A Personal Encounter With the Power of Storytelling

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It was my first week on the job as a counselor at Boys Town, Neb.--the famous "city of little men" just west of Omaha, founded by Father Flanagan. After a few encounters with particularly tough and rebellious boys, I thought that first week might be my last. But storytelling came to my rescue.

I had been seeking that job for a couple of years. Ever since my father took my brother and me to Boys Town for a tour, I was really fascinated with this unique community and wanted to work there. Since I wasn't Catholic, it took the administrators quite a while to check me out to their satisfaction. It wasn't just a matter of obtaining a reference from my parish priest. I didn't have one. But finally the call came. I had been accepted for the job and was to report in at the Boys Town administration building in two weeks.

So, at age 23, I was a working counselor at Boys Town. But I quickly discovered that certain particularly "difficult" boys (there's no such thing as a bad boy) were not about to accept authority from this young, new counselor. Most of my charges, ages 9 to 15, were great kids. But considering that about half of them were referred to Boys Town from juvenile courts around the country, it's not surprising that a number of them were serious problem kids.

Before my new dream job was quickly and totally destroyed, I came across a technique that worked amazingly well. I was assigned to a large, two-story residence building called Gregory Hall. It contained four dormitory rooms, each accommodating beds for 25 boys. In the center of the building was a counselor's office, equipped with a communications system. The counselors could hear what was going on in each dormitory, or they could speak to any or all dormitories via a speaker system.

Bedtime was the most difficult time for counselors, particularly young new counselors. The boys never wanted to settle down at the designated time. This seemed to be their favorite time for loud, disruptive behavior. I decided to try an experiment. At the time when all boys were supposed to be in their beds and settling down for a night's sleep, I would tell them stories through the speaker system, piped into all four dormitories. I picked particularly action-filled and suspenseful stories.

The idea worked. The other two counselors in the building, who checked the dormitories while I told stories, reported the kids were very quiet during the storytelling periods. They apparently didn't want to miss any part of a suspenseful tale. The type of story that captivated their attention most was mystery or puzzle stories--those where the listener had to come up with the right solution or answer.

This became something of a status thing for my young charges. Boys would take great pride in being the first to provide the correct solution. I then offered a small prize for the first boy who would give me the right answer the following morning when the youngsters were lined up for breakfast. At times, it became a yelling match to see who would be first to offer a possible solution.

The primary objective of getting the boys to settle down in their beds and be quiet worked like a charm. They liked the stories and wanted to have a chance to win the prize the next morning, so they very quietly listened to every word. In some cases, they dropped off to sleep while lying still and listening. And that was fine with the counselors.

The evening storytelling sessions were so successful I later started a newsletter for the building. Stories, of course, were a key element in each publication, and the most popular. I became known to the boys as "Jim the Storyteller." I doubt that I would have survived the first week or two without the help and power of the age-old practice of storytelling.

Subsequently, I found other valuable uses for storytelling while at Boys Town. It became an effective method of helping kids who were having trouble at school. It motivated them to read more, and expanded their vocabulary, among other benefits. In one case, it may well have deterred a 13-year-old from carrying out his threat to end his life.

Since leaving Boys Town, I have raised four of my own kids and have been active in volunteer youth work. Storytelling has been an important and constructive element in all aspects of my life. And I now present storytelling programs professionally, while continuing with volunteer youth work.

I hope others, particularly educators, will be inspired to use this communications art form when working with and helping kids. I've seen, firsthand, the positive results of such usage, and would like to see more kids benefit from it.

Jim Woodard is a professional storyteller and writer. He has presented hundreds of storytelling programs for youth and adult audiences and is the featured storyteller at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The Storyteller Web site provides further information about Jim Woodward.

Vol. 18, Issue 13, Page 27

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as A Personal Encounter With the Power of Storytelling
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