I’ve loved storytelling ever since I was a little kid. I can pretty much trace it back to growing up with a vibrant and charismatic uncle who always had a story to tell. Many nights back in the glorious late ’80s to early ’90s were spent with my brother either curled up on the couch listening to Uncle Jimmy’s tales of wonder, or camping out in the backyard under the stars on a hot summer night listening to Uncle Jimmy regale us with ghastly tales of the macabre. As I grew older, I came to appreciate the ART of storytelling. In college I took one of the best classes ever: Storytelling. I still remember the course objective to this day: “To be DAMN GOOD at storytelling.” Even to this day, randomly I find myself fondly reminiscing about that class and all the crazy stories it produced. So gather around for a storytelling extravaganza!
Storytelling is one of the oldest and purest forms of entertainment, dating back to ancient times when drawings were etched on cave walls. I feel it’s sort of become a lost art in this day and age in an era proliferated by technology. Between checking emails, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, texting and so forth, our level of actual face to face communication has dwindled and thus, storytelling has taken a back seat over the past number of years. When done right, storytelling is perhaps the purest and greatest form of entertainment at its basic core. All you need is a talented speaker with a vision and an engaged audience looking for some message to click or resonate.
STORYTELLING CLASS: FALL 2003
In August of 2003, I had just turned 20 and was entering my junior year at University. One of the classes I took that semester was Storytelling as it fell under my Minor of Theatre Arts. The room itself was like none other. Not a single desk in sight. Instead, you had one big ass rectangular table. Right away I knew this was going to be one of those rare special classes that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Chairs rested on the sides for the ‘peanut gallery’ folks. You told your story standing front and center with the professor sitting at the back table jotting down notes and rating your performance. Each class began with a 15 minute vocalization and body warm-up. We had a new leader each day. The leader would drape this thick green curtain (long replaced in this photo which was taken in 2007) to cover the windows. The leader then lights a match. To this day I don’t know why we did our exercises in the dark, but it sure made it memorable.
We met Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 1:15. Our professor was an eccentric woman in her 60s. Her taste for fashion was rather remarkable. She never wore the same outfit twice and always had matching shoes to go with whatever handbag or purse she decided to bring with her that day. Outside of class I often saw her randomly smoking somewhere on campus in one of her loud outfits. It was the closest thing to playing Where’s Waldo in real life. She was certainly one of a kind. Like one of those old Hollywood stars that just stepped off the set of a movie filmed in the 1940s.
If you came to class tardy, you snuck into one of these side chairs. This was actually where you wanted to be back in the fall of 2003 as the class’ two hottest girls always sat there. For some odd reason, I often found myself a part of the infamous Peanut Gallery. Odd, that.
The class had so many classic characters. We had someone from every walk of life imaginable. From ripe 18 year old freshmen to 45 year old mothers looking to finish up their degrees. Hell, we even had a former NBA player! But more on him later.
I’ll never forget Sean. Sean was 25 years old, Caucasian, married and possessed a dry and dark sense of humor. He was also quite the artist. The big guy took a liking to me as we often chatted before class began. He was a hell of a character whose “unique” speeches always made everyone bust a rib laughing. Imagine Bill Murray’s sense of humor and Seth Rogen’s physical features, and that’s pretty much Sean. His speeches had the most awkward pauses; we could never figure out if that was by design or if it was just Sean being Sean. Whatever the reason behind the madness, I’ll never forget his crazy stories. He blurred lines and was a master storyteller. During the first couple weeks of Storytelling, we all had to share an icebreaker in front of the class. I still remember Sean’s icebreaker. Now listen to this and tell me if it ain’t messed up.
When I was 5 years old, I saw the Devil. I was at the local playground… sitting in the sandbox. The Devil… looked at me… and he said… “Son, you more messed up than me.” I said… “COOOOL.”
