It had been a long, tedious day and I was looking forward to dinner with my two boys. As my husband Pat and I settled in with them at the table, I said, “So, hit me with your big stories. What happened at school today?”
My ten-year-old, Spencer, shrugged amiably and replied, “Stuff.”
“Ok,” I said. “What kind of stuff? Bad stuff? Funny stuff?”
“That’s just what I say now when anyone asks.”
“That’s true, Mom,” my six-year-old, Murphy, piped in. “It’s cool to just say, ‘stuff’.”
Not when you start dating, I thought.
I knew that I could draw anecdotes out by firing a battery of specific questions at them like a congressional panel, but I was exhausted. Were a couple of juicy stories about their day too much to ask? On a deeper level, I also wondered if they actually knew how to pinpoint a story of what had happened to them and how to translate it into an entertaining tale.
“Okay,” I said, “what about acting out something you experienced today or imitating somebody you saw?”
The idea had simply popped into my head. Their father is an actor and he assumes the gestures of everyone he talks about, even the local grocery clerk. At first, the boys were befuddled, clearly stumped by the notion that they couldn’t accurately portray anyone. I was able to dispel these doubts by jumping in and offering my own poor impersonation of their father. After all, the point was simply to tell a good story. I did my rendition of Pat waking up in the morning. His inability to utter an intelligible word, make a fist, or recognize members of his own family for a full five minutes upon waking is legendary. The boys fell on top of each other in a fit of laughter and all I was really doing was bumping into furniture and grunting. Come to think of it, that is a pretty good imitation.
Inspired, both boys couldn’t wait to do one. The oldest, Spencer, acted out an elaborate story about a ‘Capture the Flag’ game. He began by playing the part of a classmate who had been so distracted that Spencer’s team kept scoring past him. As the story progressed, Spencer not only portrayed his friend, but assumed the parts of several other children. His characterizations weren’t clearly delineated, but the story became rich with detail and humor.
Murphy impersonated his Kindergarten teacher talking to his classmates. When Murphy (as Ms. Flores) talked to the class at large, his voice was calm and even-toned. When he talked to one student named Sarah, Murphy’s voice acquired a distinct clipped edge. It became clear that “Ms. Flores” was doing her best to contain a real frustration with Sarah, without ever boiling over. Murphy had observed and incorporated this detail into the story without really thinking about it.
Ever since that evening, impersonations have become a staple at dinnertime. Occasionally, one boy assumes a part in the other’s scenario making it more of a “scene.” I have to employ a little patience with the kids jumping out of their seats, but I’m thrilled that the children are learning to tell a terrific yarn while showing greater ease with performing.
I also (secretly) enjoy knowing a great deal more about Ms. Flores.