When I was a child my mother used to read bible stories to me, and I was especially drawn to the tale of Joseph and to the stores about the young shepherd David. I discovered Tolstoy’s Stories and Legends on my parents’ book shelves when I was a teen, and those stories have stayed with me throughout my life. And as a seventeen year old, I read the Odyssey for the first time. Both the Odyssey itself and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation made an enormous impression on me. I continued to read and study the Odyssey for decades.
When I became a teacher, and when I became a parent, telling stories came naturally to me. I didn’t think of it as “performing,” just an ordinary part of being a teacher or father. At Princeton Friends School, where I taught for 29 years, storytelling was an important part of school life. A high point each year was Storytelling Week, during which students learned stories and performed them. We also enjoyed performances from visiting storytellers and from our “in-house” storytellers, including myself. I learned a lot from helping young people prepare their stories, and from listening to the many gifted professionals who performed for us.
Five times during my years at PFS I told the Odyssey to the school over the course of a year. As a storyteller, not reading from a book, and not performing a memorized script. This was an amazing experience for me; I spent part of each summer preparing for the presentation, and many hours preparing each of the 24 books in turn during the school year. There were always several introductory talks, to bring the students into the world of the Odyssey, and usually some extra classes for our oldest students. When possible, I found ways to involve the students in my telling—for example a siren song I wrote and that three students performed during Book XII. I learned so much from my study and preparation, from my performances, and from students’ comments and questions!
Though I started out telling stories mainly to children, eventually I began to perform for adult audiences in some settings. Several years in a storytelling circle gave me the opportunity to learn from other adult tellers, and to perform for them. Dance camps and dance weeks also gave me a chance to perform for adults or for families. I even managed to sneak a few stories into our faculty meetings at school!
Here are a few other stories that have been favorites of mine to perform:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by an anonymous 14th century poet.
“What Men Live By,” Tolstoy’s retelling of a Russian folk tale.
“The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear,” a folk tale from the Grimm Brothers.
“The First Shlemiel” by Isaac Bashevis Singer.
“The Red Pumpkin,” a folk tale from Bangladesh.
“King Solomon’s Ring,” a legend retold by Judith Ish-Kishor.
“Frog and Tiger,” a folk tale from China.
“The Cow-Tail Switch,” a folk tale from West Africa.
In addition there are several stories I’ve developed over the years, some personal stories from my own life experience, some relating to topics in math or science. Some of my personal stories are brief ones that I would tell in math class, like “Gathering Firewood,” about a survival hike in the Boy Scouts. It nicely illustrated doubling and iteration. “Getting Lost in 4th Grade” is a longer story from my life; students seemed to be fascinated picturing me as a brave but confused youngster. “RAF the Oblivious,” a collection of incidents from life (some slightly exaggerated) was a big hit with an adult audience at Christmas Country Dance School in Berea, Kentucky. It kept my audience laughing non-stop and made me feel like a stand-up comic rather than a storyteller!
Probably my most successful math story has been “Infinity Hotel,” my version of the Grand Hotel story by the mathematician David Hilbert. I told it for many years to my third grade math classes, and it’s a testament to the power of story, that every year, every single student listened intently, and every year, every single third grader was eager to write down their version of the story after hearing it once. I did often share “Infinity Hotel: Parts Two and Three,” and sure enough, one year a student asked, “Richard, are there an infinite number of parts?”
Another one that has connected with young audiences is my story of Isaac Newton’s life. I included the difficulties of his childhood, his discovery that the moon is falling to the earth but not getting any closer (and how he explained it), and a wonderful episode from his old age. Another great treat for me was preparing and performing a long story inspired by Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. This story ranged from an ancient Babylonian clay tablet, through Euclid, Diophantus and Fermat, to the 20th century, with the twists and turns that led to Wiles’ final triumph. I ended the story with a supposed counter-example from an episode of “The Simpsons,” an ending that allowed for some surprising audience participation from students.
Stories have been such an important part of my life, that it’s a boon to be able to share stories with others. And though I am the “performer,” I feel it’s the story that touches the audience. I also feel (if I’ve chosen the right story for the right moment) that the audience and the teller together make the story come alive.