I loved the format of the class. Each of us told 4 stories that semester (a quick icebreaker and 3 full proper stories). Each day we had 3-5 storytellers. If it wasn’t your day, you just sat back and got to chill. But if it was your day to share, it was first come first serve. You would march up to the white board to write down the title of your story. Do warm-ups. Then showtime! It was the easiest and coolest format of any college course I ever took. Sean’s first story — I’ll just share a small bit of it — was insane. He was doing his spiel and suddenly, WITHOUT warning, he collapsed! SPLAT! Did I mention by the way that he was about 6’1″ and 230 pounds? And I remember most of us being like “WHAT THE HELL…” And most of us kinda got up, you know, in that sort of weird half position where you’re caught between sitting down and standing up… just so we could get a better view to see if he was OK or not on the floor. WITHOUT WARNING HE POPS UP LIKE A SPRING and yells “AND THEEEEEN!!!!” That made many flinch. We were like “DAMN DUDE DON’T DO THAT YA FREAK!!!” Good times. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s go back quickly to DAY ONE…
THURSDAY AUGUST 28, 2003
Today we got in groups of 4 and had 5 minutes to come up with a fairy tale to reenact in front of the class. The catch? It had to be a silent presentation. So we were forced to rely on everything except our voices. The lesson here was learning how to communicate effectively through using hand gestures, facial expressions and body language. My group had a guy my age, a middle-aged father of two and a middle-aged mother of four (Marlene was one of my favorite storytellers… an absolute natural that Marlene). We decided on The 3 Little Pigs. The 3 guys would play the pigs and Marlene the wolf. I played the first pig, and had an idea on how to make the scene work.
I started out by building my lovely straw house. Marlene the wolf came. Blew down my poor house. I panicked and frantically pointed behind her. I made my getaway as she glanced back. I pretended to run smack dab into an imaginary door and flew back, holding my nose and acting it all out in a very slapstick fashion. Lots of laughter from the audience. It felt good to be the first one up and making people laugh. After the wolf blew down the second house we ran off to the brick house. Once safely in, we began taunting the wolf. She tried to blow us (as in the brick house!) down but she couldn’t. I flexed my muscles, every now and then showing my tentativeness by hiding behind my brothers while continually taunting. I had the entire class roaring and eating out of my hands!
The best part of all came at the end of class. I was walking out when one of the cute girls from the class looked back at me in the hallway. She flashed me an ear-to-ear grin. That was the precise moment where I thought to myself, “GOD I love Storytelling.” It was a great feeling. Being up there and controlling the audience’s emotions without even talking was downright EMPOWERING.
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 11, 2003
On the 2 year anniversary of 9/11, it was my day to share my icebreaker. I decided to share a story about believing in yourself, even against all critics and odds.
Hi. My name’s Steven, but most call me Steve. Like some of you, this is my junior year. Summer of 2002 I did a really dumb thing. I parked in our school’s parking lot without a valid parking permit. I just had to drop off my registration bill and thought I could sneak in, sneak out. I have no idea why I didn’t park elsewhere or in one of the 20 minute zones. I guess I just wasn’t thinking that morning.
Anyway, I came back to my car and surprise surprise, there was a ticket slapped to my windshield. 31 dollars. I went to get a petition form. My brother snapped at me when he found out. Then he saw the petition form I was holding and told me to not even bother. Said he tried it before and got rejected. And that all his friends suffered the same fate in years past as well. So I would be no different, according to him.
ACCORDING TO HIM. Me on the other hand… I knew I could buck the system if I could just come up with something creative, memorable and never-before-seen…
One night I was channel surfing and came upon Nick At Nite. And there I found my inspiration…
“Come on and knock on our doooor.
We’ve been waiting for yoooou.
… there’s a thing and a thing and the guy falls off his bike…
Three’s Company too!”
The wheels in my mind began turning. Hmmm. “Come on and knock on my door. I’ve been waiting for you… to lift the fee.” No that doesn’t flow. I need to express my story somehow… my STORY… hey! That’s it! My story…
“Here’s a story…”
Of course. The Brady Bunch! I went to work and the words began flowing out of my pen like it was meant to be. And this is how it went:
Here’s a story… about a man named Steven… that’s me (I quickly added, causing my classmates to chuckle).
Who was caught in the parking lot without a permit.
Now he’s pleading for some justice.
He was only there to pay his registration bill.
It cost him nine hundred and fifty-seven dollars, plus the line was long.
The line was long, the line was long.
And when he came back, he found out he was 5 minutes too late… well actually 12 but 5 sounded a whole lot better (I quickly added, much to the laughter of my peers once again).
He said to himself, “If there’s any good left in this world, they’ll lift the fee.”
And that’s how it came to be!
10 days passed. Finally it was mailed back home with a verdict. It would either be stamped REJECTED or FILE AS A WARNING.
I flipped the petition form over for all my classmates to see.
It was stamped “FILE AS A WARNING.”
They cheered and applauded while I stood there humbly motioning with my hands ALRIGHT ALRIGHT CALM DOWN Y’ALL… I ain’t quite done yet!
