As the new school year dawned in Toronto this morning, thousands of kids awoke with ‘feelings’! Some felt excited and happy and some… not so much.

In my first storytelling class, two kids wept uncontrollably, hiccuping with heart wrenching sobs as they tried to come to grips with their new reality. The classroom teacher told me that both were new english speakers (today being their first day) and one had even been christened for the occasion by her parents, with a new english name. Unfortunately, the little girl couldn’t remember it and didn’t know who the teachers were addressing when calling her.

Having experienced this first day of school upheaval regularly for the past several years, I carried on as usual, telling three stories for 30 minutes straight. I spoke loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the two tiny breaking hearts, but not so loud as to add to the chaotic caterwauling. The steady rhythm of a human voice speaking the words of a traditional narrative, can sometimes quiet even the saddest of souls. The little boy stopped crying by the second story, dabbing his leaking eyes with a tissue until I paused to begin the last story. In that brief moment of silence, the flood gates burst open again and he had to be comforted by the teaching assistant.

Aside from these two, the others students fell head first into all three stories. The first story, a classic voyage and return type (ideal for the weepers) was the Greek myth of, Demeter and Persephone. Kids of all ages love this story and remember it ten months later, when are asked recall their favourite stories from the year. This story always makes the top ten list in June.

In the story, Persephone is stolen away to the land of the dead by Hades, but is eventually reunited with her mother Demeter. While she is away, her mother the goddess of the harvest mourns her absence by causing autumn and winter to occur, but celebrates her daughter’s annual return with spring and summer. The second and third stories were both, rebirth stories. Ideally, school acts as a transformational journey, resulting in a rebirth (from unknowing to knowing).  The second story, The Wrestling Girl, a pourquoi tale from West Africa tells how the leopard got its spots, the elephant got its tusks and the snail got its spit. It also explains why  hugs from a loved one can dry up tears, (another good one for my two weepers). The last story, another Greek myth, Atalanta and the Footrace, tells the adventures of an abandoned princess, who is raised by bears, trained as an athlete who wins every footrace until beguiled by divine golden apples.

Classic tales like these may seem too sophisticated for young listeners, but they are not. Stories and storytelling attracts all ages, but are powerfully enticing to very young listeners who are acquiring language, developing listening skills, learning social and emotional skills, developing virtues and positive character traits, learning about culture and cultural identity, developing creativity and imaginations, problem solving and improving communication skills. Stories are amazing!

The power of stories can even take on the challenges of the first day of school, making the day memorable and meaningful. I hope my two little newbies will be able to find their footing soon.

Happy Storytelling!

Cheryl Thornton