My 5th grade librarian had a perfectly smooth platinum blonde bob and wore black pencil skirts every day. She was impossibly stylish for an Indianapolis, IN public school librarian and we all respected her because she dressed better than our parents and was willing to be mean.
It’s October, close to Halloween, and the chic librarian ushers us into the small, windowless room where she shows us filmstrips. We sit at long tables that face the square, white screen at the front of the room. She turns off the lights and turns on the projector. The machine whirs and a corridor of light reveals previously invisible specs of dust as they float across the room. The story starts.
A long time ago a girl in a small town met a witch in the woods. The witch promised to grant her three wishes. The girl took the wishes happily. Her first wish helped her father find much needed work, her second wish helped her mother recover from an illness, but the girl kept her third wish for herself, for later, for something she didn’t know that she wanted yet. Then she found out that the boy that she loved, who didn’t love her back, was moving away. She closed her eyes and made her last wish that this boy never leave town, that he stay right there, rooted, always in the town, with her.
The next day the boy walked to train station but then, suddenly, he couldn’t move his feet. Police and doctors and the whole town came to him but they also couldn’t move his feet. The girl visited him every day, she was so worried, and she was the first to notice that his feet had sprung roots and were sunk into the ground. As the boy stood there day after day he slowly, from his feet up to his head, inch-by-inch, became a tree. The girl visited the boy every day even after he had stopped moving. Even after you could barely make out his face in the bark, his eyes open, his mouth wide in a petrified scream.
There were more tales on this filmstrip but I didn’t see them because I was rigid with fear. I was trembling and pale and wanted to throw up. I asked to be excused and the librarian allowed me to leave with a sharp nod of her head. I ran out into the library and sat by myself, cold all over, trying not to cry.
For weeks afterwards I figured that I was safe on pavement because trees can’t root to cement, but when I was walking on grass there was a chance that each step would cause me to become forever fused to the ground. When I walked to and from school I sprinted across lawns as fast as I could, trying to make each footfall short and quick enough that, had some wish tried to turn me into a tree, the paralysis wouldn’t be able to find a purchase.
Basic logic should have released me from this terror since people obviously cannot become trees. My parents assured me that it wasn’t real, it was just a story, and that such things don’t occur. They tried to reason with me that if such things did occur we’d know about them. They’d be on the news and the cover of Time magazine and we would have paved over the whole world or found a cure. They tried to tell me that things this terrible and nonsensical simply don’t happen. But I didn’t believe them. Because they were lying.
I recognized that this story, this fable, was made up. But I also knew that it was, on another, deeper, level absolutely true. People are, through no fault of their own, ruined. Misunderstandings render death. Those who love us may use that love to justify hurting us. They may paralyze us to keep us close. You can do everything right in your life and some well-meaning person may still ruin you. Tragedy occurs despite our best efforts and intentions. Tragedy will occur.
This fable filmstrip was trying to prepare children for truths that adults learn through jagged experience. My classmates were possibly titillated by the quick glimpse of this knowledge but they didn’t dwell on the experience. They went outside and played. But I did more than peek at this knowledge. I stared at it, down into it, down to the bone, and the sight burned me.
Dana Norris is the founder of Story Club, a monthly storytelling show in Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis. She is the editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. She has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, the Tampa Review, and her stories have been featured on Chicago Public Radio. You may see her upcoming performance schedule at dananorris.net.