Telling Stories to Boys: A Phase of Fresh Air work in New York

“Gee! Mrs. Ruth, you orter get that story wrote in a book! Yer got Alger and Optic beat to a frazzle!” This flattering remark greeted me as I went to say “Good Night” to a room full of boys who were discussing the chapter of a “made up” serial story I had just been telling them.

Eighty-five boys from the East Side of New York arrived at the Summer Home of one old New York’s largest churches on the first day of a very hot July nearly seven years ago, for a two-weeks’ visit. It was my first experience in dealing with boys “en masse,” and after supper when I was asked to tell a “made up” story, of which a few of the boys had had a sample, I was truly terrified.

My ears were nearly deafened by the stream that had been “let off” from the lungs ol this wild party during the first day out of the stifling city, and my thought had been that only when they slept would quiet reign.

To show weakness, however, at that moment would be fatal, for one must live up to a boy’s ideal, so I sat down in a corner of the big piazza and began. Indians and cowboys by request, “made while you wait.”

Darkness in the country, full of strange and mysterious night voices, has no charm for the city boy, and as twilight falls he gladly seeks the shelter of a roof.

A romping group came rushing onto the piazza. The boys who were listening to the story turned and gave a “quiet” signal. The rompers came tiptoing up to see what was going on, stood a few minutes, wary of taking any chances, then took seats on the floor as close to my chair as possible. The same thing was repeated with other noisy groups in turn; the story going on without interruption until the whole party was about me.

From that time the “story hour” became an established part of every evening’s programme for the six years I was in charge of the home.

The charm to me of that hour would be hard to describe. It was like playing on a wonderful human instrument.

The intense gaze of at least fifty pairs of boys’ eyes — and many so very beautiful — inspired the thoughts and drew the words from me to make the stories they seemed to truly enjoy.

To feel their breathless suspense at a climax which, alas! had to savor of the aforesaid Alger and Optic, perhaps, in order to appeal to their taste in literature(?); then to see their eyes glisten with real tears at a touch of pathos, to be followed quickly by peals of laughter, was to me real joy.

I was sometimes guilty of experimenting on this instrument, when I had by practice gained assurance.

There was one boy whom I never saw except at meal time, without a “lollypop” in his mouth. (To explain, a “lollypop” is an impossible-looking piece of candy attached to a wooden stick, like a skewer.) I even recall having to remove an empty stick from this boy’s mouth one night after he had gone to sleep.

One evening at an exciting point in the story I happened to see this boy with his mouth, open just ready to pop the “lolly” in, when he paused in midair, so to speak. I rapidly increased the complications of the plot, piling up climax and “antis” regardless of all rule or regulation, just to see how long I could keep his hand in the air. His mouth opened wider and wider, as did his eyes, and still the candy did not reach its goal. My risibilities got the best of me and I had to introduce a touch of comedy to give me a chance to laugh with the boys. They never knew we were not laughing at the same thing.

Often, I would in some mysterious part, lower my voice even to a whisper, and the silence was appalling. Until they understood, the neighbors used to think that I had instituted some rigid form of punishment, or that the boys had returned to the city, as they had never known a quiet hour at the home while the boys were there.

The stories were always continued, one chapter at a time. There were always many requests for “one more chapter,” and fortunately they never forgot where I “left off” — as I often did from one night to another.

The activities during the day were a great contrast to the quiet evenings. If one says to a group of boys, “Let’s do so and so,” if said in the right way, one always meets with a hearty response. The magic of that word, “let’s,” is the keynote, to me, of recreation of boys. One must be one of them and do things with them.

Baseball was of course the big interest, and I was always “in it,” as the boys say. When I batted out a few flies for the boys, the boys were mine. Of course I had efficient helpers, but I was always glad to see the boys thought they could play a better game if I was umpiring behind the pitcher’s box or keeping score.

And how they loved the swimming pool! When I was able to be with them at that hour there were fifty voices calling “Mrs. Ruth” at once, to have me see their latest achievement in diving or swimming. I tried to make good sports of them all. Encouraging the timid ones and subduing the bullies — at times there would be a big boy, not brave at all, who indulged in the sport of “ducking” the younger ones. When I saw this I would give permission to the still larger boys to give ihe offender some of his own medicine. The result was always good.

