Mixing It Up

by Storyteller Laura Simms

 

Story Summary:

 In schools, racial violence often stems from learned bias. Listening to one another is an antidote to the gap between people and transforms bias into deep concern and creative change.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Mixing-It-Up

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever been misunderstood?  Has someone either assumed something about you or misread what you said or did?  Can you tell about that experience?
  2. What do you think happens when we know something about another person’s life that engages us with empathy or interest (especially if only moments before we had decided he or she was not a good person?)
  3. What is the difference between listening to a story and reading a story?

Resource:

  • School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School and Gender by Rami Benbenishty and Ron Avi Astor

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Laura Simms. And I got a phone call early one morning, from a junior high school principal. It was 20 years ago. And he said that there was racial tension in his school. Three gangs, battling every day in the schoolyard. “Sometimes it was extremely violent,” he said. “There were Chinese, Latino, African-American gangs. Could I tell stories? And would that somehow bring them into dialogue?”

He wanted to know exactly what I was going to do and exactly what the outcomes were. So, I said, “Well, I have no idea about the outcome; I’d have to just be there. But I do know that listening is a kind of magic.” He said he would think about it. Two days later, I was in the school.

And I entered the classroom, and it was a scene that I’m now very familiar with, there were kids sitting in three racially specific zones. Arms folded as if they had absolutely no emotions and a kind of weird, numb tension in the room. I sat in the front of the room. Nobody paid any actual attention to me but I started telling stories. And I told three stories, one after another. I told a story about growing up in Brooklyn with a Norwegian and African-American girlfriend. It was all about creativity, disobedience. I noticed that arms were kind of loosening. Then I told a West African story about girls and jealousy, power necklace. And people were leaning in. And then I told the third story, which is a story I love from Morocco. About a wild girl who has been so traumatized that she doesn’t speak and how she becomes, through her story, a queen.

And there was a moment of silence and then a Chinese boy just blurted out, “Man, I know that story about the girls is true.” I didn’t have time to ask which story. He said, “My grandmother, my grandmother had a walk across China during the revolution. She sold her only gold bracelet for a bowl of rice.”

Then a girl in the back said, “I sleep during my classes. You want to know why?”

I said, “Yeah, I do.”

And she said, “I understand those girls in the necklace story. I like that.”

I said, “Okay.”

She said that, “I have 10 brothers and sisters. My youngest brother is retarded. It’s my job to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, dress everybody, feed the youngest. When I come home, I have to do homework with all of them. I put them to bed. I’m tired. That’s why I sleep all day.”

Everybody kind of giggled but it wasn’t in criticism or making fun of her. It was some kind of a mutual understanding. I said, “Wel,l anybody else have a story? Does this remind you of anything? Did you like those stories?”

Somebody called out and said, “Hey, was that mud story true?”

I said, “99.5 percent.” And they all laughed and then they went on to tell stories. And it was the first time they had listened to each other. And it was for me, the time I realized that when you hear each other’s stories, you’re not an assumed enemy anymore. You’re a human being.

Bell rang, everybody got up. They kind of sauntered out. A couple of people touched me. Somebody shook my hand. Gave me like a fist hello/goodbye. Off they went. Second group came in. Same thing. Three zones. But then, half of the kids who’d been there earlier, wandered in and they sat on the windowsills, filled in empty seats. The three zones were not so clear anymore. I said, “What are you doing here?” You have to go to classes.”

“These teachers, man, they don’t care if we come in. We said, ‘We like that story girl, can we go back?’”

So, I had a large crowd. I chose three different stories. Again, the conversation occurred. I told stories every day to all of them for three periods, three days. After that, we began to write in small groups. They wrote about their futures, what they wanted to be. One boy at one point looked around the room. He started laughing. He said, “Hey, we mixing it up now.” And I knew what he meant.

The principal said to me, “Like how’d that happen?”

And I said, “You know, something I’ve really come to think about a lot and to say a lot? What’s really happening here is that when you listen to a story, you’re not really hearing about someone else, even if it’s your personal story. When you hear the story, you become everything you imagine. So, that distance just dissolves like a wall of sand melting.”

We were peacemaking. I never talked about the causes of their violence. I never spoke with them about the violence in the schoolyard. What we did, we shared our lives. It wasn’t a common ground of what we had in common. It was the common ground of everyone having a story, and everyone listening, and everyone beginning to want each other to have the best future possible.

Months later, I went back to the school and I was walking down the hallway and, uh, actually, no one remembered my name, but they remembered the names of characters and the stories. They would say, “Hey, Magali! Hey, mud sister!” They didn’t have to even thank me for me to know that they had uncovered inside of themselves what was always there…their joy. And by listening.