This here, in my hands, is proof positive that sometimes if you go with your gut feeling, really put in the work and believe with conviction, it just may pay off. More specifically, it just may pay off 31 dollars.
And so, my icebreaker was complete and I received a second ovation less than half a minute after the first one. It was humbling and empowering all at once. But the craziest thing was, later that same day when I got home from class, I read the terrible news that John Ritter passed away that very same day. What were the odds of that?! I loved him in Three’s Company and the Problem Child movies, plus he always reminded me of Uncle Jimmy. Uncle Jimmy was like an Asian version of John Ritter
Before I share the main stories I told that semester, I gotta share this one from my classmate. It was probably the best story I heard that entire semester, and I still remember it 15+ years later. The following story comes courtesy of the guy who, during his icebreaker, shared with us that he once played for the Toronto Raptors (!) during an NBA preseason before being cut.
I’m walking to class one day and I spot this hot chick. She had sunglasses on, a mini skirt, and a bomb pink top. She was the kind of girl guys dream about. So I’m like, I gotta get with her, right, but what do I see? A guy holding her hand. Damn! So I walked to class but all I could think about was her.
Next thing I knew, she walked through the door! I was like “HELL YEAH! This was a sign.” But once again, that guy was holding her hand. I looked at him and I was like, “What?! This hot girl is with some average Joe Shmoe like him?” She sat down with her boyfriend. Screw it, I still went up to her. I asked for her name and how’s she doing and all that stuff. Her boyfriend asked me rudely what I wanted.
“I just wanna talk with her. Is that illegal?”
Then he got up and hugged her right in my face. I’m feeling bad at this point, but then he said, “See you later, sis.”
And inside I’m going “OH YEEEEAHHH!”
Later that day I was at the cafeteria when I saw her sitting by herself. Yes, this was my chance. So I came over and we talked. I definitely could see us getting together. I was cracking jokes and she was laughing a lot. But soon I had to get to class. All day I was thinking about her. I mean, I think about girls a LOT, but this girl was driving me nuts!
Once I finished class I was walking to my car when I saw her standing around, and she was crying. I rushed over and asked her what’s going on. She told me her brother got in a fight with her and left her, so she had no ride home.
“What?! Your bro’s a real asshole. You don’t know how to use public transportation or something? Hey, don’t worry. I can give you a ride home.”
She didn’t hesitate at all and gave me a nod. Wow, I couldn’t believe how this situation was unfolding. She gave me her address and luckily I was familiar with the area. As we began walking, suddenly she grabbed my hand. I was like HELL YEAH! So we were walking down the street and I was nodding my head like “Yeah this my girl” to everyone walking by who was checking her out.
After driving her home, I asked if she’d like me to walk her to her door. She said yes. I opened the passenger door for her and again she held my hand in hers. We walked over to her front door and I could see she was still distraught over the fight with her brother. She fidgeted with the keys as she opened the front door. She got in, said bye quickly and closed the door in my face without giving me a chance to say anything.
I was like… WHAT THE FUCK?!?
So I pound on the door.
“Who is it?”
Who is it? What kind of messed up mind games is this chick playing?!?
“It’s me. Who else?”
She opened the door. “What do you want?”
“You’re welcome. Hey listen, if you want I can straighten out your brother for you. Well alright then, I’ll see you Thursday.”
“… I need to see you Thursday too,” she said quietly.
Then she closed the door and I stood there thinking, DAMN! Girls. Can’t live with ‘em… sure as hell can’t live without ‘em.
So Thursday came and after class we walked to the cafeteria. She asked me if she could hold my hand. At this point I was just so confused by her split personality, so I decided to let her know what was on my mind.
“What are we gonna do? Play patty cake? Why you acting all weird on me huh? I need to know right now. Why all the games? One minute you’re holding my hand, the next minute you’re slamming doors in my face! What is it, huh?! Is it because I’m black?”
“Is it because I’m 6’6″? You don’t like tall guys?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“I only see your personality.”
“Say what? My personality? You mean, you think I’m all jokes? You wanna see the deeper me or something? Wassup?”
“I don’t see you as a tall black guy. I only see your personality.”
At this point I was thinking this chick has me all mixed up! Then she held my hand, took off her sunglasses and told me, “I can’t see. I’m blind.”
The room fell in thunderous silence as he stood there, staring at us for a second letting everything sink in. Then he slowly sat down as the room erupted in applause and cheers. Maybe the NBA didn’t work out for him, but he’s definitely got a future in any field that requires dynamic public speaking!
