"Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark" by Alvin Schwartz. Creepy fantastic illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
Every Wednesday at 12:30 I read to Charlie's second grade class for thirty minutes. It's only half an hour, but I always leave story time feeling really happy. The kids just eat it up, and I like seeing all of them get so into it.
Whether it's barely whispering through a really dramatic story or doing a modern take on a classic tale (like adding "dude" to the end of every Frog & Toad dialogue) or letting the kids finish the sentence of the books they all have read at home a million times – from sad stories to funny, I really lay it on thick. When the time is up they always give me some sort of clever group cheer, and often times they intercept me with hugs as I make my way out the door, asking me if I'm coming back next week.
Except for this last Wednesday.
This last Wednesday the cheers and hugs were replaced by, well, a group – scream. This wasn't an ordinary scream, mind you. This was the sound of twenty-five or so seven-year-olds screeching in unison. A scream so earsplitting, so sustaining, so echoing, so just freaking long and loud that I walked out of Cleveland Elementary that day afraid that I was going to look back and see the principal chasing me down the sidewalk – that I would be the first story time parent to get kicked out and asked to never come back.
Let me back up just a moment to say, I love telling stories. I used to think that this was just a character flaw of being too talkative. But then I realized I usually only get really carried away in a conversation when I'm retelling a story. Even in "the real world" I started to figure out that when I'm presenting a concept or idea, no matter how corporate the setting, that everybody still loves a great tale. I can really tell when I'm in the zone when I give myself goosebumps or even feel a little tears just barely starting to accumulate in the back of my eyeballs.
Then when I had my kids, bedtime reading (which frankly, can become mundane really fast, especially when you have to read the same book over and over again) flew by when I really let myself get carried away in the nuances of the story. And of course, the best part of telling stories, from the bedroom to the boardroom, is when your audience is entranced, hanging on every word and transported into this other reality that you are creating.
Now, secretly, this kind of lavish gratitude fulfills I know the creative professional need in me for constant affirmation and love of my "work." Since I recently made the leap from the advertising world to my own business, the client conversations have been more of the one-on-one variety (at least in the short term) and the big board room unveils (think Mad Men) aren't a weekly thing. So I kind of think the seven-year-olds of Charlie's class are in some way serving as a stop-gap audience for me as of late – better yet, one that is guaranteed to be receptive and responsive. Only, their feedback isn't nods or claps but giggles and big-eyes and belly laughs.
You know, except for this last time.
So last Wednesday was the last storytime before an extended fall break, and Halloween, for the class. So of course I had to read them some scary stories! I'm always rushing around right before I have to leave for the school, tearing myself away from my laptop, gathering up the books for that day – but this time I was trying to hunt down Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, an all-time favorite since I was a kid.
But my three-year old has become obsessed with looking at all the creepy ink and watercolor drawings that made that book so enduringly popular. "Scary bat." "Scary house." "Scary arm." "Scary zombie." That's how he "reads" the book to himself. Honestly, if the illustrations of Stephen Gammell weren't black and white they would be downright gory.
So of course, I couldn't find the book. (We found it later crammed under the bed next to an old baggie of Honey Combs and the one missing can't-live-without-it dragon from his collection of like fifteen dragons.) But at the time I was running late, so I made due with a bunch of more "cutesy" Halloween books that I quickly stuffed in my book bag, you know with cheery orange and black age-appropriate illustrations of silly ghosts and sweet witches and little pumpkins who dream of being plucked from the pumpkin patch and transformed into smiling magical jack-o-lanterns. Sigh. They would just have to do in a pinch.
So fast forward to me sitting in the storytelling rocking chair with all the kids sitting crisscross applesauce (that's what they call it now) on the storytelling rug all around me. I've already gone through the silly ghost book, the sweet witch book and am wrapping up the book about the little longing-filled and last-to-be-picked pumpkin who finally gets her wish and is whisked away from the pumpkin patch (to get her face hacked up, but whatever, they don't spin it that way) and "ta da," happy endings for all.
But dang! It's Halloween time. Come on! That is not going to cut it. I could tell some of them were a little disappointed because I had hinted the week prior that I'd be bringing the infamous Scary Stories book. Plus, I still had ten minutes left on my time slot. I couldn't stand it.
I told them that I could maybe remember one of the Scary Stories by heart. It is a tale called The Big Toe. The room got all hushed in anticipation. Some of those kids were downright drooling. A few of them silently mouthed the title to themselves. "the. big. toe."