It’s true that those violent gang battles in the schoolyard lessened. And that was the beginning of my work with kids in the schools. Understanding why I was telling stories.

The Complexity of Our Street – Burying the Unspoken

by Storyteller Laura Simms

 

Story Summary:

 Issues within the same religious group or ethnicity are complex and rarely discussed. Laura grew up on a street in Brooklyn with many kinds of Jews – Orthodox, Conservative, Sephardic, cultural and so forth. As different as they were, they had one thing in common: no one talked about World War II and the Holocaust. Two young children (one from an Orthodox family and Laura from a Conservative background) find a way to memorialize the unspoken through a make believe graveyard. In doing so, they strike up an unlikely and forbidden friendship.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Complexity-of-Our-Street-Burying-the-Unspoken

Discussion Questions:

  1. As a child, what games did you play with other children?
  2. When you were growing up did you play with children from other races, gender or culture? What was the best part of getting to know others?
  3. When challenges in life and even deaths go unspoken how does that still affect the children?

Resource:

  • God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors by Menachem Z. Rosensaft and Elie Wiesel

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcription:

Hi, my name is Laura Simms. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I was born after World War II. Everyone on my street, in Brooklyn was Jewish. It was after the Holocaust, which was a huge conflagration, a genocide, the murder of millions people.

People in my neighborhood spoke seven languages, they had different customs, they wore different clothing.  There were Conservative Jews, like my family. Those were Jews who went to synagogue once in a while and on the holidays, ate Kosher food. There were Orthodox Jews. They were seriously religious. They wanted nothing to do with Hebrew. They spoke the language from their old country of Yiddish. They wore medieval clothing. I was fascinated by them. There were Reformed Jews. Those were the more political Jews. Everything had to happen in English. And then there were Sephardic Jews from the Middle Eastern countries like Spain and Greece. They, they had different languages and different food. It was very exotic.

The one thing that everyone had in common was that everyone in my neighborhood spoke Yiddish. Oh, and then there was one other thing that everyone had in common. No one spoke about the war that had just happened. But I was a child and as a child, you feel everything.

My father was the neighborhood dentist, and in the back of our house, in the kitchen, that was the place where he was responsible for making important announcements. One afternoon, coming in at lunchtime, my father said, “Lohala, we have new neighbors. Next door, there’s an Orthodox family from Poland. They have a daughter just your age. Her name is Leahala, just like your Hebrew name.” At birth, I was given my name Laura and also a Hebrew name, Leah. I got, as usual, very excited. My father, as usual, tried to dampen my excitement. I think it was something about, “Don’t get too happy. You’ll be disappointed.” But he said, of course, “Don’t get excited. She won’t be your friend. They’re Orthodox. they don’t think we’re real Jews.” Now, I accepted it, the way I accepted everything as a child. Kind of taking it in, thinking about it and somewhat forgetting about it.

Next to my house, right, actually, under my bedroom window, was a small alleyway of dirt. Nothing ever grew there. The sun didn’t shine. It was where I had my secret graveyard. I loved to bury things. I had pieces of dolls’ clothing, my mother’s single sock, an earring. I stole little plastic toys from my father’s dental office. My favorite things to bury, actually, were Chinese food and pieces of pizza that were not kosher. We had strict Jewish dietary laws. My father didn’t allow those foods but when he wasn’t home, my mother would bring it in and say, “Don’t tell your father.” So, I would bury a piece of pizza in a wax paper and then I’d cover it with dirt and put little stones on, like I’d see my parents and grandparents in the graveyard do. I would leap over it or I would throw make believe salt over my shoulders and sing pieces of Hebrew prayers. “Adon olam, asber malak.”

I had a favorite doll of all my dolls. This one was crippled on the left side, one eye hanging out, was completely bald. I dressed her in rags and sometimes even put dirt on her. Her name was Lefty Louie, strangely named for my father. I would put the doll against the wall and then I would tell stories about the history of this lost abandoned, destroyed, unwanted object that I had saved, buried, sanctified, made holy.

One afternoon, suddenly, the window from the next-door house opened. I looked up. And there was a little face. I knew who it was it was. Leahala. She held up her hand. She had a wadded sock. She threw it. I caught it. I buried it. And then, when I was covering it up with dirt, putting little stones around it, she called out in a high-pitched voice, “Kaddosh, Kaddosh, Kaddosh.” Holy, holy, holy. We became best friends. We buried something every day. Our funerals were fabulous. But our entire friendship occurred with me on the ground and her at the window.

