Have you ever walked into a terrifying situation and had to deal with your fear? If so, what did you do?
Stories inspired by world tales to challenge and comfort.