THURSDAY OCTOBER 2, 2003
I remember standing right there, glancing at my 20+ classmates for a second before I began. I was a bit nervous, but once I got going I channeled that nervous energy into positive energy. Sharing about one of the greatest nights of my life in front of friends and colleagues turned out to be one of my greatest collegiate memories. And since the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake was only 2 weeks away, I used part of that title as a tribute.
I had a blast recounting my epic Halloween 1994 adventure in front of my peers. At that time it was only 9 years removed. Crazy to think this upcoming Halloween will be the 25th anniversary!
After finishing your story, you took a seat right there for feedback time. This is where the professor as well as your classmates chime in. They gave me a nice ovation as I sat down. One girl said she loved how I made sound effects and how I painted pictures for her with my word choice, such as “green and red lights flashing wildly into the night.” Another classmate said I had great projection and energy. Professor told me, “Steven you possess great stage presence; you’re a natural storyteller with an irresistible style.” Wow. Talk about pumping a guy up!
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 6, 2003
In the weeks leading up to my second story, I was watching Saved By The Bell episodes on the season one DVD set my brother bought when it first came out in September of 2003. We both watched the show religiously when we were kids in the late ’80s to mid ’90s. Hell, growing up I even looked up to Zack Morris. I thought he was just the coolest dude around. In the words of Mean Gene Okerlund, “I mean HE HAD IT ALL.” A hot girlfriend in Kelly Kapowski, great friends and Zack was the toast of Bayside High. While high school for me in real life never quite played out like how Bayside High was depicted, for one day at least I had a chance to be Zack Morris.
Before I officially start my story, I’d like you all to know in advance that you may be familiar with the characters to come. Also, I will be switching voices on the fly. Having said that, let us begin…
The year was 1990. I remember that year fondly. It was my senior year at Bayside High and the best year of my life. A lot of things happened in 1990 that I’ll never forget. Sure I got in trouble a lot, but I usually charmed my way out of it. Many called me a slacker as well as a class clown. Now truth be told, there’s a reason for those labels. However, one day… that all changed…
Note to reader: Remember that “Corps” is pronounced “core.”
“No. Bayside has been chosen to host the pilot program for the California Cadet Corps. Now I’d like to introduce you… Lieutenant Chet Adams.”
“In the Cadet Corps we initiate students into the Army way of life. Naturally, there’s discipline and hard work involved.”
“As I was saying… there’s also career training and a chance for college scholarships. I hope you sign up and see what you can be in today’s Army. Hope I’ll be seeing some of you soon.”
“I’m giving you a month’s worth of Saturday detention.”
“Nah uh. THIRTY Saturdays.”
“Thirty Saturdays?! Sir, can we negotiate? Hey I’ll wash your car!”
“The last time you washed my car you flooded the inside.”
“Hmmm, maybe there IS something you can do. I wanna see this Cadet Corps succeed here SO… you sign up, no detention.”
“You mean all I hafta do is join that Mickey Mouse Army?”
“That’s right. Oh, that and one other little request. We need a full class for the program so it’s your job to get ‘em.”
The next day Zack went to the Max, the local Bayside High hangout, to recruit and assemble a full class. Employing his natural charisma and used car salesman tactics, Zack recruited enough students save for one. He needed one last sucker… and that’s when his best friend entered the Max.
“Hey Screech! You wanna know how to get Molly? By being a REAL MAN.”
“That’s right. Wait til Molly sees you… in a uniform.”
“Count me in, Zack! I’ll be ALL that I can be!”
The next week Zack and his friends waited for the first official Cadet Corps class to begin. As they waited for Lieutenant Chet Adams to arrive, they began discussing among themselves what the experience might be like.
“I hope I can handle this and have a chance at that college scholarship.”
“Ah stop worrying, Kelly. Would I be in this class if it weren’t a snap?”
And that’s when the Lieutenant walked in…
“Weeeell, it’s nice to see such a good turn out. Now I want you guys to relax, enjoy yourselves, and I’m sure we’re going to have a good time.”
*Turns around, back facing audience*
*Turns to face audience*
“Oh it’s gonna be plenty of fun… FOR ME. MAKE THAT ONE HUNDRED.”
“But sir, I can’t do that many push ups.”
“Oh that’s OK. I have all day to watch you try.”
The next day Zack showed up to class but something was missing…
“Well, I’m afraid my ARMS can’t take any more of your BIG plans, sir.”
The Lieutenant made the big announcement later that day in class.
