For the past four years, I’ve been the head mentor for an organization called Young Storytellers where I lead their script-to-stage program at an elementary school in Burbank. The program is simple enough: ten fifth grade students, chosen by their teachers, are paired with an adult mentor, and over the course of seven weeks we teach them the basics of storytelling and screenwriting. We drill into them that every good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Stories take place in a setting. They have a protagonist that wants something, a goal, but the goal is not easily achieved. Obstacles get in their way. Sometimes the obstacles are people, called antagonists. The story builds to a climax, the most exciting part of the story, and then resolves when we learn if the hero achieved his or her goal. Usually, the story conveys a lesson, either for the characters or the audience.
The culmination of the program is the Big Show. After the stories are written, we invite professional actors to perform the scripts on stage in front of their classmates, family, and friends.
While I’m proud of all the kids that participate in the program, this past Spring session had one especially memorable student. Kristian was shy. That’s not unusual. A lot of the kids are shy when we first start. But over the weeks, the kids warm up, and before long it’s hard to get them to stop talking. But Kristian was different. He was a serious kind of quiet. During the first couple weeks, he barely participated.
On week three, his mentor told me he wanted to speak to me. I sat down with him and asked him what’s up? He said he didn’t want to do the program. He didn’t want to write a story. He didn’t want to do the Big Show. He was adamant, “I wasn’t asked if I wanted to do this.” I sensed it was the Big Show that was the stumbling block. He didn’t want to be on stage. I get it. Public anything can be scary and downright terrifying for some.
I told him not think about the Big Show. We’ll figure that out later. I encouraged him with Young Storytellers mantra that “Every child has a story worth telling.” I tried to convince him that it was important that he write a story. I used phrases like “unique voice” and “original ideas, ” but it didn’t inspire him. It was tough going. “I don’t know” was the answer to every question I asked him about his ideas for a story. I’d never had a kid not finish the program, but I thought to myself he might be the first.
We have agreements in Young Storytellers that we come up with in week one. The agreements cover a range of topics that we think will make our time successful, such as don’t be late and treat other ideas with respect. It also addresses the content of our stories. We all agree that the students will write an original story. They can’t copy a story from a book, movie, or video game. We also agree not to use violence to solve problems. Characters cannot physical fight their way out of their problems.
Week 4. Kristian’s mentor asked him if he’d talked to his parents about participating in Young Storytellers. He said he told his mom he didn’t want to do it, but his mom said he had to.
By this time, most students have the logline and an outline for their story and are beginning to write their scripts. Kristian was still working on an idea. At the end of the session, he had his idea: a war story based on his favorite video game. Sigh. I decided I wasn’t going to tell him that his story was in conflict with our agreements. At least he was participating, sort of. We went around the room, and I asked on a scale of 1-10, how do you feel about your story. There were a lot of 9s, 9.9s, and a couple of 10s. Kristian said 0.
Week 5. Kristian had resigned to the fact that he was not getting out of this, so he told his mentor that he would write the story, but would not do the Big Show. Baby steps. As they worked on the script, he kept asking about page count. He wanted to know how close he was to being finished. His mentor wisely cheated the margins and format to make it appear that he had written more than he had. “See you’re already on page three. Let’s keep going!” His mentor was great. She matched his energy with the opposite energy. When he was quiet, she was encouraging. When he thought his idea was stupid, she thought it was great. Her positivity was contagious. I caught him smiling a couple of times. At the end of the session, we again went around the room. I asked the kids to tell me a color that best describes how they feel about their stories at this point. There were several reds, yellows, and blues. Kristian said black.
Week 6. Kristian and his mentor continued to work on his story. I see that he is talking more. His “I don’t know” knee-jerk answer was replaced with some “maybe this.” I let his mentor work her magic. At the end of the session, his mentor told me that he came in today with an idea that changed his story in a clever way. I got excited and thought to myself we might get a story out of him after all.
Week 7. We played a “guess the movie tagline” game. Kids vs. Adults. Kristian got the final answer correct and won the game for his classmates. I’d never seen him smile so wide. It was a major confidence boost. At the end of the session, his mentor was all smiles. “We did it. We finished the script.”
We talked as a group about the Big Show. I explained that each of them would go on stage with their mentor and answer the question, “What inspired your story?” I glanced at Kristian. He had no reaction. I couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or bad thing.
The Big Show. To be honest, I was a little nervous he wouldn’t show. A sick day maybe? But there he was, on time, with a new haircut. He dragged himself in with the look of a kid being dragged by his parents to the dentist office for a filling. His steps were slow and heavy. He collapsed in a folding chair. I decided that asking how he felt wouldn’t do any good. I knew he was nervous. He knew he was nervous. Why dwell on it?
We give the kids VIP badges to wear around their neck. It gives them exclusive access to the red carpet. And yes, we bring a red carpet. We introduce the young storytellers one at a time, and they get to strut down the red carpet to the cheers of their peers and bulb flashes of their mentors and family members taking pictures. I called Kristian’s name, and he came through the door. He offered a slight hand wave then hustled down the carpet.
I placed Kristian in the middle of the program so he wouldn’t have to go first or wait in agony until the end. The lights dimmed, and the show began. As the first story was being performed, Kristian’s teacher sat down beside me and whispered, “Did Kristian talk to you? He’s not going up on stage.” I was surprised to hear this. She went on, “He was in the principal’s office this morning. He was so stressed he was feeling sick. They made a deal that he wouldn’t have to talk and that he would watch the performance from behind the curtains.” I glanced over at Kristian, who was sitting with his mentor. “He looks fine,” I said.
Of course, I was concerned. I sneaked back and took a seat next to him. “You good?” Kristian nodded his head with the subtlety of one in deep focus. I returned to my seat next to his teacher. “I think he’s fine. Let’s see what happens.”
It came time for Kristian’s story to be performed. I watched in anticipation. He slowly climbed the stairs to the stage and took his place. Without a stumble or a hitch, soft-spoken but without a quiver in his voice, he introduced his script then took his place on stage to watch his story come to life by the actors. He nailed it.
His script was called War History, and it is a story about two brothers reading a history book about WWII. All they want is to know what happens next after the Germans attack a secret military lab. But they can’t finish the story because they have to go to school. In math class, they get caught trying to read the book and are sent to detention. Their history teacher is overseeing detention, and in a surprising reveal, the brothers realize their history teacher was in WWII. They don’t need the book. He was there! The story ends with the history teacher recounting to the boys, “There I was surrounded by German soldiers…”
At the conclusion of the performance, the audience cheered. Kristian took a short bow and made a beeline off the stage.
After the show, I told Kristian I was proud of him and I asked if he would do it again. He said no. I believed him.
We make kids do things they are scared of all the time. In our adult wisdom, we know it’s not that bad, and in the end, it will be good for them. But as we grow older, we let ourselves off the hook. We don’t have parents telling us we have to do things we’re scared to do. We take a pass.
What Kristian did was special. He stepped into a moment that terrified him, and he overcame it. In doing so, he became the hero of his own narrative. We can all learn from his example. Sometimes we have to stand up, take a deep breath, and say, “This is my story.”
Kristian and his mentor at the Big Show.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES