Even the Simplest Story

I sat across the table from one of my English students at a coffee shop. A book called All New Easy True Stories: A Picture-Based Beginning Reader was opened between us. The stories contained in the book are high interest stories taken from real life and retold in simplified English. Illustrations accompany every couple of sentences to aid beginner students’ comprehension. Without question, it’s my favorite way to teach English to beginners.

As we’d done for over 30 or so stories now, the guy across the table and I were both leaning in over the book, and I was working on explaining one of the texts.

That day’s story was about a woman and her rabbit. Except she didn’t really have a rabbit. That was the thing. You see, her husband had been fired from his job, and she had three children and not enough money to fill their bellies. One day when she was at the grocery store, she needed an excuse to ask the grocery store worker to give her the vegetables he was about to throw away. So she told the man she had a rabbit and asked for the old vegetables. You know, for the rabbit. The grocery store worker agreed, and they developed a weekly tradition. Every week the woman went home with a box of old vegetables from the grocery store. For the rabbit.

Time passed, and soon the woman began to find cans of soup, baby food jars, and soap underneath the vegetables. It appeared the grocery store worker had a hunch that perhaps there was more to the story than that the family had a hungry pet.

One day the woman went to the grocery store and didn’t see the man that had given her her weekly box of vegetables. She found out he didn’t work at the store anymore. But by then, it was OK. The woman’s husband had found work, and the family had money to buy their own vegetables.

Ten whole years passed. One day the woman was at the store and saw the man who’d given her boxes of vegetables (and other surprises) all those years ago, but now he was the manager of the store. They talked briefly, and the man asked her how her “rabbit” was. The woman was very glad to be able to tell him her “rabbit” had left their house years ago and that everyone was doing fine.

I felt my eyes moisten and a lump form in my throat as I read the story with my English student there in the coffee shop. Perhaps it’s because for the first time in my life I actually know people who literally go hungry or worry about being able to feed their children. Perhaps it’s because by this point in my life I’ve felt my own sense of debilitating desperation enough times to deeply empathize with what this woman must have been feeling. Perhaps it’s because I’ve experienced how life-changing small acts of kindness can really be.

I held it together. I don’t think my student detected any change in my voice. Yet the fact remained that I’d been deeply touched by the simplest of stories told in basic English.

That is the power of a story. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated or likely to win a prize in literature. Whether it really happened or was made up in the author’s mind, the story just has to put on display a truth that is as real and deep and beautiful as the human soul and be told in such a way that other human souls with the ability to see and hear will see and hear and be touched by the beauty they behold there. It’s the truth we behold in a story—be it fiction or nonfiction—that leaves us breathless or teary eyed or overflowing with hope.

Drink deeply from the well we call storytelling. They’re not just for children or students of the English language, those stories. They’re for you and me, and they’re for our good, that we might see things that might slip by unnoticed here in what we call our daily lives. So drink, and may you not stop until you’re full.

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