When I get out of jail, often I feel excited and exhilarated. Other times, I feel like going to find some alcohol. Oddly enough, it is not to dull the feelings I have, rather to prolong them and/or to accentuate them, like I need to expand them somehow to figure them out.
Today was some of both.
A young one, I would guess to be about fourteen, in my second class, tried to be polite and attentive, yet is something of a flibbertygibbit; engaging frequently in side-talk and who’s attention is easily pulled away. However, after I told my first story, “Spider Brings Fire,” and was starting on my next one, this young one asked about a lizard story I told at least six or seven months ago. I had to think for a minute. “Oh yeah, let me finish this one and I’ll see if I can remember enough of it to tell.”
I did finish the tale I had in progress, and was starting the next story on my set list when the young one piped in, “Remember about the lizard and the emerald story?” This was clearly important .
“Okay, here goes,” I said, “‘La Lagartija Esmeralda, The Emerald Lizard.’ About four hundred years ago, in Guatemala, a young man named Juan was walking along the road. It was clear he had been crying. Brother Pedro is walking…”
“Yeah, that’s right, Brother Pedro,” the young one says.
“Brother Pedro stops Juan and asks what’s the matter. ‘It’s my wife, she’s very sick and without the right medicine, she’ll die.’”
“Wasn’t it his mother?” the young one asks.
“No, it was his wife. So Juan says, ‘I have no money. I don’t know what to do.’ Brother Pedro says ‘I wish I had money to give you, I don’t have any either.’ Just then, a small lizard runs across the road. Brother Pedro reaches down, picks it up, holds it for a moment, then reaches out and hands it to Juan. What Juan sees in his hand is that the lizard is now an emerald lizard, una lagartija esmeralda, shining brilliantly in the sunshine. He thanks Brother Pedro profusely and runs into town to a merchant, sells it for enough to buy his wife’s medicine, food for them and some cows.
“With the medicine, Juan’s wife recovers completely. Over the years, Juan’s few cows become several, which become a herd, which eventually over the next twenty years or so, Juan becomes a successful rancher. And wealthy. One day, he goes back to the merchant and asks about la lagartija esmeralda. ‘Oh yes, I still have it,’ the merchant says, ‘but it is not for sale as it has brought me much good luck.’
“’Well, it’s brought you much today,’ Juan says, ‘as I will pay you five times what you think it’s worth.’ ‘Sold!’ says the merchant.
“By now, Brother Pedro has been retired for some time. Juan sets out to find him, and within the next weeks, he does. Brother Pedro is living out in the country very humbly in a small cottage. When Juan shows up at his home, Brother Pedro recognizes him right away. ‘Welcome, Juan. Come in.’ So over cups of tea, the two men talk and catch up on their lives. Finally, Brother Pedro asks, ‘Juan, you came all this way.’ ‘Yes, Brother Pedro, I want to thank you.’
“Juan pulls la lagartija esmeralda out of his jacket pocket and sets it on the table. It sparkles brilliantly in the sunshine. Brother Pedro smiles, ‘Yes, I remember that day, Juan.’ He picks up la lagartija, holds it a moment, then sets it on the floor. The lizard then scampers out the door.”
“Yeah…,” the young one says softly.
Another young person sitting right beside the story-requester, older and a bit more on the mature side says, “I think that story is about hope.”
Someone else asks if that really happened. “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” I said, “but miracles can happen. The French have a saying that ‘Miracles happen to those who believe in them.’ I like to think so.”
“I think they can,” another young one says. And the discussion goes on a bit. I am silent, as these young people are thinking and talking. Whatever shadows brought them here, they are thinking and talking.
In the class prior to this one, I started on a Japanese story, ‘Ooka and the Wasted Wisdom,’ preceded by a bit about King Solomon. One of the kiddoes in that class launched into a story about how King Solomon selected which of his three sons to succeed him as king. And this was only a few minutes after this same kiddo had told me that these stories were for 5th graders! Eventually, one of their conversations swirled around to justice. Justice.
Then in the last class, one of the attendees made monosyllabic, barely audible responses and a small amount of eye contact. As an older, more mature kid nearing transfer age whom I had in my classes several times earlier this year, I noted the much reduced interaction (at age 18, if there is still time to be served, the youth is transferred out of the juvenile facility to the County Jail.) There were next to zero responses or comments from this class.
Each time I am there is different. Each time brings wonder. And hope. Sometimes I am unsettled or uncertain. Each time, the kids teach me things about respect, attention, awareness, listening.
I have loved ‘The Emerald Lizard’ from the first time I read it in Pleasant DeSpain’s book of the same name. That one of the kids not only remembered it but wanted to hear it again was a delightful surprise. Really, Mary? Haven’t you said a few zillion times that every question you’ll ever have is answered in a story somewhere. That stories cross time and distance to teach us and remind us we are human, and that we each belong somewhere?
Yup, we teach what we need to learn. There appears to be no magic number until we get it, yet there is magic