It was part of what used to make me very happy. Sitting in a big empty multi-purpose room in a school with my harp, guitars and PA system, with a half hour left over just to play music before the hundreds of children arrived for the show. I’d feel the harp music ripple through my fingers, filling the space with glorious sound. I’d be sipping at my black coffee. Often teachers would come in and stand to listen for a minute or so, smile and wave. “Can you come here every morning?” many would ask, as the harp music echoed down the halls. “It’s just so beautiful and peaceful.”
The children heard that music, too, in their classrooms. A faint, magical whisper that something special was about to happen.
And then close to the hour the principal would come over, or the arts liaison (usually a nice mom) and ask, “Mr. Bodkin, are you ready for them?”
“Bring them on in,” I’d reply. The doors would open.
Like goslings following mother goose, the little kindergarteners would usually arrive first with their teachers and sit on the floor about three feet away from me, row after row of them. They’d finally see who was playing the harp, and that it wasn’t a recording. Then the grades above them would arrive, sitting next in extending rows. These were shows for two hundred to five hundred kids, a growing sea of young faces. Often they wouldn’t say anything, forgetting to chitchat with their friends because of the music.
I’d finish one extemporization in a major key with a flourish, and they’d wildly applaud. I’d bow slightly, winking and lifting my finger, as if to say, “All right. See if you like this one,” and then launch into another piece in what I call Fairytale Minor, which is really just B minor but played in a certain lilting way. If kids came into the space talking, others who were already seated would shush them, which I found charming, and the most effective crowd control I could ask for.
And so as often as not, there was no reason for the principal to call them to quiet before the show by doing the double hand clap, the universal training American kids learn in school to signal when it’s time to quiet down. Since they were already quiet, at a heightened state of attention–the music having primed them for the listening–it usually wasn’t necessary. This was much to the surprise of the teachers, who I could tell were archly eyeing their problem children. What would they do? Act out? Embarrass the school? Ruin the show?
Instead, the principal would repeat what I’d asked her to say: “This is Mr. Odds Bodkin, and he’s here to tell you some stories.” No preamble about empathy, kindness, or walking in others’ shoes. “The stories will explain themselves,” I’d usually tell her beforehand. “We don’t need to mention those things.” And then I’d pull the harp aside and pick up the 12-string for the introduction. It was always the same:
“Well how’s everybody? Good?”
“Good!” they’d reply in unison.
“Good. Well, it’s a pleasure to be here. As you heard, my name is Odds Bodkin. Can you say that?”
A chorus of Odds Bodkins, or something close, would follow.
“That’s right, and believe it or not, here at the dawn of the 21st century, I make my living telling stories. Now, I have a few for you this morning, but before I can tell them, I need to offer you a thought, and the thought is this: if instead of being here at your school, you were in a movie theater getting ready to watch a movie, all you’d need to do to see the story the movie told would be to look up at the movie screen, and there the story would be. Same thing with television: you look at it, and there it is. But in what we’re going to do today, you don’t have to look at anything. You don’t even have to look at me. But I hope you’ll consider this thought: think about looking inside something. It’s your power of imagination, or your Mind’s Eye, and it’s right up here.”
At this point I’d tap my forehead. Some of the kids would wrinkle their brows and touch their own foreheads, wondering if they really did have an eye in there. “Now, I can offer you words, character voices, music and sounds. But it’s going to be up to you to be the moviemakers here. To take those things and in your Mind’s Eye spin them up into a kind of movie of your own making, and if you do that, then the stories will come to life, I’ll probably disappear, and we’ll have a really great time. So what do you think, deal?”
At this point, they’d all thunder back, “Deal!”
“Good enough, then,” I’d say, setting aside the 12-string, which I’d have been playing in an upbeat way all during this introduction. “I’ll put away my 12-string guitar, which I’ll play for you later, because my first story comes from Africa, and in order to tell it to you, I need to use this.” I’d reach down and pick up my sanza, or kalimba, as some folks call it, and plink a few notes. Instant delight on their faces. “This is my sanza. Can you say that word?”
“Sanza!” came the chorus.
Holding it up so all could see, I’d explain the instrument. “All it is is a little wooden box with a hole in it to let out the sound. And there are strips of metal of different lengths along it. The long ones make the low tones (plunk) and the short ones make the high tones (plink). And with it, I’ll tell you my first story. This sanza was made in South Africa, and so, too, this first story. It’s called The Tale of the Name of the Tree.
I’d make the sound of dry, singing savannah wind, tinkle the notes, and begin the story.
The reason I bring all this up is because for two years, I haven’t done any of it. Haven’t set foot inside a school to perform for kids, haven’t asked where the adult bathroom is, haven’t dodged crowds of munchkins in their brightly colored jackets, haven’t been offered cupcakes or cookies– none of it, not since March of 2020. Been on Zoom plenty of times, and Facebook Live, and recently I’ve begun doing live shows again for adults in Cambridge at a club called Grendel’s Den, but I haven’t set foot inside a single elementary school in all that time.
But now that the masks are coming off and the fears are waning, lo and behold, the schools are calling to book shows once again. Live, in-person shows. Performances in schools I visited often in that life I lived before the world came apart.
Come May, I’ll be back with the little kids, playing my harp in those big empty rooms before they file in. As I write this—as much to remember how to do it as anything else—I’m getting a lump in my throat. I really missed telling stories to schoolkids, and wasn’t sure if I’d ever do it again.
It’s as if after two long years, a magician has pulled away his dark cape to reveal the same white dove I’ve always loved, still there, still alive.
To book a show, go here.