It’s been a while since I’ve been around kids. The youngest of my three children, my daughter Hannah, graduated college a couple of years ago, and has started a career while seeking out her Master’s degree in Public Health. My middle child, Nick, started a year-long contract to teach English in South Korea about three or four weeks ago. My oldest, Jon, recently celebrated his 32nd birthday, and is working in the corporate world and living in downtown Chicago. I am immensely proud of each of them.
My wife and I have settled comfortably in to the roles of empty nesters. My daughter began college in 2012, so we are coming up on six years since any of our kids have lived at home. However long it has or hasn’t been, it’s been long enough for us to get used to the open spaces that now occupy so much of our house and the blissful peace and quiet that’s replaced the chaos and the sound and fury that once accompanied the presence of three teenagers living under the same roof at the same time. While many times we look back with fondness and affection to our days as younger parents, more common are the times we blissfully go about our lives as a late middle-aged couple (or is it as an early senior-aged couple?)
A couple of months ago, I received an e-mail from a woman named Kathy Whiteside, who was looking for a local writer to help her Girl Scouts troop achieve a “screenwriting” badge. Looking through the materials, it was clear that the intent was to introduce the girls to story-telling concepts and fundamentals than screenwriting specifically, so I was confident that I could help facilitate the session, even though I know nothing about screenwriting.
I was less confident in my ability to get across to kids concepts like character development, rising action, conflict, and protagonists and antagonists. It’d been so long since I coached Nick’s softball and basketball teams, so long since I’d been around kids in any capacity, that I wasn’t sure if I could reach them. It didn’t help that some professional teacher acquaintances had painted a pretty bleak picture of today’s youth. Short attention spans, feelings of entitlement, and the lacking of rudimentary skills were more the norm than the exception.
So it was that I took my seat in the middle of nine 6th to 8th grade girls with a bit of apprehension. I started by telling them that I am a writer, and the thing I love most about writing is that there are no rules you have to obey; that when I write, I’m free to write whatever I want to write about. At first, I wasn’t sure they were listening, but when I asked them questions about what their favorite books or movies were, about the difference between books and movies, they all had opinions and were thoughtful and engaged. They’d all read most if not all of the Harry Potter books.
Kathy and I took them through several exercises, with the goal of having a collaborative, group written outline of a story by the end of our two hours together. We started out with each girl creating a character and assigning attributes like favorite foods (tacos are apparently very popular these days in this demographic), colors, etc. I was surprised when three of the girls wanted their characters to be animals (a couple of cats and a pig, although the girl who wanted her character to be a pig later changed her mind).
Then we had to create a villain, and they quickly decided upon a mean bully need Nate. Whether Nate is based on a real person or someone on television or in a popular movie I can only guess as I am so far out of touch with the mass culture of the pre-teen girl demographic. They showed a surprising level of sophisticated thinking when they not only described the inciting moment that would kick the plot into gear, but they also came up with a reason for Nate to push poor Romeo into a locker after school. I was surprised that they weren’t just satisfied with Nate being bad; that they felt the need to explain why he was. They also set up a scene for the climax of the story, where the group of “good friends” would meet Nate and his ”bad” friends the following night after school. But that was only the beginning – after that, things got real interesting.
The girls had to explain why there were two cats among the friends who went to school together. It turns out, that, unknown to one another, they discover that night that they are “shape shifters,” and all have the ability to transform into animals. They agree to arrive at the fight the next night all in their animal forms.
Imagine their surprise when they all show up the next night as animals only to be met by Nate and his friends, who have all also shape-shifted into animals. Stunned by the knowledge that the two groups have more things in common than they don’t, the fight is averted, and new friendships are forged.
It’s a pretty slick little story, if you ask me. Beyond that, for me, it was as much fun as I’ve had in a long time. Watching the different personalities and how they interacted brought back memories of my children at those ages, and of the softball and basketball teams I coached. The girls had all of the same pent up winter energy that my basketball teams used to have, and they laughed at the same in-jokes that only friendship can provide.
I was delighted to see that kids haven’t changed. We live in terrifying times, with ugly mean-spiritedness dominating our politics, and with a President that seems hell-bent on starting another war, whether in the Middle East or the Korean peninsula. It’s difficult not to become overwhelmed with cynicism. Being around these kids for just two hours was the antidote to what was ailing me, and restored my faith in humanity. These kids were smart and well behaved. After only a few minutes, I could see them focusing, getting into the story and feeling the rush that only creativity can bring. They collaborated beautifully, they were respectful and considerate with each other. It was obvious to me that they came from good homes.
The night also shone a light on the fact that storytelling is at the core of being human. It’s what separates us and makes us the dominant species on earth. It’s how we make sense out of the cold randomness of existence, and in these times of divisiveness and fear, it’s our only hope for bridging the gaps between us. Like in the story the girls invented, at the end, all of the shape shifters discovered that the things they had in common were greater than the differences. It’s a moral that their parents’ generation would do well to recognize.
As I drove home, it occurred to me that if we’re ever going to dig ourselves out of the mess we’ve made of this world, it’ll be by the grace of children and the art of storytelling. And there, on a cold Wednesday night in a Girl Scout meeting room in Kenosha, Wisconsin, I witnessed the intersection of these two forces of nature, and I was humbled by the profundity of the truth it revealed.