When David “Laser” Kim challenged me to get a child to tell me a secret or his or her favorite story, I had no idea that I’d end up on the floor of a Kindergarten room with children draped over every limb, eagerly ripping through (and sometimes ripping!) pages of their favorite tales.
Two young monks in search of small bugs to collect outside of their monastery seemed like a fortuitous start. After much translation by my excellent guide and some quizzical looks, there was no favorite folk tale to be passed across cultures, just favorite animals (notably the rabbit and snake.) It was a bit of a disappointing start, as I hoped the young saffron-clad devotees would not only have great stories to share, but also words of wisdom for a novice Buddhist.
As we walked through the small village, we happened upon a courtyard of children eating tiny lunches out of kid-sized silver canteens, just like those I saw swinging from the arms of local workers in the streets of Yangon. They glanced up and continued to scoop and blot finger-fulls of curry and rice. As we admired the classroom next door, little boys started to hi-ya through the doors, chopping at the air, rolling on the floor and laughing as they dodged each other’s Kung Fu kicks. The more boisterous started to gather around us, as others sheepishly glanced from behind toys and corners.
We smiled and laughed and giggled, sharing no common words, only gestures. My guide started to speak and eyes started to light up. One boy jumped up and ran toward the small altar at the front of the classroom. On his tip-toes, he began to pull at papers next to the offering. He clutched one and ran back, sliding to his knees and knocking into mine. Pages turned, voices squealed and small fingers from all directions grasped at the book. Within minutes, everyone had a book, and a confetti of letters and pictures and animals flitted over and around me with gleeful shrieks and tugging explanations. The shy came over to peer, leaning over my shoulders and lying over my legs, pointing at their favorite books as pages flew, and one story fluttered over the next.
Now, I must admit, I could not recount the tales to you now, but from the pictures, I gathered familiar scenarios from my single-digit years. The rabbit and the deer were better off when they shared. The boat sailed smoothly once staffed by a motley crew of smiling species that would normally feast on each other. Bathing, soaping and getting dressed were an important start to each day. Not only are the stories similar, but that wide-eyed joy, tiny-toothed delight and busy-fingered inhibition are the same the world and generations over.
We parted ways with peace signs and hollering noises, and my promise to send photographs and a copy of my favorite story from when I was their age. Now I just need to get Goodnight, Moon! translated into Burmese…
The last part of Laser’s great challenge was to document the story or my day in the number of pictures equal to the child storyteller’s age. Interestingly, most of the children didn’t know how old they were (and I felt oh-so-young to have my age guessed at 3 or 4!) so I’ll estimate their ages at about 5. Here are my 5 favorite shots from today’s Burmese literary adventure. I highly recommend stepping off the path, and engaging a child (or a classroom) as your storyteller for the day.