At the back of a class of 5-year-olds, I watched a teacher telling a story. Thirty children sat silent and still with mouths agape and eyes fixed on the storyteller. The story, like most children’s stories, held a moral. It was Big Bell and Little Bell. Here was the power of storytelling.
Most of us can remember being told stories. I remember a story about a man pulling a sword from a rock. Grandfather told stories of engineering feats that went wrong. There was a railway engine whose boiler burst as it tried to climb Lickey Incline near Birmingham and how bank engines were provided afterwards to help the climb.
Grandmother told stories involving elves, fairies, dwarves, pixies and the like. She was always keen to get me to fill in what happened next.
When I was ten years old, I hit a problem that is even greater today. We were told to read How Horatius kept the Bridge by Thomas Babington Macauley. Stirring stuff for a young lad:
‘How can a man die better
than facing fearful odds…
I read it and enjoyed it and, wondering whether there was more like it in the poetry book, I turned to the next poem. It was The Jackdaw of Rheims by Richard Harris Barham which poked fun at the church.
But the monks have their pockets all turn’d inside out;
The friars are kneeling,
And hunting, and feeling…
Not a poem that would be allowed in my religiously regulated school. I loved it, laughed out loud at parts. Then there was an enormously long poem about an Ancient Mariner, and I was entranced. Suddenly, it was the end of prep and we all went off to play.
Next day I paid for my curiosity. I could not remember the names of all the noble knights Horatius killed, nor where they came from and scored poorly in the test. I was not tested on Jackdaws and Cardinals rings nor on the nature of the Albatross. That was the evening when I realised that poetry was inspiring; one of the most important lessons of life.
Here is one of today’s educational failings. Stories are for stimulating the imagination, not for testing knowledge later. Michael Morpurgo made this point eloquently in a recent article in The Times.
The modern way is to watch a film clip on YouTube, but the presentation of words and vision together leaves no room for the imagination. A story told of a giant lets you imagine how big he is, how much taller than your Dad. Does he have a beard? Do his clothes fit or burst at the seams? Just how scary is he? The listener must use his imagination to fill in the gaps. Storytelling helps the imagination.
If you are a parent, grandparent or older sister or brother, tell the little ones a story, any story; make one up or better still, make one up together.