Children learn to weave a tale

Griot: The city's official storyteller teaches youngsters how to tell stories and helps their reading skills.

July 11, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

In Africa, griot means storyteller.

In Baltimore, it means Mary Carter Smith.

The city's official griot -- who recently marked her 80th birthday -- is on the air, encouraging a boy 67 years her junior to read a poem. It is about another eccentric city by the water, San Francisco: But I was young and dreamful.

Dreams were the best of me.

And I, to San Francisco,

Came dreaming from the sea.

The poem was part of a broadcast of Smith's weekly Saturday radio show on WEAA-FM (88.9), taped at Morgan State University. And the young reader, Anthony "A. J." Smith, no relation, was taking part in a segment called "Growing Griots." Through it, Smith carries on with her life mission: passing on to young people the joy of telling tales and poems.

Spreading the gospel of storytelling depends on reading, she says. She herself was known as "that good reader" as a girl in Youngstown, Ohio. She learned by following her grandmother's fingers on the family Bible.

But reading well is just the first stop in a griot's journey, she says. "It's a good basis, but story reading is not storytelling."

Dressed colorfully in her usual African garb, Smith -- whose work is known beyond these shores -- speaks to her unseen listeners in a rich and clear voice, aged like wine with the years.

The show is taped in the Morgan station studio on Fridays. Her "Growing Griot" guests on a recent Friday were brothers Paul Smith, 12, and A. J., 13, and Mary Fakunle, 8.

The brothers, pupils at St. Katherine's School, are neatly attired in dark pants and white shirts, and Mary wears a striking ocean-blue dress made by her mother. The radio audience will not see them, but it is an occasion in their young lives to receive an invitation from Smith to appear on her show. The three are in her wide circle of visitors and have studied reading with her from time to time over the past few years.

Just as A. J. read the rhapsody to San Francisco, brother Paul recites a poem full of the flavor of Jamaica. Banana and ginger in New York make the poet miss the tropics, taste the bitter fruit of homesickness: "I bowed my head down and wept."

Preparing the Smith boys for their performances, the griot schooled them in the technique of speaking to make words on the page matter and mean something to others.

"She tells us to put enthusiasm in our voices," Paul says. But that was the least of it.

The lessons in working with "Mrs. Smith," as the children call her, went beyond expression for A. J. Reading stories and poems aloud enhanced his vocabulary and comprehension. His reading grades rose from 80 to 93 by the end of a quarter, he says proudly.

"Mrs. Smith developed A. J. quite a bit. He wasn't motivated. That was our struggle," says his mother, Tuesday Smith, who accompanied her sons to the studio.

The dynamic between reading and storytelling showed up in Mary's folk tale of a river and three girls on a snail hunt -- a story from Ghana, where her father was born. The voice of the river spoke to the girls, but do they listen? The message, Mary says, is, "Obey your elders and never act like you know everything."

She tells the tale with such verve that A. J. remarks afterward: "That's one girl who can really read."

Mary, an able apprentice in the art, has begun to take a step off the page and fly from the printed words to her interpretation of them.

As the radio hour draws to a close, it is time for the master to weave a tale, this one about a caliph, or ruler, in Syria, and -- of all things -- a storyteller. The caliph, Smith says, "grunted at the preposterous lie of the storyteller."

It is a nice moment, worth a wink, hearing a storyteller talk about a storyteller.

When the taping is over, Smith says there is only one writer whose words she memorizes and speaks precisely as they are written: Hans Christian Andersen. Otherwise, like a jazz pianist, she improvises. "His words are so perfect, but others I take just the idea," she says.

This summer, the next stop on this American griot's journey is Ghana, for the first international conference on storytelling. The thought thrills her. With all her honors and laurels -- including induction into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame last year -- the former Baltimore public school teacher remains unspoiled.

She is always teaching, seizing informal moments. Speaking to the children, she spontaneously breaks into a short poem about a lonely graveyard, where "lies your mother." The last line is, "Meet her in the skies."

It is a poem and a page right out of her life. She lost her mother -- who was murdered -- when she was 5. By speaking those lines, she is keeping safe the memory of her mother, gone 75 years, and sowing the garden of young minds.

Mary, her protege, has learned the first thing about storytelling from spending time with Smith. "You can't be the things you want to be unless you read," Mary says.

How did she know?

"I figured that out," she answers.

Mary Carter Smith's program, "Griot for the Young and the Young at Heart," airs at 11 a.m. Saturdays on WEAA-FM (89.9).

Pub Date: 7/11/99

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