And Saturdays, the holy days, the Shabbats, when everybody in the neighborhood promenaded up and down our street in their best clothes, they would talk to each other politely in Yiddish, regardless of what they said about each other in their own languages at the kitchen table. And when my parents would meet Leahala’s parents, Leahala and I would look at each other, turn our backs, pretend we didn’t know each other. Our friendship was a secret. In fact, we had a secret mission; perhaps even a bit of secret to ourselves. When I looked back at it, I realized we were little priestesses; digging; burying; sanctifying; telling stories. We were burying all the dead whose stories were unspoken in our neighborhood. It wasn’t only Jews in the Holocaust. There were Christians, there were gay people, there were political activists and poets, they were gypsies, anyone considered different.

Then, we both turned 12 and our friendship just disappeared. Leahala went to Yeshiva, an all-Hebrew girls school. My mother told me that she was already betrothed to the rabbi’s son. That at her wedding, she would have her hair shaved, she would wear a wig, she would wear long sleeves in August. It’s unbelievable to me. I was obsessed with my hair. My hair hung low, long, curly down my back so I could dance to Elvis Presley and gyrate on my back porch. My skirts were getting shorter. I wasn’t devoted to religion. I gave up burying the dead. I was devoted to rock and roll.

But I grew up. I moved. Israel on the news, often. And I went back to my neighborhood. I had lived in an old farmhouse, the largest house on the street. It was gone. And there were five, three story buildings, with four families in each. My entire neighborhood had become Orthodox. It was like a shtetl, small village in eastern Europe. And the graveyard, I couldn’t find it anymore. It was buried. And I would look into the faces of people walking down the street. They never looked directly at me. After all I was not really a Jew. But I looked for Leahala. I could barely remember what she looked like.

But then one night, when the sun was going down, I was in an airport in London, about to come back home. And there were a group of religious Jews in their black medieval hats with fur and long, black coats of silk. And they were praying, rocking back and forth, facing the sun that was going down. And beside them were two African Muslim young men on prayer rugs. And I stared out the window at the sun. And it dawned on me.

That sometimes, sadly, history creates a gap that maybe, at another time, would not exist but that remains. Getting wider between the Leahala and Leah. But that place, we all pray to, regardless. And that underneath it all, my friendship with Leahala, always exists. And whenever I tell the story about her, there it is. Palpable and real. And I pray all the time that people only bury as we did. And that the constant burial of the dead from wars and racism, that should come to an end.

That Place Within Untarnished

by Storyteller Laura Simms

 

Story Summary:

 Laura befriends and, then, adopts a former child soldier from Sierra Leone. Years later, Ishmael Beah goes on to become a best-selling author. One day, while speaking on a panel together, she and her grown son hear of the genocide in Rwanda. A woman from Rwanda tells of a child who makes a difficult choice when he finds himself in the same room with the man who murdered his parents. Laura’s son, Ishmael, understands and applauds the child’s choice. He is glad the child will not have to define himself as a murderer and can keep in touch with the place within that Ishmael has once again found – the place within that is untouched by war, murderous alternatives and biases of any sort.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  That-Place-Within-Untarnished

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What surprised you the most about the story Laura and Ishmael heard about Rwanda?
  2. Do you think it is fair to have children fighting in wars?
  3. Most people want to know what are causes of war. What do you think are the causes of Peace?

Resources:

  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  •  Making Peace in Times of War by Pema Chodron
  • The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein MD
  • A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
  • The Way of Council by Jack Zimmerman

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Hi, I’m Laura Simms. In 1996, I was a facilitator at a UNICEF conference at the United Nations called Young Voices. There were 57 young people from 23 third world countries. They were there, actually, to create what later became a Children’s Bill of Rights. My very first day, I met two young boys; thin, wearing cotton shorts and T-shirts, who came from Sierra Leone, West Africa. I literally went home because it was mid-November, was snowing, they had never been in cold weather, and gave them my winter coats. The interesting thing is, of course, that years passed and I got these two boys out of the war in Africa. One of them became my son and reminded me often that first year that he would never wear a women’s winter coat again.

It was an amazing 10 days. And a lot of what happened during those 10 days was, these kids listening to each other’s stories. And these boys were so gentle, so sweet that I had met outside of UNICEF that day, who wore my coats, wrapped up, they told horrendous stories of having been child soldiers. Learning to be murderers. Believing that these murderers would take revenge on the death of their parents, who they had both seen killed, including family members and friends. A terrible civil war occurred in Sierra Leone.

