Great stories always begin with a disclaimer.
At least, that’s the way it worked when I was a child and all the entertainment we had between supper and bedtime was the telling and retelling of folk tales and Ananse (spider) stories. Whoever was taking a turn as entertainer announced the Akan story-teller’s traditional caution: “A story is not to be believed.” To which the assembled listeners chanted in response: “It is for storing.”
The parameters of fiction and reality thus set, the story-teller would proceed to spin a tale that hoists a moral lesson a mile high. Folk tales being what they are, the only surprises lay in the narrator’s skill at drama and embellishment. A bland story wouldn’t be worth holding in the memory bank, would it?
Some of the greatest tales I have heard recently have been short on disclaimers but great on drama. The folk tales of our day (we call them “urban legends” though there is no basis to assume none has rural origin), arrive mostly by email. And by the look of my inbox backlog, I seem to have an abundance of friends and relatives who believe that what will do me a world of good are stories of the touched-by-an-angel variety, pearls of wisdom dropping out of the mouths of babes. Usually, these wonderful tales come accompanied by stunning sequences of flora and fauna, mood music sweeping over expanses of mountains, rolling meadows and seascapes, sunrises and sunsets. (You heard that one yet about Shirley Goodnest and her little girl, Marcy?)
But the more compelling legends are the ones calculated to induce paranoia or impress with cutting-edge revelations, the “truth” usually festooned in red block letters and masses of exclamation points. Most often, too, there is an urgent appeal to pass them along to 25 or so of your dearest friends — or forever be wracked by guilt for sitting on knowledge that might save or change someone’s life.
So … have you heard that one about the gang that apparently is prowling America’s city streets, kidnapping people, drugging them and harvesting their organs for sale? No? Gangs have been at this sort of activity a good long while, trust me. One year in college back home in Ghana, the news went around that strangers “from the north,” all men, were preying on our fine male population. As the story went, the strangers would ask for directions from men they encountered. When they got the answers, they would give a handshake in gratitude, whereupon the unsuspecting helpers felt a certain member of their anatomy disappear. How that happened or what the strangers did with the purloined members no one could say. No one ever found one man with missing parts, but for weeks, there were souls on campus who kept their hands tucked discreetly in their pockets.
Well, don’t say you have not been warned about predatory gangs and missing organs. This is the closest I get to chain mail to 25 of my dearest friends. And if you have time, please check out the story of the Polish dentist, the one who took sweet vengeance on her ex-boyfriend. They say he submitted himself and his aching tooth to the tender care of the woman he had dumped just days earlier. They say she put him under and pulled the tooth and then proceeded, for good measure, to pull every last one of his choppers. (Moral? Don’t ever go to a dentist who might have a score to settle with you.)
Among tales that gain mileage and staying power for sheer impressiveness, few, surely, can beat the one about how some state prison systems forecast prison populations a decade or more ahead of time by analyzing second- or third-grade reading scores. When I heard a trustworthy source mention recently that Indiana uses those reading scores as a way to gauge future prison beds, it sounded like a fantastic point to throw into the argument in Ohio about creating (and funding) a third-grade reading guarantee.
Alas, great stories are just for keeping and not to believe. According to its communications executive, the Indiana Department of Corrections does no such projections with reading scores. Sure, it assesses reading levels of inmates entering the system, but it does not mine data on pupils in elementary school to figure out how many will become wards of the state. The Bureau of Justice Statistics may know, he said helpfully, if some state prisons do that, but Indiana does not.
By the way, are you aware a swanky Upper West Side prechool is asking for DNA tests to screen infants for enrollment? Yep, right there on NPR they said so. On April Fools Day. So much for great stories. Keep them. But don’t forget the disclaimers.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at email@example.com.