…stories are always important. Even in an age of communication overload.
In fact, perhaps they are even more important now- the ones that mean something that is. The ones that are not manufactured- squeezed through the entertainment machine, shrink wrapped. We can recognise all the big-brother-X-Factor-Britain’s-got-talent stuff for what it is- mindless twaddle to inoculate our Saturday nights. But then along comes Susan Boyle, and we all scramble to share the story.
Our stories say so much about who we are, who we wish we might become, and what we value along the way. I suppose this was always true- the stories collected by Hans Christian Anderson were the same. They come to define us- they unite us in a common understanding of the world.
There is a way of understanding stories as underlying narratives that shape our culture and our humanity. So we are who we are because of the story that we were born into, and we find ourselves acting as characters within this story. The degree to which any of us change this narrative according to our own choices is a matter for debate.
But enough of all this, time to tell a story. It is ‘true’- in the sense that it is based on something true, but not in the sense that it is absolutely accurate. That is not the purpose of stories. Neither are they meant to steal from the people who are contained within them. The characters in this story are free-
There was a school in a small town near where I live. It was an ordinary school, full of an ordinary mix of young people learning how to be old people. It was full of chatter and laughter and the bubbling of stewing humanity.
For some, the place was a stage on which they acted, reciting lines with growing confidence.
For others, it was a dark forest full of dangers. Each corridor a mass of thorns. The school yard belonged to wild animals hunting in packs.
And in this ordinary school, the teachers, with the best of intentions, decided to hold a talent show. Notices were posted, names gathered, egos bristled and the stage was prepared for great things.
So it was that on the appointed day, the show began. The recreation hall was full, and although most kids learn cynicism and scorn much more readily than algebra, it was a welcome break from the classroom and so there was an excited buzz in the air.
Violins screeched. Chanters howled. Dancers of a variety of shapes and sizes danced. Some had far too much confidence for their levels of ability, some were entirely the other way round. All had this in common- they were backed by their supportive group- they represented their ‘tribe’. They each represented a constituency.
Apart from one.
She was not well known, and not understood at all. She managed to always be at the edge of things, unnoticed. Her school work was always completed, and averagely correct. Her school uniform was standard, if never stylish. Her hair was pump-water straight, and she wore heavy glasses as if to complete a disguise.
So it was, when she stood at the edge of the stage, there was a gasp, then some giggles. Unkindness is such common currency.
A perspiring deputy head teacher, also looking strangely bemused, stepped up to the microphone. “Ahem…” he said “Please put your hands together for Alice Smith, who is going to sing ‘Take me home country roads‘.”
The sniggering grew louder. Like the release of a gas valve, the whispers spread. What was she going to sing? Did she not know any decent songs? Who does she think she is anyway? Look at those shoes/that hair/the state of her.
But the teacher was not done “Alice has asked me to say that this song was the favourite song of her late father (ahem) who sadly (ahem) passed away a few weeks ago.”
The whispers ceased and silence opened like a cave as someone cued a crackly backing track.
I would like to tell you that Alice sang like a cross between an angel and a rock star, but this was not so. Her voice wavered in an out of the sound mix as her shaking hand moved the microphone around. She was for the most part in tune, but sang with a thin reedy voice.
Somewhere into the first chorus, her throat closed itself off into a sob. She tried to keep going, but the words came out in bursts and gasps, until she could sing no more. The backing track played on, and the hall was frozen mid breath.
Then in the middle of the audience, a girl stood up and started to sing.
Another girl joined her- then a boy. Then another and another. Eventually the whole room was full of children singing ‘Take me home, country roads, to the place where I belong, West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads…’ The saccharine sweetness of the words took on Shakespearean grandeur.
Something happened in that room. Many were openly weeping.
And God smiled a wide smile.