So many things about Ishmael. One is that Ishmael wrote an amazing memoir. The publishers thought, well, a few people will like this but actually it became a bestseller A Long Way Gone. Twenty million copies sold. Everybody wanted to read this book. About a child’s experience in war. And Ishmael and I were invited to give a talk together (which in those years we did a lot) at a journalism school and university. And then, we were on a panel and one of the other panelists was a woman from Rwanda. Let me back up a minute, because people were always asking me how could you do this? How could you have a child who has murdered be your child, live in your house? But I’m a storyteller and I’ve been meditating for over 25 years. And I really understood, something I believed, that inside each of us there is a place that is untarnished by violence, untarnished by circumstances. And if we come back to that place, that’s the place at which we can transform. And that, basically, everybody is good. And I knew from Ishmael, at least, that he’d had enough violence to last ten lifetimes. The last thing he wanted to do was to be engaged with any conflict at all. And he was peaceful. He grew up in a traditional storytelling culture.

The woman from Rwanda. After Ishmael and I spoke, she spoke and, of course, she spoke about stories. It was her job in Rwanda, after the terrible genocide, to listen to young people’s stories. And she told a tale, true tale, that was harrowing but haunting. It was a story about a Tutsi boy who was caught in a horrible massacre. And his body along with the bodies of his family and all his neighbors were thrown into a ravine, assumed dead. And that night, he awoke under the bodies. Shocked. And made his way up out this sea…of misery and blood. He was a kid, so, what did he do? He wandered back to his house. He washed himself and he got under the sheets on his parents’ bed and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, a man came in, set his machete down next to the bed. He washed. Also seeking comfort, he climbed into the bed. He hadn’t seen the boy. But they both slept deeply and in the middle of the night seeking comfort, they rolled into each other’s arms and slept in the safety of embrace.

She described how early in the morning, the boy told her, he woke up and he was face to face with the man who had killed his family. And at first he thought, “I should kill him.” But he had enough violence and he had slept in that man’s arms as if that man was his parent. So, he got up out of the bed and wandered out into the bush, where he was eventually found and saved.

Ishmael and I listened to the story. And seated in the lobby of our hotel that night, we talked about. How it had moved us both. And Ishmael said, “That’s the place isn’t it? That, that’s that place. That untarnished place.”

And I said, “Yes, it was really remarkable to hear the story. Most people would probably say that boy should have killed that man.”

And Ishmael said, “No. If he had killed the man. He would have been a murderer as well.”

Those years, every so often, Ishmael and I would talk about that story. And then one morning, he got up, and knocked on my bedroom door. And he said, “It’s still there. It’s still there.”

And I said, “What? What is still there?”

And he said, “I know we heard that story. I know we were talking about this but I thought that place inside of me was gone. That the war had taken it away. So, but I woke up, I felt it. I felt the joy. It’s still there. That place is still there.”

I understood. He would more than survive. Which he did, going on to write the book To Marry As A Child. And for me it changed everything. I understood the goal of my story telling. That place where, regardless of race, of violence, of learned habits, of bias. That place exists in all of us. And sometimes, I weep for the world. But knowing that I can do something about it completely cheers me up.

The untarnished place. That’s true.

Sudden Story

 

Story Summary:

 This is the true story of storyteller, Laura Simms, telling a deeply traumatized boy – an ex- child soldier from Sierra Leone, West Africa – a story in a taxicab in New York City. The story within this story relieves his misery and, in the process, Laura discovers the power of the tale and the boy’s innate and potent resilience.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sudden-Story

Discussion Questions:

  1. Would you have tried to keep the young man from Sierra Leone with you?
  2. Why was a story and this particular story helpful to the young man who was about to get on a plane to go back to his war-torn country?
  3. Did you expect the ending to the story? Why was this young man able to go on to have a family, an education and career success?  How do you think he was able to rise above his experience as a child soldier?

Resources:

  •  A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
  • Folktales from Around the World by Jane Yolen
  • Website – The Children Bill of Rights, 1996 http://www.newciv.org/ncn/cbor.html

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Jewish Americans/Jewish
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

name is Laura Simms. I’m from New York and this story takes place in New York, in 1996.

I was hired by UNICEF and Norwegian Peoples Aid to be a facilitator for a conference called Young Voices. And there were 53 kids from 23 third world countries there to create a Children’s Bill of Rights. So, my job, of course, as a storyteller was to listen to stories and help kids tell stories. And I heard stories that, literally, changed my life.