“The highlight of every Cadet Corps program is an athletic competition. It helps develop physical skills, teamwork, and it’s the Army’s way of separating the men from the boys.”
“I mean, the persons from the persons. Better now, Ms. Spano?”
“Now, there will be a red team and a blue team. I’ve already picked the leaders for the two teams: AC Slater and Zack Morris. I’ve given Cadet Morris the responsibility of choosing the teams.”
“Alright, we’ll start first with the red team. When I call your name, step forward. Alan, Screech, hmmm, Lisa, Louise. OK, you guys are with Slater.”
“Jessie, Kelly, Butch and Rocco, you guys are with me on the blue team… LET THE GAMES BEGIN!“
“Yeah for WHAT — THE NERD BOWL?!“
Later that day Zack and Slater began practicing with their own teams. Zack, the red team. Slater, the blue team. The blue team was a well-oiled machine. The red team on the other hand…
“Left… left, left, right, left… company HALT. Alan, I said halt!”
“I thought you said MALT! And I’m thirsty from all this moving about.”
“Alright team, get it together. Come on. About-FACE!”
Maybe Zack’s red team could salvage the obstacle course. Then again…
“OK guys, let’s do something right this time alright. Let’s go guys!”
“Red team ready, GO.”
Zack flew through the tires. His teammates however fell flat on their faces.
“Great, JUST great. I am NEVER gonna win with a bunch of losers like you. You guys are the worst clumsiest bunch of goofs I’ve ever seen! I QUIT!“
Zack tore off his red armband and stormed off. After school that day his best friend Screech dropped by.
“Oh but we’re getting better. Alan even got his uniform off without ripping it.”
“I don’t get it, Zack. You’re the one who talked us into joining the Corps. And now you’re quitting it all just because you’re not on the best team?”
“Yeah that’s about it. Because the Corps is stupid.”
“But you said the Corps would make me the kind of man Molly would want.”
“You know Zack… ever since we were little… I looked up to you. You had everything. And I always wanted to be like you. Now I’m glad I’m not.”
Screech left the room and left Zack to ruminate. The next day…
“I want another chance. Please let me back in, sir.”
“That’s not for me to decide. Maybe they don’t want you back.”
“Alright, I let all you guys down and I called you losers. You know what, I was wrong. The only real loser on this team… was me.”
“We’ll have to talk this over…”
“Look guys, I think we need him DESPERATELY.”
“Welcome back, buddy.”
Not only was Zack back, but so too the athletic competition. Tied two wins a piece, the big Tug-O-War finale would determine the winner. Alas…
“Since the rope broke, this is the tie breaking event… the super obstacle course. Each team will choose one man… I mean, ONE PERSON… to compete.”
“Very good, Lieutenant.”
“I’m trying, Ms. Spano.”
“NOPE. There’s someone else here who can beat him...”
“ARE YOU CRAZY?!?!? You saw what happened last time!”
“Yeah, I can’t beat Butch. We’ll lose!“
“Runners, take your position.”
“Alright Screech you can do it!”
Both Butch and Screech shot off like two cannons being fired into the dark cold night. In the end, it was Screech who crossed the finish line first. No one could believe it. No one except Zack Morris. Molly came over to greet Screech with a kiss in the winner’s circle, and everyone filed out of the hallway except for Zack and the Lieutenant.
As I stood there saluting the class as if I were looking into the eyes of the Lieutenant himself, the class gave me a roaring ovation that sent chilling goosebumps up and down my spine. I sat down and right away one girl said, “That was so unexpected and awesome. I loved that show when I was a kid and I felt like those characters were right in front of me!” I saw many of my classmates nodding and smiling in agreement, and I can’t tell you how great that felt. The professor had this to add. “Steven, that was an INCREDIBLE one man show you just put on for us. Thank you, I enjoyed it very much.”
Remember Sean? Bill Murray meets Seth Rogen? The next week he told me, “You know Steve, I’ve never cared to watch Saved By The Bell before. But the other day it came on TBS and I just had to watch it because of your story. I couldn’t believe how accurately you replicated the characters, especially Zack. It was your voice, facial expressions and mannerisms… I thought I was watching YOU on the show!”
So what was my third and last story of the semester? I’d love to share that here but this is already at 5,000+ words! I’ll save my third and final story for next time. See you soon at the Bayside High reunion!
In addition, check out the link above for an exclusive interview I conducted with Cylk Cozart back in the summer of 2009. He had some interesting stories to share… from what life in the ’60s was like to his one episode cameo in Saved By The Bell to White Men Can’t Jump and much more.