Olive Hackett-Shaughnessy

My job on a rainy Thursday morning in 1982 was simple. Watch the four year olds in the play yard. But, it was raining like bird shot on a Plexiglas roof and I, only weeks from giving birth to my third child, was sitting on a huge tractor tire resting my big belly on my knees, when two boys yelled "My Truck!"

A big plastic dump truck rose up in the pudgy hand of a boy taking aim at the head of his cowering adversary. My intention was to stand up and grab the weapon, but I could not move. I tried negotiating; "Let's share?" Words like gnats. Horrified,I watched a warrior aiming at his victim while the rest of the wide-eyed group waited for the blow. Then, to my surprise, I took a deep breath and began "Once upon  a time before your grandmother was born,and before her grandmother was born there was a boy...."  

Pouring out of my memory came Pete Seeger's story of Abi Yo Yo.  Oh what a giant he was that day! Far bigger then a territorial four year old who couldn't resist turning toward my deep calm voice.  All of us went into the story to face the giant together and sighed with relief when music and magic made Abi Yo Yo disappear.  Peace at last!
I heard Pete Seeger tell Abi Yo Yo to a crowd of thousands in 1978.  How I remembered the whole story from start to finish is inexplicable, and why it arrived just then, pure grace, but the effect of the story was both mystifying and profound.
"Tell it again." the little ones pleaded. I did. That magical story and then others for five years at circle time at Sunset Cooperative Nursery School. All the while I was trying to understand what stories are, why children are so hungry for them, and how it is that audience and teller can co-create a safe place with words?

By 1986 the storyteller in me was having temper tantrums. "More time! More Space! Now!" So, risking being a fool, I quit the teaching job I loved to imagine my way into a career as a professional storyteller.   Here are the words from my first brochure:

     "My goal as a professional storyteller is to bring the riches of this art form into the places children gather together and to act as a resource in curriculum development for parents and teachers.
     My skills with language, my comprehension of the academic value of storytelling and understanding of child development have evolved from my work as a writer, a parent, and a teacher of English as a Second Language to adults.
     But at the core of my work is the magic. Love, courage, honesty, fidelity and hope are what I try to bring forward from the heart. Through beauties, beasts, fairies, peddlers and creatures of the earth, the child listener finds her deepest longings and most enormous questions touched in an intimate moment between adult and child."

Twenty years and thousands of classroom hours later these words are still true. Now a performing and teaching artist, I tell to students from preschool to college. I have been an artist-in-residence in an urban middle school of a thousand students since 1990, and in a K-8 private school since 1989. I speak at conferences, teach writing workshops, and mentor adults in my class "Find Your Own Storytelling Voice". My understanding of the power of story has grown branches, flowered, and released seeds to the wind. 

In 1990 I wrote: "Children are the best teachers. You simply cannot trick them into deep listening, nor coax them to voluntarily retell a story with dramatic flare.  I am proud to be known as Miss Olive the Storyteller Lady. It is the children who have really taught me the powerful connection between storytelling and creative writing."
My roots remain deeply planted and nourished at Sunset Cooperative Nursery School where I still tell stories twice a week to an audience of two to five year olds, their older and younger siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents and teachers.

From this little village I travel-- a wandering bard.

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