The storyteller tells her own story Tales: Jackie has been voted the best storyteller of them all. She's been telling stories for 30 years.

June 09, 1998|By Stacey Patton | Stacey Patton,SUN STAFF

In an age when computers and television capture the minds of our youth, one woman is making attempts to win kids over the old-fashioned way -- storytelling. Jackie Torrence, one of the country's most prolific storytellers, is making her way to Baltimore to tell tales from her first book, the just-released "Jackie Tales: the Magic of Creating Stories and the Art of Telling Them" (Avon Books, $25).

Torrence, 54, has been telling stories professionally for 30 years. "I've been listening for 50 years," says the North Carolinian. Last year, she won the World Storytelling Award and the Zora Neale Hurston Award, which is the highest award given by the National Association of Black Storytellers.

She has performed at the Kennedy Center and the Lincoln Center, on "CBS Sunday Morning" with Charles Kuralt and "The David Letterman Show." Today and tomorrow, she will tell her tales at several appearances in the Baltimore area. Listeners will have the chance to hear many of her famous stories, including "The Yellow Ribbon" and "The Big Hairy Toe."

Here, in her own words, is Jackie's story of her life and how she began this 30-year journey of telling tales:

When I was a little girl I lived with my grandma and grandpa. My mama moved to Chicago and left me with my grandparents. My grandparents lived in a small town in North Carolina. It was called Second Creek. We lived there until I was 6.

I used to follow my grandpa around and listen to his stories. Both of my grandparents told me stories. Grandpa told stories that were scary and grandma told me stories that kept me in line.

I talked all the time. I talked all day and all night. Me and my grandpa would go for a walk and I'd say, "Granddaddy, what's that?"

He'd say, "That's a tree."

"Grandaddy, what's that?"

He'd say, "That's a rock."

"Grandaddy, what's that?"

And he'd say, "That's another tree." Then, when he got tired of me just talking and talking and talking, he'd say, "Wait a minute. Listen."

I'd say, "What are we listening for?"

He'd say, "Well I ain't gonna be able to hear it if you keep running your mouth. Then they'd put me in bed at 6 o'clock when they finally had enough of me.

When you hear me tell stories today, what you see and hear is a little girl who played by herself for years. I told stories out loud, and I practiced voice all the time, making gestures and all, because I made believe I was on television.

It was a wonderful time for me.

When I was a little girl I had a speech impediment. In school, when I opened my mouth to speak, everybody in the class would laugh. Well, that really hurt my feelings. If they weren't laughing at what I said, they laughed because I was fat and pigeon-toed.

In ninth grade I found my favorite teacher, Abna Aggrey Lancaster. She worked with me night and day on the way I talked, she helped me in school and she helped me in life. I was ashamed to stand in front of people, you know. I wanted to hide the fact that I was so fat. If I had to stand on stage, I couldn't hide anything.

But Miss Lancaster said, "No, darling, that's all right. The way we get by that is with the hair. You have lovely hair." She said, "Fix your hair, your face, and wear nice clothes."

I said, "But how can I hide my fat?"

She said, "You don't hide it, you feel good about it. You're not the slimmest thing in the world, we know we're fat, so why get upset about it? If we work on the hair, nobody will see anything else."

Miss Lancaster said, "Are you going to succumb to what a few people think? And miss out on life? No? Well, let's get on with it then."

That's what helped me understand, that everybody can find their own place of happiness. Yes, you are born in this world to carry a burden, everybody has a burden, but carry it proudly, 'cause if you look over there, somebody's got one much bigger than yours.

I told my first story when I was a reference librarian in High Point, N.C. It snowed one day and the librarian didn't show up, but all the kids did. "Read them a book or show them a film or something," I was told.

Well, I told them a mountain tale and they loved it. "Tell it again, tell it again," they said, and I did. And that's how all this started.

I told stories at birthday parties for $50 to $75. I loved telling stories on the side. I don't know any other storytellers that have made it as far as I have. One thing I've learned is that if you want to be a successful storyteller you have to pay dues.

Right now I'm paying my dues. I didn't take care of myself. I didn't have health insurance when I needed it to see a doctor. Now I'm in a wheelchair and I have respiratory problems.

For some reason, God put me in a wheelchair; here again is my burden, so I'll deal with it. I've decided to be happy. I think, "Shoot, this is great. Like Grandma and Grandpa said, 'You gotta make yourself bloom wherever you're planted.' "

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