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This article by Pat Summers was prepared for the December 5, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

True Tale of the Storyteller

Women and men walk purposefully into the large church

basement, where a brown velvet curtain closes off the stage, and

autumn

foliage is visible through the windows. Each long table sports a

pumpkin

centerpiece and is set with autumn-hued place mats, plates, and bowls

of candy.

The ambiance, friendliness, mounds of decorated donuts and cookies,

and apple cider notwithstanding, there is another attraction at this

special meeting at the Echo Senior Center, on Parkway Avenue in

Trenton.

To this unusual senior center comes an equally atypical guest speaker

this October day: Gwendolyn Jones, storyteller.

She wears a long tan jumper over a black shirt; dangling black

teardrop

earrings; her hair pulled back and fastened under a straw

"boater"

with black ribbons down the back — and a broad smile. She

circulates

among those present, greeting, reaching out, hugging.

Then Jones begins to speak. And sing. And recite poetry. And tell

stories. Not once does she hesitate, restate, flub, correct. Never

an "um" is uttered. Every syllable is crisply yet comfortably

articulated; every consonant is sounded. And her smile is unwavering.

Jones encourages the group to sing "Little Sir Echo" with

her, conversationally delivers a poem, and narrates three stories

using her voice, her hands, her total body language. After "The

Lady in Gray," "The Shadow," and "The Thing Without

a Name" — this was a Halloween meeting, after all — she

leads the singing of "Come with me," providing a fine finale

trill.

Born nearly 72 years ago in England; resident and citizen of the U.S.

for more than half that time; professor emerita, the College of New

Jersey: Gwendolyn Jones is a seasoned performer. She makes a return

appearance on Sunday, December 9, at the Princeton Ethical Humanist

Fellowship meeting in Stewart Hall of the Princeton Theological

Seminary.

Her "Portraits in Literature" comprises two folk tales about

the role of women.

Described by one fellowship member as "about as graceful a woman

as you can imagine," Jones made the same impression during her

visit to Echo. Jane Politi, executive director of the regional center,

says members always enjoy Jones’ visits.

Once there was a little girl named Gwendolyn. She was the youngest

of four sisters who lived with their parents in a small English

village

called Dorrington, in Lincolnshire — "the fenlands, known

for its dark, rich loam." Her father was a poultry farmer; her

mother, an elocutionist, had been born in the same village as Alfred,

Lord Tennyson; and she remembers that in her childhood, "we lived

stories." There was no radio, not even any electricity. The girls

went to bed by candlelight, gathering in one bedroom to read and tell

stories.

There was also a tiny Methodist chapel, the scene of more storytelling

— "marvelous scriptural stories, like Daniel in the lions’

den, or Moses in the bulrushes. Their suspense and pathos set the

pattern." Even the children’s hymns were stories too. "One

song about Jesus mentioned heralds. I used to get my Shakespearean

heralds mixed up with my Jesus heralds," Jones remembers.

Stories were part of the curriculum in the village school, although,

as World War II moved closer, they were accompanied by gas mask

training,

blackouts, and drills. Bomb craters in the fens, the result of

left-over

bombs the Germans released before heading back after a raid, were

the only hits.

For teacher training, Jones attended college at a Yorkshire branch

of Leeds University, where storytelling was not only a component of

her learning, it was also regarded as the best vehicle for

transmitting

content. This was a lesson she learned well, using it in the British

primary grades where she first taught, and again after coming to

America

in 1957 with her "very English husband." They visited her

sister, Joan, a war bride, in Florence, New Jersey, where today she

and Jones are next-door neighbors. Sisters Peggy and Bette still live

in England, and Jones visits them each spring, being sure to return

in time for her storytelling part in Trenton’s Heritage Days.

Before becoming a citizen, eligible to teach in American

public schools, Jones taught at the State Home for Girls, then on

Stuyvesant Avenue. "Those girls taught me a thing or two,"

she remembers. "The power of storytelling gave me entree into

their world, which I didn’t know. In those days, you could read five

verses from the Bible. I read on and on. I thought, Ah-ha, we will

get to them through storytelling!"

Jones went on to capture her students’ attention in many ways,

creative

and practical. "It all started with the power of the voice and

the content," she says, stressing her theory that "More is

caught than taught: When you’re didactic and drilling and skilling,

that doesn’t tend to make as much impact." To make a difference,

present material in a narrative or storytelling mode, she says.

