Selma, Alabama—I am in a school gymnasium, staring at bleachers filled with kids. I have no idea why I’m here.
I don’t know why 140 students are staring at me. I don’t know why I have a microphone in my hand. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.
I have spoken in a lot of schools in my time. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it feels like having your soul sucked from your body.
Nevertheless, I am trying to deliver tales the best I can to these kids who are smarter than I am. But I’m struggling.
A few months ago, I told stories in a school in Lower Alabama. The children gathered into the gymnasium and stared at me for sixty minutes while I spoke. Not single child even blinked—not even when I told my top-shelf jokes.
But there was a little boy in the front row who listened with both ears. And I’ll never forget him. He laughed at everything I said. Even things that weren’t funny.
He was 8 years old. He wore hunting boots, blue jeans, and a stained T-shirt. And even though I was a flop that day, he clapped like we were at Carnegie Hall.
When storytime was over, I wanted to hide beneath a rock and only come out for Christmas dinner. But before I could leave the gymnasium, the kid came galloping toward me.
“Hey!” he said. “I wanna shake your hand, man!”
His hand was clammy, he was missing two front teeth, and he was as cute as a duck in a hat.
He said, “How do I be a storyteller guy like you? Is it hard to learn? I wanna do what you do.”
The truth is, I don’t actually know how to tell stories, I just pretend to. Furthermore, I don’t know why anyone would listen to them.
I said, “I’m really not the guy to ask, Chief, I’m not all that good.”
“What?” he said. “You were AWESOME! I wanna be a storyteller just like you when I’m old like you. Do you think I can be a storyteller one day?”
I didn’t know how to answer. After all, my career path hasn’t exactly been what you’d call a “path.” It’s been more like a career dog-paddle.
“You don’t wanna be a storyteller,” I said.
The kid said, “I really do.”
And this humbled me. Not just because he was asking questions I couldn’t answer, but because I have no children. And I’ve never met a child who wanted to grow up to be me.
“Oh, it’s very complicated,” I said. “To be a storyteller, first you gotta be sworn in.”
“How do I do that?”
I squatted onto my heels. “Well, you have to REALLY be sure you wanna be a storyteller. It’s not all that fun sometimes, you know.”
“Nope. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes, you end up speaking in gymnasiums full of kids who refuse to laugh even if the gymnasium is pumped full of deadly amounts of nitrous oxide.”
“What’s nitramus ox…”
“The point is, Chief, you’re a smart kid, you don’t wanna be like me.”
“But…” I went on. “If you’re mind’s really set on it, I can swear you in.”
I looked him over. I straightened his collar. I told him to hold up his right hand. I cleared my throat.
“Do you solemnly swear,” I began, “to tell all sorts of stories about anything and everything, even dumb things?”
“Chief,” I whispered. “You have to say ‘I do.’”
“And do you vow to memorize as many one-liner jokes as your memory will allow without violating the standards of the Southern Baptist Convention?”
“Just say ‘I do.’”
“And, do you hereby swear to fulfill your duty toward mankind and use your stories for truth, justice, and the American Way?”
“Congratulations, Chief, you are a storyteller.”
To seal the deal, I gave him a guitar pick that was in my pocket.
“What do I do now?” he whispered.
“Don’t worry, it’ll come to you.”
A teacher guided him out of the gymnasium. He flashed one more gap-toothed smile and he was gone.
One teacher said to me, “That’s the most excited we’ve seen him all year.
“He’s been through a lot. He lost his parents in an accident, and he’s just sorta bouncing between relatives, it’s enough to break your heart.”
I watched him walk down the hallway, holding the hand of his teacher, staring at a guitar pick some fool gave him.
I never thought I’d be doing what I do. For most of my life, I’ve been a faceless blue collar who had no business opening his mouth in public.
I don’t know if these kids care a thing about the things I say. And I don’t know why I’m here, holding a microphone. In fact, sometimes I don’t even know who I am.
But It’s good to have an 8-year-old buddy who seems to know.