The university honors students walked into my classroom looking as stressed and anxious as if they were going to the funeral of a friend. None of their usual talking and wisecracking. I watched as they sat in the circle of chairs, wondering what was wrong. When everyone was seated, I told them, “Take out your paints and paint an image of ‘myself at this moment.’ Then write a few words that come to mind.”
When everyone had finished, I asked the class to hold up their papers so they could see each other’s’ images. There was a collective gasp. In every person’s painting there was a black blob, some larger than others—all prominent. They’d written words like: stress, fear, nervous, anxious, failure, hopeless, no use . . .
“Anyone want to talk about the black blobs?” I asked.
Obviously upset, a student explained. “We have organic chem after this class and Dr. B’s tests are really difficult. We’re all afraid of failing.” There were nods of agreement, many offering stories about how hard they’d studied, how worried they were. The tension in the class was palpable.
I scrapped the plans I’d made for the session, realizing they needed an activity that would help them relax, and perhaps take their minds off the upcoming exam. I told them the story, “Who’s in Rabbit’s House?” It’s about Rabbit finding an intruder in his house who sounds extremely powerful. They listened intently and smiled at the ending, but their misery was all too evident.
“Okay,” I said. “I want you to pair up. One person will be Rabbit who comes upon a character. You decide who you want to be. Rabbit tells the listener what happened without worrying about facts. Exaggerate. Make the story as large as possible. Become the brave warrior. When Rabbit is finished, change places. The listener becomes Rabbit, Rabbit, the listener. When you’re finished sit so I’ll know when everyone is ready to share.”
It took a few minutes for the group to get going but soon the room was buzzing. Characters were telling stories with gestures, sounds of animals roaring, worrying, making excuses, laughing. The tension was definitely dissolving.
The first pair up involved a Rabbit who not only ate elephants as snacks, but nibbled on boa constrictors, wrestled with tigers, and stridently went into her house, found a huge snail and quickly tossed it out. “That’s how powerful I am,” she said, grinning. Her partner, as Rabbit, told the story of how Tiger, Lion, and Jackal offered to help but she, Rabbit, told them she didn’t need any of their help, that she was so strong and fearsome, all she had to do was out yell the creature, stride in, and kick it out.
The tales got more and more outrageous as each pair tried to outdo those who came before them. By the time the last pair finished, the students could not stop laughing.
I told them to paint an image of ‘myself at this moment,’ and to write words that came to mind. After they finished, I asked them to hold up their images. In some, the black blob had gone, in others, it was much smaller. No one’s second blob was as big as the first. Everyone had used brighter colors. Some of their words were: fun, laughter, silly, ridiculous . . .
They left class in a far different state of mind. Once again I was reminded: never underestimate the power of story. It can even dissolve black blobs.
What do you do to release tension?
Stories inspired by world tales to challenge and comfort.