It’s a humbling experience to listen to Gwendolyn Jones, and even

more so to talk with her. If you ever suspected before that you

mumbled,

now you know it’s true. A shared conversation is enough to send you

scurrying to your dictionary to look up words like

"articulate,"

"enunciate," and the aforemumbled "elocution."

From the late 1960s until her (so-called) retirement in 1994, Jones

taught children’s literature and storytelling, creative arts, reading,

and teacher training courses at the College of New Jersey. During

that time, she also co-chaired the annual Trenton State College

children’s

literature and storytelling conferences — 19 times.

In 1982, Jones founded the Garden State Storytellers League (GSSL),

an 80-member affiliate of the National Story League (NSL), founded

in 1903. Jones has also helped NSL in a four-year drive to win

approval

for a postage stamp recognizing the art of storytelling. "Wherever

we go, we take petitions for people to sign," she says. She also

leads letter-writing campaigns and contact with US Postal Service

representatives working on stamp selection.

Besides four little girls by candlelight, "storytelling"

suggests

long nights by a campfire, with many voices and many stories, helping

to pass the time and make sense of the world. Homer comes to mind,

and Scheherazade, as well as prophets and poets, seers and singers

through the ages.

But how does a storyteller, tell — without hesitating or

forgetting? Is memorization the answer? Does Gwendolyn Jones memorize

the stories she tells so flawlessly? She says not. Rather than

learning

by rote, she says she internalizes a story, so it becomes part of

her; she delivers it without vocal or paper crutches. Two-thirds of

what Jones calls "the eternal triangle," the story and the

teller, "spend so much time together, it’s like having a stone

with all sorts of jagged edges. You just work it and work it till

it’s smooth and ready for an audience," the third component of

that triangle.

Jones defines the "literary folk tale" as one with a definite

author, such as Hans Christian Anderson. He wrote down his stories,

and it’s considered improper to change their language in telling them.

Because they can be adapted and improved, she prefers the traditional

folk tales that comes from the oral tradition and have no known

author.

Beyond that, the ethics of storytelling and story ownership fill whole

publications, she says.

Jones shares a storytelling tip: The cardinal sin (by the way,

"cardinal"

is pronounced with a decided three syllables, rather than the

"CARD-nal"

we may more often hear, or say) is saying anything like "I’m

sorry.

I made a mistake." Instead, she advises, "you just go on and

don’t let on, or else you say, `Now, you probably didn’t hear me say

before . . .’"

For Gwendolyn Jones, "retirement" is a relative

term. She continues her involvement with GSSL in myriad activities

that include community days, family evenings, festivals, and

workshops.

She reviews books and recordings for storytelling publications. And

at a recent Saturday morning children’s program, she regaled a young

Barnes & Noble audience with her stories.

She also maintains a demanding schedule of volunteer storytelling

visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and senior centers. In some

nursing

homes, she has had to redefine herself as a teller: the stories must

be short and character-driven, and frequent action is a crucial

ingredient.

"I go early so I’ve shaken hands and been embraced by many of

them before performing," she says, and she lingers afterwards

with goodbye hugs. "That touching, it’s just so necessary."

Because she can’t imagine not doing this — "My seniors come

first" — she makes up this schedule a year ahead, and

everything

else revolves around it.

The story of Gwendolyn Jones includes her other-than-storytelling

pursuits. She is "always endeavoring to create an English

garden,"

she says, of her partiality to hollyhocks, foxgloves, and Canterbury

bells; her outdoor sculpture collection complements the garden. A

People to People and Torch Club International member, she also serves

on the board of the Friends of the Trenton Library.

Proximity to Jones prompts a question about whether she ever mumbles,

slurs, drops her G’s, or dresses down. Surprised a bit by the

question,

she says, ever so clearly, "No, I don’t really think so,"

adding that people, including her students over the years, finally

come to realize "I am as I am as I am." And at 5-foot

7-1/2-inches

tall, she easily carries off the long earrings she favors, and the

hats she loves.

Jones has won a plethora of awards for leadership, teaching, and

volunteering,

awards that only serve to make official the obvious. Fittingly, it

can be said that through her storytelling performances, she has helped

countless people live more happily ever after.

— Pat Summers

Gwendolyn Jones, Princeton Ethical Humanist Fellowship,

Stewart Hall, Princeton Theological Seminary, 609-588-8694. Free.

Sunday, December 9, at 11 a.m.

To learn more about Echo Senior Center, 471 Parkway Avenue,

Trenton, phone 609-695-4151.


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