So, I became really close to two boys from Sierra Leone, West Africa, who, on meeting them, their voices were gentle and sweet. They were skinny. It was snowing out and they’re wearing summer clothes. When I heard their stories, it was something else. They were ex-child soldiers. They had committed atrocities. It was an amazing experience. And one boy, Aluzin Bah, fantastically, beautiful boy asked me to keep him in New York. And I was up every night, “Could I keep him in New York? How could I send a child back to war?”

I thought about if it was 50 years ago and I was in the Holocaust and somebody brought me out and then sent me back. At any rate, UNICEF heard about this. The boy told me, “Don’t tell anybody,” but he was 15, so, he told everybody. And ha ha. So, I, um, was told, “No conditions could I keep him in New York.” Actually, both boys, I’m still very close to. And the other boy Ishmael is now my adopted son.

We were in the last day of the conference. In the morning, the kids were getting ready to get on the bus to go to JFK. And Aluzin was furious with me for not letting him stay, suddenly began to sob. But it wasn’t just sobbing, it was a kind of, almost like, an earthquake in his heart. And I begged someone at UNICEF to just let me take him to JFK on my own, in a taxicab. And, of course, he didn’t trust me. So, I was side by side with a tall, Norwegian, sort of Viking, humanitarian. So, the three of us were in the taxi. And Aluzin was crying. And I thought to myself, “If he can’t get on the plane, he can’t go back to war in this way because it would make him in danger.” So finally, when he was heaving and heaving, I just said, “Aluzin, I’ll do everything I can. Everything. To stay in touch with you, to see if I could get you out of Sierra Leone. But I have to take you back. Tell me what can I do for you now? I can’t keep you here. What can I? You can’t go on a plane, traumatized.”

And he stopped crying. And he looked at me and he said, “Tell me a story.”

It was as if every story that I knew just sort of flooded out of my body. And I was…”What do you, what do you do?”

You have like five minutes. It has to be a story that means something. And then a story just arrived up the back of my legs and I had no idea if this was appropriate or not but I thought, just go for it. And I tell this story.

It’s about a boy, a poor boy who had no money. It’s a story from Morocco. And he went to market place he saw everything in the market. He wanted everything. He couldn’t have anything. But in the middle of the market, there was a magician performing a magic act. The magician had a magic finger. Anything he touched, turned to gold. Everybody came, applauded, left. But the boy was like, Wha! The magician said, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. You like my magic.”

And the boy said, “Yeah.”

Magician said, “Do you want some gold?”

The boy said, “Yeah.”

A little mouse came by, the magician touched it, turned to gold. He said, “Here.”

The boy said, “No, I want more.”

The magician looked. There was a huge table with, with plates and brass objects he turned to gold.  He said, “Here.”

The boy said, “I want more.”

“Oh.” The magician said, “Come with me.” He took him. There was a field filled with cows. He turned all the cows to gold. “Here.”

The boy said, “No! I want more.”

The magician said, “What do you want?”

The boy said, “I want a magic finger.”

Shuli, my Viking guard, said, “Why did you tell that story?”

Honestly, I wasn’t sure I knew. But Aluzin said, “I know. Because that’s what I want.” And I knew, that if this boy survived, he would more than survive. He would live because he wanted his own life force.

We got to JFK. He got on the plane. He went back to Sierra Leone. I called him every Friday morning, as I could, until the rebels attacked and it was hard to reach him. And then I called him again.

And I’ll tell you one tiny incident more, which is so beautiful about these kids. It was one Tuesday, I called him, was actually my birthday, and, selfishly, what I really wanted to do was have a cappuccino and get back into bed. So I, with my cappuccino, did get into bed and did make the call and I wasn’t going to tell him it was my birthday. I thought how lucky I am.

And when I called and, you know, there were two phones in Freetown through Sierratel, and I would say, “Aluzin Bah.” And everybody would call out Aluzin!”

And then I would hear people calling, “Hello, hello.” Hundreds of people waiting just in case somebody might call them. And he got on the phone. He said, “Laura, how are you?”

And I blurted out, “It’s my birthday!” And Aluzin, crying and laughing, called out to hundreds of people and said, “It’s Laura’s birthday!” And in the middle of the war, all these people sang “Happy Birthday.” And I realized that it would have been the most selfish thing if I hadn’t told him and given them the opportunity for joy.

Then the story… I’ll just tell you the great thing. That Aluzin graduated from college this year. He’s working in a bank so he could bring his childhood sweetheart to Montreal, where he lives. And he’s working for the benefit of children. And to me that’s a great story.