From February 2004 through April 2005 I was Storytelling Director for Stagebridge, America’s oldest senior theatre. My job was to work with seniors who were taking stories into the inner-city schools of Oakland, California. At the time, the position was supported by a federal grant intended to support literacy programs. Though reading improvement is hard to correlate with any one thing, the researchers working with the program were able to measure a statistically significant difference between students in classes with a storyteller and those without. “We’re Not Dumb Kids” is just one of many stories from an extraordinary year.
When Jim McWilliams walked into the class, a room full of fifth graders fell silent. They knew something good was coming.
Jim was “their” storyteller. Once a month the retired lawyer came into the inner-city Oakland school to tell stories to the class. When he spoke of leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, he called them Medgar (Evers) or Martin (Luther King). They had been friends and fellow activists, not just names he read in the newspaper.
The school lay in the heart of a city pocked like a bombing target. Some neighbourhoods were so derelict they looked as if they had been abandoned, and in many ways they had been. Drugs were sold openly. Violence was so common when children talked about gang beatings or drive-by shootings they were generally not referring to television shows.
Most of the houses surrounding the school were in good repair. The streets were home to Black American families with middle-class aspirations, but many of the children in the school were from families barely scraping by or living in poverty. The hills above them were populated be comfortably middle- and upper-class white families. That kind of social disparity has high costs. The average academic ranking of the students in the school was low.
I visited the school to watch Jim in action. He started out with a short folktale, something surefire to warm up his audience. They listened, as they always did when Jim spoke, but they were listless and distracted.
Jim finished his story and looked around. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
The children answered glumly, “They’re closing our school.”
School closures were being announced regularly in the Bay Area, a curious consequence of the federal “No Child Left Behind” program that was mandating standardized tests and minimal performance standards. Schools that didn’t measure up to required standards were losing funding.
“Why are they closing your school?” Jim asked.
“Because we’re dumb kids.”
Jim was startled, but he understood after their teacher read part of a news release. It named schools being closed because they were “underperforming”. The kids knew what that meant. They were dumb.
“Are you dumb kids?” Jim asked.
“No,” they chorused.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
It hadn’t occurred to the children they could challenge the school board’s decision. As Jim talked with them and asked them questions, the gloom in the class lifted. Jim organized students to write letters to the school board. He taught them how to protest the closure of the school and their portrayal as underachievers, how to get on the speakers’ list at the next board meeting, how to stand up for themselves, how to contact media and enlist allies. (They learned the lesson well and talked him into coming with them to the board meeting and speaking on their behalf.)
The children’s eyes were shining when we left. They were sitting tall. They were afire with enthusiasm and not because they expected the school board to reverse its decision. Jim had been clear that was unlikely.
Jim had given them something more important than winning a battle to keep the school open. He had given them a new story. They were not “dumb kids”. They were smart, socially active fighters for justice.
I don’t know how long they held onto that new story. I don’t know how many lives were changed that day. I do know a room full of children learned they could refuse to be labeled.
And that is a powerful story.