Dr. Annette Sisson, Professor of English at Belmont University, shares below her account of coming to serve on the Board of the Nashville Children’s Theater and conveys to Belmont’s English majors what this service means to her. She also challenges these students to find creative ways to support literacy.
When I was a young mother and my son, who is now 26, was in the third grade, he wasn’t much of a reader. I mean, he could definitely read at grade level, but he wasn’t enthused about it. Since everyone in our household was a passionate reader, I bought my son books about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, books about soccer, books about dinosaurs and zoo animals—anything I could think of that he loved, hoping these niche books would turn him on to reading. Each time, he would dutifully read the book and then say, “Mom, it was fine.” But he was not excited.
Then one day he came home from the third grade and asked if we could go to Davis-Kidd Books—which for many years was the local bookstore in Nashville—to buy J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Rings trilogy. I demurred. I responded, “Honey, those books are kind of elevated in difficulty level. Why do you think you want to read them?” He informed me that that very day at school, a STORY-TELLER had come and done dramatic readings from the Tolkein books; he had re-told significant pieces of the story theatrically. My son was on fire! So we went to Davis-Kidd and purchased The Hobbit. I told him that if he finished that book, we’d buy more. Less than a week later, he emerged from his bedroom, brought The Hobbit to the kitchen, placed it in front of me on the counter, and asked, “Now, are we going to buy the trilogy one book at a time, or can we buy the whole thing?” Of course we bought the whole thing—and he finished those three books, too. Not only did reading come alive for him through his experience with a story-teller, but later in high school he realized his interest in theater as well.
In light of that personal experience, I agreed to serve on the Board of the Nashville Children’s Theater last August not only because I love theater, but also because I believe that theater for young audiences serves to encourage and support children and teen literacy. Because I believe in the power of story, whether read on a page or acted/seen on a stage, I feel privileged to dedicate my time to this organization.
How does NCT promote literacy? Over 80,000 middle Tennessee children and teens, along with their teachers and/or families attend NCT productions, participate in NCT camps and classes, or do both each and every year. That’s a lot of young people! These students get to see stories come alive on the stage, and then afterwards they get to meet the actors that brought them to life. I have seen first-hand how thrilling this is! (All of you who have waited at the stage door on Broadway or in London’s West End know what I mean.) And when these children take classes or enroll in camps, they are empowered to bring stories to life themselves—to exercise their imaginations, to collaborate with one another, to offer their own ideas, and to get excited about what stories can become—and what they can do.
As English majors and soon-to-be graduates, I hope you will consider how best to serve your communities. And I hope you will find new and creative ways to promote literacy—because I know that you also believe in the power of story; I know that you know, first-hand, that stories can change lives, transforming and enriching the people who write, study, teach, watch and perform them. Stories matter; they make us human. What could be more important?
— Text by Annette Sisson. NCT photographs courtesy of Colin Peterson.