When I saw her in the 6th grade classroom, I was surprised.
It was the first day after spring vacation. After eight weeks “in residence,” I thought I knew every child in the school. But there she was, an unfamiliar face in the third row.
I said, “Hi! I’m Doug. I’m the storyteller. What’s your name?”
The boy in the right front desk said, “She doesn’t speak; she’s French.”
Calling on my two semesters of college French, I said to the new girl, “Bonjour! Je m’appelle Doug.”
Framed in her shoulder-length, dark hair, her face lit up. She returned the greeting in French.
I would have added the French words for “I’m the storyteller,” but I didn’t know them. True, I’d had two semesters of French—but they were both first-semester French. I could only make a few simple statements in the present tense.
My stomach sank. I had a new student who didn’t understand a word of English—and six storytelling sessions to go. But I had been hired by this well-to-do suburban school to use storytelling as a tool to teach the subject of diversity. I wasn’t going to shirk from the added challenge of telling to a more-diverse class.
That day, I told my story largely to the French student. I exaggerated my tone of voice and used as much body language as I could. I looked at her after each line of the story to see if she understood. When she did, she rewarded me with a golden smile. When she didn’t understand, her face showed her puzzlement—and I tried again with added pantomime for her along with a new set of words for the rest of the class. When all else failed, I tried to use a French word as an additional clue for her.
Telling to the One Who Doesn’t Understand
By the third session, I appreciated what an extraordinary listener she was. Her face was a perfect mirror for my story. Now I looked at her as much as possible while I told, not just for her, but for my pleasure in a supremely alert, encouraging listener.
In this session, I got stuck making her understand a crucial part of the story. Mime failed me, as did my minuscule French vocabulary. Then I had an idea. “Would someone look that word up for me in the French dictionary?”
Silence. The teacher’s look seemed to tell me of too many demands on her, of helplessness at being saddled with this disadvantaged student so late in the year, and of resentment that I should expect her to have a special dictionary for an inconvenient, late-entering student who didn’t even speak English.
The boy in the right front desk said, “We don’t have one.” I stopped in shock, feeling the enthusiasm drain out of my body.
I had been proud of this school, which had chosen storytelling as its art form for the year and diversity as its theme. But now a breathing piece of diversity had flown across the ocean and landed in this classroom, and the school couldn’t be bothered to have a French dictionary!
The next time I showed up to tell stories, the boy in the right front desk held up a French dictionary. “Look,” he said. “I got it from the library. But it’s hard to find the words fast enough.”
I said, “Thank you. You are a good friend.”
That day, I had prepared “Jack and the Bean Tree,” an Appalachian variant of the familiar English classic “Bean Stalk” folktale.
The telling went well. All the children were with Jack and me as we explored the world in the clouds. At the end, they applauded.
Then the French girl raised her hand.
Five Words That Changed Us All
I was so surprised to see her hand go up that I didn’t say a word. She had never initiated communication with me.
I called on her. Slowly, she said several words in French, the longest phrase she had so far tried out on me. I repeated what I heard. She said it again, correcting my mispronunciation.
I hadn’t understood any of it the first time. But having spoken it, I caught the first word, “Jacques,” and wrote it on the blackboard. Trying to involve the rest of the class in my decoding process, I said aloud, ‘Like the song, ‘Frere Jacque.‘
As I said it, I recognized the last word, too. “Magique?” I asked. She nodded. This sounded like French for “magic.” I wrote “Magique” on the board.
What were the words in the middle? I said to her, “Jacques, hmmm-mm, hmmm-mm-mm, magique.” She repeated the whole phrase. It sounded to me like “et le” (“and the”) followed by an unfamiliar word that started with a “Z” sound. I wrote “et le Z” between the other two words.
She shook her head bemusedly and gestured toward the board. With my nodded permission, she went to the board, erased the “Z” and wrote “s H-a-r-i-c-o-t.”
At that moment, I thanked the stars for my interest in the folk musics of North America. One kind of music I had been drawn to was the French Louisiana style called Zydeco. Long ago, I had read that “Zydeco” was a misspelling of the first two words of an early song in that style, “Les Haricots (“The Beans...”)
Trying to hold the interest of the rest of the class, I pronounced the entire phrase aloud, “Jacque et les Haricots Magiques.”
Stories Sew Us Together
Immediately after understanding what I had just said, I spoke the English equivalent. My voice caught as I said, “Jack and the Magic Beans.” I just stood there, facing the board.
There was silence in the room behind me. It was that special silence that only falls when an entire group grasps something, all in the same instant. It took my breath away.
All at once, we understood that “Jack and the Beanstalk” is a story with a secret life in other worlds. We understood that the Appalachian “Bean Tree” shares something with people who didn’t seem to have any stories, with people in some place called France, who ‘don’t speak.’
These people, we realized together, also fear for simple heroes facing terrible giants. They somehow have magic beans in their imaginations, just like we have in ours.
We understood, deep in our bellies, how stories are stitches that hold humanity together.
I don’t know if my other lessons that year had any effect. I don’t know if the other classes in that school ever made a connection between my folktales and their lives.
But that one day, in that one class, I know that—without any intention on my part—multiculturalism actually climbed the thick-trunked vine of story and emerged, dazed and breathless, into the far-away castle of our classroom.