The Power of Stories

My morning commute has recently changed: until a few weeks ago I’d spend an hour every morning crawling through Brighton traffic. A new role, working as the Education Development Trust’s Independent Schools Director, meant a move. And the move means that, for the first time in my working life, I’m able to walk to work. It’s such a bonus to have that half an hour to exercise and clear the mind before the day begins. Of course, the weather has been kind so far. I may have a different perspective in the dark and damp months of January and February. Or I may take the bus.


It was during a walk home this week that something unusual happened to me. I’m not one to give money to homeless people as a matter of course. I have in the past bought the occasional MacDonalds meal or cup of coffee for someone on the streets, but generally I do what most people do: walk on by and feel a small stab of guilt. I’m not proud of myself for doing this. But as I walked back across Christchurch Meadow, a lovely park that sits on the north bank of the Thames and divides Reading city centre and Caversham, I had an interesting experience. Interesting enough for me to have reflected on it over the last few days and to have prompted me to write about it.


I walked across the footbridge and left the path to cut across the grass. There were three people in front of me, no doubt as anxious to get home as I was. Walking towards us was a man. He attempted to stop each of the people in front of me, and each one of them ignored him. As he walked closer to me I could see that he was homeless. He couldn’t have been any more than mid twenties: it’s often hard to tell when people are dirty and underweight. I noticed that with each person he approached he became more and more stressed with their lack of interest in what he was saying to them.


And then it was my turn. ‘Excuse me mate, are you a kind person?’ His arms were open, palms upwards. A loose collection of coins in his right hand. Hair recently clipped short, several weeks of straggly beard. He looked at me.
     ‘I suppose so, yes,’ I said. What else was I to say?
     ‘Thing is, I need three quid to get to a hostel tonight.’ He showed me the coins in his hand. There was maybe ten pound’s worth. ‘I’m tired, I’m hungry and I smell, and to be honest I’m pretty desperate.’ He looked it too: there was a panicked quality in his eyes that wasn’t faked. I imagined myself in his position. How would it feel to be so desperate for something that we all take for granted.


I took out my wallet. I knew that I had no change, just a £20 note. I also knew that I was going to give this £20 note to the man.


And this is what I did. There was a moment where he was clearly not sure what had just happened. After all, it can’t be every day that someone gives him a large note so easily. He looked at the note and back at me. ‘Wow. Thank you mate. Thank you so much.’
     ‘Have a good evening,’ I said, not really knowing what else to say. He wouldn’t have a good evening, I knew that. He might have a better evening than average as he could spend it in a hostel. But not a good evening. Not by most people’s standards.


As I walked the rest of the way home I reflected on what had just happened. I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything: that £20 note wasn’t such a huge deal to me, but to him it would make a small difference for one evening, maybe two. The main thing I reflected on was why I had done it. It must have taken no more than one or two minutes from meeting the man to me giving him the money. And so he did something to persuade me, and did it very skilfully.


Then it struck me. He had used one of the oldest and most respected techniques in order to gain my attention and persuade me. He had told me a story. His opening line to me was very effective: by asking if I was kind he was immediately giving me the chance to either agree, and feel good about myself, or walk past him and tell both him and myself that no, I was not a kind person, I was cold and uncaring. He also positioned me as his audience; as someone who was kind and receptive and who would listen to what he had to say. And then he told me his story. Tired, hungry and smelly. That was him: his existence distilled down to those three things. He had shown me his filthy, bitten-down nails, illustrating how dirty and stressed he was. Even the fact that he had used the ‘rule of three’, that well-used technique of the politician and advertiser, had been effective. And so, after those few short minutes, he was £20 better off and would sleep in a bed that night.


And I say good luck to him as he deserved that money. I wouldn’t mind if he did the exact same thing to the next person and got another note. He wasn’t conning me: he was getting me to empathise through that short but powerful story. Far more effective than the ‘spare any change?’ you usually hear. Far more effective also to be walking towards someone, making it more obvious when they ignore you. He may not have realised it but he was very clever, and deserved all the luck he got. I have respect for that man, and am sure I will see him again in Reading soon. Whether he recognises me is another matter.


The fact is, stories work. Perhaps it has something to do with our childhood, and the place stories hold. Our earliest memories are often lying in bed listening to our mother or father read a bedtime story. Homer knew the power of stories: the adventures of Odysseus had been told orally for generations before he wrote them down. We need stories in our lives: from the promises of adverts through to the Hollywood blockbuster, stories entertain us, instruct us, and offer us examples of how to react when confronted by all that life can throw at us. The storyteller has played a dominant role in human society: before the advent of the Gutenberg Bible and a population educated enough to read it, it was the Priest who told his congregation stories of faith and sacrifice, and it was the stained glass windows of churches and cathedrals that illustrated these. It is no wonder that we can be moved so quickly by such simple narratives. I am hungry and you are not. I am smelly and you are not. You have a bed for the night, I do not.


As educators, we are in a powerful position as storytellers. We can use the power of tales told by others to help guide the children in our care. We can use our own experience to offer examples of how to act, and how not to. Above all, we can use the structure of storytelling to hook them into learning, giving our students a suggestion of what new knowledge and understanding can unlock for them before guiding them through this learning towards a conclusion that resonates with them. The man I met on Christchurch Meadow last week had been let down by his parents, his school, and society in general. No one wants to end up on the street. But perhaps somewhere in his past he had a storyteller, and perhaps this gift for hooking people in quickly was passed down to him. I only hope he has more positive ways of using this gift in the future.

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