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The Truth About Stories and 'Once Upon a Time'

Once upon a time is a lie. We all know that, right? It's a sure sign that a story didn't happen—certainly not the way it's about to be told. Yet, it's an enduring turn of phrase: Once upon a time first appears in Middle English, back in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It came into more common use in the 17th century, and it still works, doesn't it? Star Wars was set "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away" and Don McLean opened "American Pie" singing, "A long, long time ago, I can still remember...."

Traddles,_Micawber_and_David_from_David_Copperfield_art_by_Frank_Reynolds.jpgStories help us, in unpredictable ways sometimes, in the effort to make sense of the world and our place in it. We don't want to imagine our lives as strings of random events, so we weave the threads into story. In the opening line of Charles Dickens' David Copperfield our narrator states, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." Through other people's stories we have practice in seeing ourselves as part of a story—whether as the hero, or some other archetypal role found in fiction, fable, and myth. We're pleased that the slow-and-steady tortoise defeats the cocky hare, but if you had that kind speed and you were racing a tortoise, you might take a nap, too. And admit it: wouldn't you also open Pandora's box? Can't you see yourself flying too close to the sun like Icarus?

Once upon a time is not only about the protagonists. It frees us up to identify on some level with every character. We empathize with Harry Potter, and Hermione and Ron, but some part of us also understands the insecure way that Draco Malfoy lashes out as well. We're all Dorothy in Oz, unexpectedly wearing ruby slippers and trying to return home. But we can understand the anger we'd feel if we had to see those slippers worn by the girl who recklessly landed her house on our now dead sister. 

Once upon a time is about truth. Fiction allows us to recognize and wrestle with the range of possibilities in our lives, in our world. The product of that effort is empathy. It can serve us well in understanding not only ourselves and our loved ones, but people around the world, now and in the past.

I must have understood the significance of storytelling on some level from a very young age. Or at least, I must have felt it, even without quite understanding. But there's a more distinct memory when the power of storytelling changed my life's trajectory. It happened in my fifth grade class at Brentwood Science Magnet Elementary School, in Los Angeles. A teacher's aide handed me a collection of short stories she thought I might like. I was unfamiliar with the author, Ray Bradbury, and the book had a childish title: R is for Rocket. There was no cover: it was a hardcover copy missing its book jacket. I sat down and opened to the first story (from which the whole collection took its name), without any great expectations, and read:  

"There was this fence where we pressed our faces and felt the wind turn warm and held to the fence and forgot for a moment who we were and where we came from but dreamed of who we might be and where we might go."

If you read that sentence aloud, you might end up breathless, just like the group of teens the narrator describes. That's 45 words and no commas, so it produces the physical and emotional effect together, including the reader among those who dream of the possibilities of the future. Up until that day, my dream was to become a marine biologist and study whales and dolphins. I didn't know it at the time, but R is for Rocket was a turning point, an initiation, linking my future pursuits to reading, writing, and sharing stories.

It's been almost 40 years now since I met Ray Bradbury's characters, and about 25 years since I met Bradbury himself and told him my story. It's been more than 20 years since I began teaching, and I'm preparing to meet a hundred-something new students next month. Some of my planning is more mundane, and some is exciting as I'm learning something new in the process. Part of me wishes I could figure out the perfect book for each student I'll meet this year, and I could just hand them something that would change their lives. And part of me wishes I could simply tell them my story about stories, and that would convince them all that there are truths to be discovered in Once upon a time.

But the real truth is that my students, at 16 and 17 years old, are already on their journeys, well on their way, and my part in their story, no matter how earnestly and professionally I play that part, may be inconsequential and forgettable. That's fine, it doesn't need be about me. Ultimately, if the literature can provide the occasion for students to think deeply and learn or reaffirm something useful to know about life and society, it will have been worth the summertime hours I gave up once upon a time. 


Image: "Traddles, Micawber, and David," by Frank Reynolds (1910; public domain)

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