Storytime: Yancey County Students Hear Life Lessons from Master Storyteller Donald Davis
Growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina is a proud and unique experience. Nearly any child of Appalachia will come away with memories of adventures amid the creeks and hollers of the hills. No doubt, a great many of those adventures (or perhaps misadventures) will involve a sibling or cousin or three—and a story to be passed down through the generations.
That’s what internationally acclaimed storyteller Donald Davis encouraged 650 Yancey County students to do during his visit in November 2019—to look around at the people and places in their lives, and integrate those memories in their writing.
Davis spent three days in Burnsville in residence at the Center for Pioneer Life, telling plenty of heartwarming stories of his childhood in Haywood County and urging others to turn their old memories into family lore.
“Everybody has great stories,” said Davis, a native of Waynesville, N.C. “It’s just a matter of reaching back through time and collecting those story fragments, like people—mother, father, teacher, or preacher—and places—home, school, church, or gymnasium. Little nuggets will surface in your memory, like your father’s sense of humor, or something funny that happened in that church, and the stories will flow from there.”
Davis spoke to 500 middle school students during a school visit, and 150 fourth-graders, who visited with Davis at the Center for Pioneer Life. They heard his lessons in finding stories in their own lives. Plus, they toured of the Center’s 19th century farm and cabin, where they experienced how their ancestors lived nearly 200 years ago in the rugged Appalachian mountains.
Davis’s student visits were made possible by the Yancey Fund through the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and a partnership between the Center for Pioneer Life and Yancey County Schools.
Davis also led a workshop at the Center for Yancey County teachers and others who wished to develop their storytelling or writing skills. Davis teaches that telling stories isn’t about stringing words together, but about painting pictures.
“Don’t tell me something, show me something,” Davis told the teachers. “The best stories are those that you can see. A story allows a listener to create that world in their mind based on their own experiences and imagination.”
Davis compares the experience to reading a great book, but being disappointed in the movie. The visuals created by the filmmaker don’t live up to the vivid world created by the reader in her mind.
“For me, the workshop served as a wonderful reminder that I can linger over words and creatively teach the curriculum, hopefully encouraging students to enjoy and embrace the journey to learning and not just race to the scored destination,” said Angie Holtzclaw, theater teacher at Mountain Heritage High School in Burnsville.
“I love the idea of talking through a story before writing any of the words down,” she continued. “Next semester, I plan to reflect Mr. Davis's practice of emphasizing people and places, as opposed to plot. I want my theatre students to “talk the story” before putting pen to paper. I think we will end up with richer pieces that will be more pleasing to the audience.”
Davis wrapped up his Yancey County residency with a public performance at Burnsville Town Center. More than 250 guests heard tales of Davis’s mama and daddy, hours spent at his grandparents’ home in Haywood County (nearly identical to the reconstructed 1850 cabin at the Center for Pioneer Life), a black snake that got away only to surprise his mama at an inopportune moment, his tentative tastes of freedom after getting his driver license, and other stories of a mountain childhood.
“It was such a delight to share stories with an audience that grew up with tales just like mine,” said Davis. “I hope my stories inspire them to dig through their memories and come up with the stories they can pass down to their grandkids.”