Yesterday I read a classical Christmas folk tale to some youth. To start I asked them, “What is a folk tale?”
They immediately defined it as a story that is passed on by word of mouth. The post-story conversation was remarkable. Here’s how it went.
First the story.
I prefaced it for the children by saying this took place during the Depression and described when that was and the conditions people experienced in general. I asked them if they knew what a “lickin’ was? They said they did—“a spanking or punishment.” So I continued.
“Years ago there was a little one-room schoolhouse in the mountains of Virginia where the boys were so rough that no teacher had been able to handle them.
“A young, inexperienced teacher applied, and the old director scanned him and asked: ‘Young fellow, do you know that you are asking for an awful beating? Every teacher that we have had here for years has had to take one.’
“‘I will risk it,’ he replied.
“The first day of school came, and the teacher appeared for duty. One big fellow named Tom whispered: ‘I won’t need any help with this one. I can lick him myself.’
“The teacher said, ‘Good morning, boys, we have come to conduct school.’ They yelled and made fun at the top of their voices. ‘Now, I want a good school, but I confess that I do not know how unless you help me. Suppose we have a few rules. You tell me, and I will write them on the blackboard.’
“One fellow yelled, ‘No stealing!’ Another yelled, ‘On time.’ Finally, ten rules appeared on the blackboard.
“‘Now,’ said the teacher, ‘a law is not good unless there is a penalty attached. What shall we do with one who breaks the rules?’
“‘Beat him across the back ten times without his coat on,’ came the response from the class.
“‘That is pretty severe, boys. Are you sure that you are ready to stand by it?’ Another yelled, ‘I second the motion,’ and the teacher said, ‘All right, we will live by them! Class, come to order!’
“In a day or so, ‘Big Tom’ found that his lunch had been stolen. The thief was located—a little hungry fellow, about ten years old. ‘We have found the thief and he must be punished according to your rule—ten stripes across the back. Jim, come up here!’ the teacher said.
“The little fellow, trembling, came up slowly with a big coat fastened up to his neck and pleaded, ‘Teacher, you can lick me as hard as you like, but please, don’t take my coat off!’
“‘Take your coat off,’ the teacher said. ‘You helped make the rules!’
“‘Oh, teacher, don’t make me!’ He began to unbutton, and what did the teacher see? The boy had no shirt on, and revealed a bony little crippled body.
“‘How can I whip this child?’ he thought. ‘But I must, I must do something if I am to keep this school.’ Everything was quiet as death.
“‘How come you aren’t wearing a shirt, Jim?’
“He replied, ‘My father died and my mother is very poor. I have only one shirt and she is washing it today, and I wore my brother’s big coat to keep me warm.’
“The teacher, with rod in hand, hesitated. Just then ‘Big Tom’ jumped to his feet and said, ‘Teacher, if you don’t object, I will take Jim’s licking for him.’
“‘Very well, there is a certain law that one can become a substitute for another. Are you all agreed?’
“Off came Tom’s coat, and after five strokes the rod broke! The teacher bowed his head in his hands and thought, ‘How can I finish this awful task?’ Then he heard the class sobbing, and what did he see? Little Jim had reached up and caught Tom with both arms around his neck. ‘Tom, I’m sorry that I stole your lunch, but I was awful hungry. Tom, I will love you till I die for taking my licking for me! Yes, I will love you forever!’”“The Wondrous and True Story of Christmas” by Gordon B. Hinckley
After finishing the story, I asked, “What did you learn?” One young man said, “That was child abuse.” Another spoke up and said, “I respectfully disagree. All the students made the rules and agreed to them. Therefore, it was not abuse.” Other comments included, “It taught me about kindness.” And, “I liked how the one who lost his lunch was willing to take the punishment for the other boy.” I could read in their eyes and body language how much this story moved them to kindness and compassion. I then directed them to a poem on the board.
“I have wept in the night At my shortness of sight That to others' needs made me blind, But I never have yet Had a twinge of regret For being a little too kind.” ― C.R. Gibson
We recited it together and I erased words after each portion of the recitation. Within seven minutes they all had it memorized. The power of story was indelibly impressed on their hearts.
Great stories teach a truth, touch a heart, and shape our lives.
Image attribution: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons