From My Mouth To Your Ears
A bi-monthly blog
by Storyteller, Judith Black (I promise that going forward they will be shorter!)
“Turn to your neighbor and when I make the sound, take turns, and each of you say your name. Now turn to another neighbor and when I make the sound, take turns saying your name with a movement. Now turn towards another partner and when I make the sound, take turns and exchange your name with a funny face. Now find another partner and when I make the sound, take turns exchanging a funny face, movement, and your name.”
And in less than 3 minutes a room of strangers, there for a memorial service, were laughing, relaxed, and interacting. That was the power of the man we came to celebrate. When most school systems were still seating children in two neat rows for an interminable 6 hours a day, Fritz Bell was a pioneer arts educator. He knew what Howard Gardner formalized when he developed his theories of multiple intelligences. All children can learn, we simply have to tease out their sense of curiosity and wonder through a learning modality that accesses their natural strengths. Thus, Fritz Bell, who authored LET’S CREATE in 1972 and reissued it in 2002* created the Walnut Hill Seminar Center as a home for teachers and other professionals who wanted to empower and educate through the arts.
27 cycles of Lesley University Graduate students won their masters degrees in Arts in Education through Fritz and his posse, a cadre of hand picked artist/educators representing not only every major art form from poetry and storytelling through movement and visual arts, but also instructors who helped their adult students acquire the theoretical knowledge to integrate these arts into required curriculums and augmentation of state standards. I was blessed to be in his ‘stable,’ and taught storytelling to over 23 of those groups.
This past summer about 100 people gathered at the Walnut Hill Seminar Center, and each one of us knew, as the love of his life sat there, tears welling in his eyes, that Fritz was not supposed to leave us. He was our shepherd into the hearts and minds of the young. He had taught all of us how to infuse teaching with life, curiosity, and joy. He was our adorable, ebullient, playful prince, who was grounded enough to create and maintain a business helping educators of all stripes do this work.
There are many folktales about death. My favorite goes something like this:
The son of the King brought joy to the land. He played his flute for the venders on market day, joined in their dances, sang for everyone like an angel and much to everyone’s delight ate heartily of the national dish, made from potatoes, ochre, and goose fat!. He was the King and Queen’s pride and joy. When he was 12 his father, the King took him out hunting. They were stealthily tracking a large beast when the king realized he could not move as quickly and silently as necessary with the less experienced boy at his side and so he instructed: “Stay right here near the mouth of this cave. Do not wander. You have your bow and arrows for protection. I will return for you shortly.”
The king was gone but 20 or 25 minutes, unsuccessful in his quest. When he got to the cave opening he saw that the beast had not suffered failure and it destroyed him. All that was left of the son he loved were some scraps of his cloths, and a body mangled almost beyond recognition.
When he gave the news to the queen it came with a proclamation that no one, absolutely no one in the community should ever again mention the boys name or partake in activities that would rekindle his memory. Flutes were put away. There was no dancing or singing. They ate the foods famed by their neighbors. You can imagine the deep pall that drew itself over the kingdom.
One day the Queen, who could stand it no longer, sent out her servants to tell the people to pick up their flutes and fill the market place with song and dance, and cook great pots of the potatoes and okra and goose fat.
The first thing that came to the king was the odor. You could see his nose picking it up. At first it’s rich earthy scent filled him with warmth, but then he remembered. Next the sounds of singing, floating on the air from market place, reached his ears, and the vibrations of the dancers beating their feet echoed through him. He thundered,
“Who dares, dares to defy my orders? They shall die.”
His queen stepped into the throne room, stood before her husband and simply said.
“Then you must tie my hands behind my back and call the hangman now. This is my doing.”
The king raged for a while, as kings are apt to do, but when he calmed and could begin to contemplate anything beyond the sorrow of his heart he asked her, “Why?”
“My darling, every day under your edict, we lived with the deadening sorrow of losing him. With this,” and she motioned towards the market place “we can remember and celebrate what he was and the joy he brought to every day of his and our lives. Only in this way can death not take him completely from us.”
And so it was from that day forward that their son and all he had been resonated throughout kingdom.
This what happened at the memorial for Fritz. Person after person spoke to how his teaching, his empowerment, had led to them integrating the arts into their curriculums.
A gym teacher spoke about how she uses movement and storytelling techniques to make children less afraid of the challenges they face in PE.
A French teacher told me about how music has enabled children with very different learning modalities to access a foreign language that would have been beyond their reach.
Another teacher working with special needs students spoke about how powerfully positive it was for her students to engage in curriculum through visual, spatial, musical, and interactive activities.
My favorite conversation was with Lindsay Pinchbeck, who went through the graduate program at Walnut Hill and started an arts center where she lives in Hope, Maine.** Initially envisioned as a place for the community to stretch their creativity, Lindsay has stretched it’s mission. She has grown the Sweetland School, a Reggio Emilia inspired, arts integrated, flexible program for students ages 5-10 years old. This coming year she will host their first cycle for those who would like to acquire an Integrated Arts in Education M.Ed. through Lesley University. As you can see, Fritz is no longer with us, but he is far far from gone.
Visit Judith at: https://storiesalive.com/index1.htm
* Let’s Create Again by Fritz Bell is available through Creative Classroom, 81 Chester Rd. Raymond, NH 03077