Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reflections on the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part II

by Jack McKeon

My first solo venture at the Youth Detention Center never really left me. It demonstrated the need for good planning, but also for being able to go where the boys were going and being willing to abandon the plan to work with what they were hearing. It showed that I couldn’t count on my expectations. Flexibility was essential.  It also indicated that I never knew what to expect.  As a result, there was always a level of anxiety before I got there.

These boys carry a lot of baggage and from day to day we never knew what kind of mood or level of energy we might find. Being there demanded an empathy I didn’t always feel. We needed to understand that much of their negative reaction had little to do with us. I had to learn to keep my self out of it. Though there was sometimes open hostility to storytelling on the part of a few (very few) boys, discipline was rarely a problem because a guard was present at all times.  Sometimes the guard would land on the boys with some vehemence and we would have to find our way back to the telling. There could be other interruptions. Boys called out of the room. Walkie-talkies crackling and vocalizing. Other guards coming in to confer.  We found out later that the boys received ”points” if they refused to attend and more points if they didn’t participate. Keep your head up. Pay attention. Sit up. Sometimes they were woken from naps to attend. When the boys left, they had to remove their jumpers and be searched lest they take some kind of contraband from the classroom. The atmosphere obviously was not ideal.  Compounding this was the fluid nature of the population. We never knew who would be there the next session. If a Tuesday plan was to carry over to Wednesday, we couldn’t be sure that the same people would be there. This also, most of the time, kept us from forming any kind of sustained relationship with them. We wouldn’t see them over a period of time long enough to develop familiarity and trust. We were always starting over again. We met in the muster room.  It was always cold.

At first we had large groups for 1 and 1/2 hours, a long time for storytelling to any group.  It’s not clear why, since it had been past policy (under Ellen Musikant) to split large groups in half for 45 minutes each, much easier to handle and a relief for all concerned.  Maybe the guards didn’t remember or were just waiting for instructions. The guards themselves were always cooperative and often contributed or actually participated in the sessions.  More often they sat and did other work, their presence meant to keep the peace. Eventually Paula requested the old practice of splitting the groups and life became easier.

In spite of all of these issues, really bad times were infrequent. Never, ever, did any of us feel threatened, however unhappy the boys might be on occasion. But things could get unpleasant. T was a boy who had been transferred from another facility for breaking a boy’s jaw.  Gerry and I first met T in September of 2016. On our way to the session we both received a message from the education supervisor warning us that this was a particularly bad group. We should be prepared. Still, the session went well enough. Gerry had brought along his dousing rod, always a good ice breaker. Sometime later, I was there with Julie P. There was what seemed to me a calculated rudeness as Julie got started but she faced it down.  When I started my story, I was interrupted repeatedly and aggressively by T. I promised to deal with his questions after my story but I couldn’t get into it.  When another boy insulted yet a third boy, I called it a day.  We were ten minutes into the session, but it was clear to me, at the time anyway, that it wasn’t going to work. Whether it was a good or bad decision, nothing like it had happened before. 
Often, there were issues going on with guards and boys that we did not know about but which had an obvious effect. One day soon after my calling the session, I was there with Julie Della Torre.  For one of the sessions we had only T. I have no idea what had happened, but someone or something had pulled the boy’s plug. He was empty of affect and response. There was no energy left in him.  We told him stories he sort of heard, showed him pictures he didn’t look at, asked him questions he could barely respond to with a shake of the head. I asked him if he wanted to talk about the questions I hadn’t answered before.  A very slight shake of the head.  He could hardly muster the energy to move his body. It was the saddest experience of my time at the DC. JDT and I were  glad to have each other to share it with.