The parties of girls coming on alternate fortnights were full of interest also, but it is hard to generalize the activities of the girls. There were but two things which they all liked lo do — dancing and swimming. With girls the big problem is to invent ways of breaking up “cliques.”

The winners in games would be the only enthusiasts. It is harder to make girls good losers than it is to create that spirit in boys. Girls get discouraged and a bit of jealousy creeps in, while a boy is spurred on to greater efforts by defeat. I feel, however, the time is coming when real athletics will have the charm for the majority of girls that it now has for the few.

Both boys and girls loved dramatics, but the actors were but a few from each party. An entertainment was given each week in the “Casino de Barne,” always generously patronized by the townspeople. The fund raised in this way was used directly at the home in some permanent way as the children’s contribution to the great work. It created in them a greater appreciation of the whole.

On the Fourth of July and on Labor Day between three and four hundred people, families of the children for whom the home exists, came for the day. Dinner and supper were provided for them as well as all sorts of entertainment. The “Casino” was transformed into a dining hall and was a bower of greens and flowers. Golden rod was the decoration used on Labor Day, and the children coming from the fields with their arms laden with gold was a beautiful sight.

Great was the amazement of the crowd on one Labor Day when they were shown a big mound of earth back of the barn and told that underneath the canvas covering there was cooking on hot stones a dinner for 400 people. The “uncovering” was an event in their lives, and when they saw the steaming clams, spring chicken all seasoned, blue fish, green corn and sweet potatoes they all hurried to the tables to eat a dinner such as they never tasted before — and when they almost rolled out of the barn they found watermelons waiting for dessert. The “clambake” became an institution on Labor Day after that.

The last week of the Fresh Air work was one of the most interesting. It was “Mothers’ Week.” Having worked for their families a whole year, through the intense cold of the winter and heat of the summer, and having given their children their holidays in the country, they came as tired children to rest and play. They got more enjoyment from a week in the country than any group of people I ever knew.

They threw off every care and were refreshed and full of courage when they returned to their homes.

The inspiration gained from knowing the lives of sacrifice and cheerful toil of these real mothers will last forever. Their names never appear opposite great sums of money given for charity, but in roundabout ways I learned that in proportion to their resources a much greater light would shine from the loving gifts they bestowed upon those in their midst in vital need. I saw true charity demonstrated. Not from an abundance did they give, but they shared their little — gladly going without to help a friend.

My wheel of fate has made part of a revolution, and stopped; leaving me in a land of sunshine and flowers, with a continent between me and many true and loving friends.

A great cordial hand of friendship I have found in California, extended to me, and I seem to be held in its grasp.

It has been of deep interest to come in touch with the same great works for the Betterment of Mankind on this side of the country. The true worker is the one who knows that he himself is the one who gains the most.

Far removed from my own hundreds of children, I found the need of children in my life, and my lines here have been thrown in pleasant places.

At the Children’s Amusement and Story Club at Paul Elder’s Gallery on Saturday afternoons I have had an interesting study of children whose resources of entertainment have always been abundant. Stories are an incident — not an event. Yet all are children, and I feel the same charm when I am greeted by their smiles and expressions of approval.

It has been my privilege to tell some stories and do some “magic tricks” for children in some of the homes provided by the great hearts of San Francisco, as a small contribution to the work. This I have really enjoyed the most.

I find I cannot feel quite happy in being recompensed in coin for the joy of making children happy. When it is a part of a bigger work it seems different.

The new experiences of being a spectator and having time to digest all I have gained; in getting a perspective view of all work for humans will, I hope, lead me to paths of greater usefulness in the future.

From Everywoman: the Official Journal of the National Council of Women (Vol. XI, № 9. San Francisco: May, 1916). You can buy Ruth’s memoir, published under the pseudonym Mary Casal, on Amazon (Kindle, paperback). I have recently translated it into Brazilian Portuguese, and it was published by Ímã Editorial (link).

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