A Strolling Storyteller Spins Tales for Schoolmates
'Here comes the little kid who tells stories while she's walking,'' said one boy at Doran Elementary School in Glendale, Calif., to another.
''That's my sister,'' admitted my brother, David, ashamedly.
In 1927, after my family moved from Westwood in Los Angeles to nearby Glendale, we five children were duly registered at our new school. We liked it immediately. But it was much farther from home than our Westwood school had been. We had to walk several miles each way. Much as I enjoyed and profited from my classes, I soon discovered that the journey to and from school also provided a special kind of learning. That's when I became known as the Walking Storyteller.
Picture our daily departure for school on an ordinary day:
''Finish your breakfast, children,'' Mama would command. ''You can't do good work on empty stomachs. Tie you shoe laces, Ed. Betsy, don't forget to brush your teeth.''
Finally, well-fed, shoes tied, teeth brushed, and kissed by Mama, we'd set off. Jean and David, my older siblings, would hurry on ahead - unwilling to be seen with us little kids.
Scarcely would I have left my own doorstep, with small brother Eddie clutching one of my hands, when the front door of the Murphy's house would pop open. Mrs. Murphy shoved forth Mary, aged 7, and Eileen, aged 6, to walk with me.
''You don't mind taking the girls, do you, Betsy? They love to hear your stories. Now Eileen, you hold on to Mary when you cross the streets. And Mary, you hold on to Betsy's other hand.'' There would be instructions about looking both ways, not dawdling, and not losing our milk money. Off we'd set again.
''Come on, Bets, tell us that story about the princess and the wicked queen.'' This would be Mary, who always wanted princess stories. And so I would start. ''Once upon a time.... ''
As we progressed, other doors would open, and more listeners would be added to our group, until I had a goodly audience crowding close as my sagas built to their always happy endings. Some mornings the mothers would phone ahead to inquire when I would be leaving home, in order to have their young ones ready and waiting when I drifted by with my spellbound entourage.
A two-mile walk is just about long enough for the telling of a good tale. I loved these storytelling sessions. As the middle child in a large family, I often felt chafed at being too young to enjoy the greater freedom of my older brother and sister and too old to receive the attention given to the younger kids. But as the Walking Storyteller I was in my element.
Often I would change the stories all around, depending on whim and my audience. Spooky parts were added to please little boys; detailed descriptions of princesses' gowns and jewelry delighted the girls. Finally, we arrived at school, usually just as the bell was calling the students to class. Sometimes my tales were unfinished and had to be concluded on the way home.
Eventually I grew tired of my role as Pied Piper to a group of kindergartners and first-graders. I was now a ''bigger kid'' and wanted to rush off with my older friends to have a morning session of jump rope or jacks before classes. But I continued to walk and to weave my yarns with a different audience.
My brother, Eddie, and I would tell stories as we strolled around the neighborhood on Sunday evenings, using the plots of movies we had seen. My girl friends and I would walk home from the library, relating, in glorious detail, the thrilling adventures of our favorite fictional heroines. Storytelling while walking had become a part of my life. It still is.