These were the difficulties. There was much else that made it all worth it. I’ll write about that next week.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Reflections on Telling at the Morris Youth Detention Center - Part I

by Jack McKeon

            Now while the status of our work with the residents of the Morris County Juvenile Detention Center remains in limbo, I’ve been thinking about the experience the five tellers, Paula Davidoff, Julie Pasqual, Julie DellaTorre, Gerry Fierst and I, have had there. Julie P once commented that our purpose at the DC was to address aspects of the detainees’ lives that had been ignored and left to atrophy. We worked under the belief that stories have connections, that they resonate with the value of courage, honesty, empathy and a willingness to listen and cooperate with others.They are full of the dangers of temptation, isolation, violence, carelessness and of misplaced trust. They show how endurance can succeed against overwhelming odds.  In other words, they were relevant to our audience. They also provided a context to discuss other cultures and new ideas.  And they were fun.

            For me the DC was a venue way outside my usual box. It was not a comfortable place to work.  Our effectiveness was not often clear. It could be demoralizing.  In spite of this, working with the residents there was very often rewarding, sometimes exhilarating. Here are my first experiences.

            My first session was in 2012. I went in with Paula. We had nine boys for two sessions of 45 minutes each with a fifteen minute break for muster when the guards changed. The plan for the day was to tell stories about essential needs and desires and talk about them. I was telling “The Theft of Fire”.  I brought in photos of Chippewa life as an introduction.  The boys filed in, hands behind their backs.  They were sober, compliant but unenthusiastic.  I handed out the pictures.  Polite but uninterested glances.  I told my story.  Polite but minimal reaction.  We listed needs and desires on the board pretty good list, actually.  In the second session, Paula told her story.  Much the same reaction.  They understood where we were going but weren’t eager to help us get there.  We came to a halt about ten minutes before the end of the session.  I resorted to my go-to story for these occasions,  “Jack and the Beanstalk,”  also about wants and needs.  I told, they listened with some enthusiasm, and when I was done I had time for one last question, “Why did Jack need to go back for the harp?”  “For the spirit!” came back an immediate reply.  And we were done.

            This first experience took away some of the naive glow I had brought in with me, expecting more interest and energy than I found. It was a fairly typical session, a bit of a slog with flashes of insight that showed what could happen when things worked.

            My second session was with Julie Pasqual who told a story from Haiti and then began an account of her experiences in that country after the earthquake. Julie’s accounts of Haiti kept the boys fascinated and full of questions for the whole time. Wants and needs were still the theme. I didn’t tell my story. One boy, Big H, the Alpha male at the time, said at the end that he’d rather be where he was - the DC - than in Haiti. Could their interest be aroused? Could they make connections? Oh, yes.

            My third session was solo. Working alone in this venue was a particular challenge. We always felt more comfortable with someone else, someone to work with and off of and someone to share the burden with if things didn’t go as expected.  My plan was to work with The Fool, using the tarot card to discuss the nature of foolishness.  My story was  “The Golden Bird.”  Again I had twelve boys for two sessions. I told. They listened well but didn’t get it. What seems to me to be foolish behavior on the part of the hero who ignores good advice repeatedly was to them ordinary behavior. He made bad choices.  He went for the gold and ended up in jail.  What’s the big deal?  I tried to tell them. Bad teaching. I tried the tarot card.  They made a few half-hearted observations. When the time was up for the first session the guard asked me if I wanted them back.  Not seeing that I might have a choice, I said yes.  Big H, on the way out muttered a curse followed by “storytelling.”  I sat through muster in the chilly common room with the sinking feeling of being in the middle of a self-inflicted, ongoing disaster that I had to see all the way through.  When they came back we had a bit of discussion about the fox in the story that seemed to be going somewhere. Then I made a mistake and went back to my plan which was to have them write. Things screeched to a halt. Most didn’t write anything. Those who did managed a couple of sentences. Nothing to work with. Close to despair, I just started telling stories, including ones Julie and I hadn’t gotten to the last time around.  When the clock ground to 4:00, they left.  On the way out, one of them turned back with a grin and asked, “Are you coming back?”  “Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be back.”  But my heart wasn’t in it.

            I got my heart back as time went on, sometimes filled to the brim.

            To be continued...