Folksy Talesy, Bruno Bettelheim, and Truth

Been reading Bruno Bettellheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales lately. It amuses me in the sense that it reinforces my preference for using fairy tales and other folk narratives as selections in my classes, especially with the younger children.

True enough, there is a power in folk literature that I cannot define, only readily observe. I have this habit of asking students who have just taken my exams about them. Consider the following exchanges, which always start with a “So, how was the exam?” from me:

4th yr HS: “Sir, ang hirap ng (insert test section here)!”

1st yr HS: “OK lang Sir.”

Grade 3: “Sir ang ganda ng story! I want more stories like that one!” (referring to the attached reading selection)

Either these stories are indeed so much more powerful than we expect, or the kids are hungrier than ever for stories that do not, as the book claims, “dumb down” their elements because they are under the premise that “children’s literature” should not only comprise children’s-level diction, but children’s level plots as well.

Another thing that strikes me as funny every time I go teach a folk tale is that for some reason, I often get so enthusiastic (sometimes, even nitpick-y) about our discussions, to the point when at the last “So, any questions?” before we end any the topic, one or two students will raise their hands and ask, “Sir, is this story true?” Can’t blame them for that, really, as characters like William Tell and Arachne (yes, strangely enough, even Arachne; must be because I used the story to teach about Greek and Latin roots in scientific terms) will really be so much more “colorful” and “3D” (things the older folk didn’t really give too much of a damn about back then) in their heads if they were real.

I, forever the student of magical realism, am loathe to say “No, they are not true,” outright. I find it a surreal moment of inspiration, in fact, when I gave them the answer I now give them every time, whether grade school or high school:

“It’s not really important whether it’s true or not, what’s more important is what lessons we can learn from it.”

Let that sink in for a moment, if it hasn’t already done so. Nowadays, it’s something I tend to teach to every grade level I get, with the high school kids getting an extra “This is because there is a school of thought that imagination comes from our experiences with the things and people around us” to spice things up.

Teaching people to look at everything as a learning experience. Now THAT’S a subject that I could teach forever.

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