When I was in fifth grade, my teacher was Mr. Danielson. He was a known trickster-imp among the teachers in my school. The kids with behavioral problems didn’t often end up in his classes because they wouldn’t have been helped by his style, which was to basically let us run wild, while he guided energy that into various useful channels. He was bald with bushy eyebrows and I thought he was just the king of the world.
One day, Mr. Danielson called off classes for a week. He closed the blinds so the room went dark, and he said the seven most magical words in the world: I’m going to tell you a story. Interested? Sure we were. Fifth grade is almost too cynical to want to be told stories (like a baby) but not quite there yet. It’s going to take a week to tell it to you, he said. You’ll come in every day and work on math or spelling for awhile to keep the administration happy and then I’ll tell you this story. All day. We'll stop for recess and lunch.
Here’s the catch. You can’t ever tell this story to anyone else. Not even your parents. It’s a secret. You have to make the promise or, if you don't want to, I'll write you a note and you can sit in with Mr. W's class for a week. This is a pact between me the kids who are in my class. I’ve told this story to every class for twenty years, and no one has broken their promise yet. You won’t break it either. You can talk to kids from my other years about it if you want, but no one who didn’t sit in those desks can ever know.
And he told us a story. And it took a week.
I’m not going to tell you the story. I made a promise. The promises you make when you’re ten are pretty much fairy-bound and sacrosanct. I’ll tell you it was science fiction. I’ll tell he was very good at telling it, and it never got boring or esoteric. I’ll tell you he had beautiful drawings done up as slides to go with it. I’ll tell you it was strange and sad and complicated, and I don’t remember all of it now but I remember how good he was at every bit of the spell he was casting, at establishing this magical place where the rules of life were different for a week. Where class wasn’t class and The Story was the only thing that mattered and he could insist this thing really happened, the way good storytellers always do, and we believed him.
I can’t begin to express to you the effect that week had on me, and the other students, too. We’d shared in something secret that we couldn’t even tell our parents, on point of grounding and/or death. We’d stopped the whole world for the sake of a story, and nothing had gone wrong. It was ok. In fact, the world was better because we knew that stories could matter like that, could make you keep a promise, could make the tedium of school stop out of the blue, and turn around and show you something so bright and strange and shimmering that you could hardly look at it. I’m sure many of them forgot that moment in the next year, but I never did.
I don’t even know if you could do that kind of thing now, the way public school is set up. Would parents freak, that their kids were being taught to keep secrets by a charismatic teacher? That they weren’t being taught the standardized test for a week out of the year? That something was given to the students of one teacher that wasn’t given to the others, or that there was no parental approval of the contents of the tale? I suspect all those things. I also suspect that if Mr. Danielson is still teaching, he’s still telling the story.
Several years later one of my brothers was in his class and I finally got to talk to someone about The Story. I don’t think the tale-telling aspect affected him as much as it did me, but the secret of it, the precious sacred space, the idea that we suddenly, at age ten, were part of a tradition, and had something that was ours, that no one could take away, hit him, too. How could it not? Can you imagine such a thing landing in your lonely adolescence, all unlooked for?
There’s no one moment that made me a writer. But you’d better believe this was a foundational stone. It taught me what one person, telling a story very simply, could do to a person’s heart, to their whole life.
We keep talking about publishing and ebooks and ways of communicating, how to get our stories out there, how much we fear losing the few channels we have now. And I’m worried about all that, too. But I also think about Mr. Danielson and how there are hundreds of kids who know his story and keep his secret and how special that is, how fey and lovely, and how it says to me that stories told in the dark will never stop being the very thing that people crave and need and want, stories told as if they were written and performed just for them, so that a lonely little girl could grow up to be a science fiction writer, so that a brother and sister could sit on a porch years later and open up the little secret packages buried in their hearts, and talk about the stars for awhile.
So that Mr. Danielson could create a tribe, in the midst of a difficult public school system and a rural wooded town most of us would never get out of, that is, I suppose, not so rural anymore, so that we could be a tribe, we could have that, know what it was like. To be tied together by a story and a promise. Participate in a rite. And know all that at a young enough age that we’d seek it out forever, wherever we went, because that kind of thing is the good stuff, and we get it so rarely in this world. I still seek it out. And if by the ridiculous magic of the internet someone else is reading this who listened to The Story, well, we can sit for awhile and talk about it, and share that dark classroom again, where every breath was held, waiting for the next part to begin.
As a distribution system, it’s inefficient, but spectacular.
I guess what I’m saying is: thank you, Mr. D. You are the patron saint of storytellers to me, forever and always.