And to make a big toe story short, I take them through the tale of a boy on a hill with a hoe who finds a big toe, brings it home for dinner, and after going to bed that night is haunted by a visitor. A visitor unseen, but definitely heard, who gets increasingly insistent with a very simple but repetitive inquiry – from front porch to staircase to breathing right above the blanket covered head of the terrified boy – "wheeeeeere's my big toooooe?"
I do admit I embellished a little bit, from the boy's mom grating the yellowed toenail into the evening's stew as seasoning, to describing how when the boy hid under the blanket, his own breath all hot and stifling, makes the blanket billow outward – that is, until the breath of his hovering visitor makes the blanket start indenting inward instead. Oh yeah, you could see the psychology of that tidbit really sinking into their super-absorbent grey matter.
So then I get to the part at the end where you're supposed to wheeze one last "wherrrrre's myyyy biiiigggg toooooeeee?" Then you grab the foot or toe of a kid that's closest to you and shout "you have it!" I probably should have taken a cue from my audience, that the suspense building around the foot of my rocking chair in the middle of a sunny afternoon, though ominously silent, was literally about to drive these kids to madness. And the classic campfire startle-grab ending? Maybe not such a good idea.
Some indicators that my audience was about to come unhinged:
1. several of the girls were all trying to stretch a single cardigan to cover them all like a makeshift tent-slash-canopy, like a shield between my words and their vulnerable little heads
2. several of the boys had literally started creating a silent pyramid, one crawling over another like crabs on a beach trying to keep their pinchers out of the tide
3. a couple of the children had simply removed themselves from the storytime rug, retreating to the back corner of the room
In hindsight I should have just had a funny, anti-climatic ending. Like a cute joke. "Where's my big tooooooe? Oh wait. I have an extra one in my pocket, dude. No worries."
But nope, I grabbed the toe of the little girl closest to me, and trying not to be too disruptive or loud (I mean, sheesh, we are in the middle of a learning establishment in progress here) I sort of faux-shouted at a medium volume – "YOU HAVE IT!"
And then they all went batsh*t crazy.
I have to say, it was probably one of my best storytelling experiences of all time. For about two seconds I was grinning from ear-to-ear. I know I get this from our dad, who could send any sleepover or slumber party into screaming hilarious terrifying hysterics within two minutes of lights-out.
For that one moment it was awesome. Then came the part where the scream didn't stop. I think it had to be a good thirty seconds. The teacher literally had to peel the kids off the ceiling. I had to quickly find a way to console one of the boys who (yes, you can boo me, now) started crying a little. I got him to tell me about his Halloween costume and he quickly dried up and started smiling, okay?
Then I asked one of the other boys who had retreated to the corner (I thought out of fear) to tell me about his Halloween costume, too, and then he informed the entire class that his family doesn't celebrate Halloween. Ack! I high-fived him on the way out the door and said "here's to fall! like leaves and stuff!" Double ack! But surprisingly he also smiled. Dang. This was like total spin control here.
Then I just embarrassedly made my exit, promising the teacher that I'd go back to peaceful, slow, Frog & Toad next week – "dude. croak. yeah, dude." I stepped out into the hallway, my cheeks burning and closed the door on a still-buzzing class that was never in a million years going to be able to focus on the afternoon assignments. I mean I'm supposed to be a teacher's helper, right? Not a riot inciter!
Then I realized how incredibly quiet the hallway of this school was, and knew that every single class in that old-fashioned 1930's schoolhouse heard the infamous scream. I think the class across the hall was actually testing – you know, the one with the open door and all? Man, I hitched my book bag up on my shoulder, and freaking high-tailed it out of there.
I seriously couldn't concentrate the rest of the day. Public school is strict you guys! I actually thought I was going to get a phone call any minute from the principal or the teacher or both, like on speaker phone, disinviting me to ever step foot on campus again! I was so wigged out about it, I even tried to ply info out of Charlie that evening after school. He's the one that helpfully told me (with a cringe) that the fourth graders had been testing across the hall. "Thanks a lot, Charlie. I feel soooo much better."
So, I just ended up sending a note of apology to Charlie's teacher in his backpack the next day. She sent me a nice note back, saying all was good, the children loved the story and that the boy who had started to cry was just really sensitive – to loud noises.
Or at least that was her story. I'm going along with it just to get over it. But if the school institutes a screening process for parent volunteer readers from this day forth I won't be surprised. A smidge proud, though? Yeah, probably. I do hate getting in trouble. It's just a hold-over from my school days. But that scream? As a storyteller – I think it was worth it.