The Country School recently welcomed master storyteller Laconia Therrio as an Artist-in-Residence.
Raised in Gretna, Louisiana, Mr. Therrio currently serves as a Chaplain at Stamford Hospital while traveling around the country, telling stories to audiences both young and old. His visit was made possible through the generosity of The Madison Foundation
, whose vision of “investing in the future of our community” was on display throughout Mr. Therrio’s time on campus.
To begin his three-day visit, Mr. Therrio first joined Kindergarten-5th Grade students for their weekly, student-led WTCS radio show and told two stories: the Jewish folktale “Two Brothers” and a West African tale about a clever tortoise who foils his predators. Both stories emphasized the importance of kindness and fortitude in the face of great challenges. During his debrief with the students, Mr. Therrio said, “We never know who needs to hear your story.” The students were mesmerized by his presence and insight.
Mr. Therrio next visited 7th Grade students who had been researching West Africa as part of their World History study. In discussing the value of storytelling and oral tradition as a means of passing down generational wisdom and history, 7th Graders each selected an African folktale to learn, memorize, and perform for younger Country School students. Therrio’s workshops invited students to broaden their capabilities as storytellers and to shift their perspectives regarding the potential that stories have to connect people. He had the opportunity to watch five 7th Graders perform their own stories. “It is so clear that leadership and public speaking are important [as signature programs at The Country School]. But even more than that, I see a joyful rigor and love in every child in everything they are doing here,” said Therrio.
Mr. Therrio’s stories ranged culturally from the cemeteries of New Orleans, to plantation life in the backwoods of 18th Century North Carolina, to China, Ghana, and beyond. He merged autobiographical “signature stories” with fables whose origins span thousands of years. His stories were impactful and left students and faculty alike with a profound sense of appreciation for both the lessons and the man who shared them.
“Laconia is one of those people whose company you just treasure,” said history teacher and Director of Community Engagement, Will McDonough. “Time seems to stop when he tells his stories and the impact of his strength and wisdom is immeasurable.”
In recognizing the importance of stories as a unifying element of the human experience, Mr. Therrio joined The Country School’s Inclusion, Diversity, Empathy, Action (IDEA) Student Alliance for lunch as they met virtually with a group of student leaders in areas of Diversity and Inclusion from Madison’s Polson Middle School. After telling “The Basket,” a story from Ghana whose final line is, “And to this day, some people still think the beautiful things of the world must be seen,” Laconia reminded students that “Everyone has a story. Some stories are windows and some stories are mirrors. But every story matters, and every one of you is a storyteller.” This notion of some stories being mirrors into the relatable and familiar, while others invite us to better understand others whose experiences and identities differ from our own, was not missed by students.
Mr. Therrio’s final session with students landed him primarily as a listener. In 8th Grade history and English classes, students have been researching the untold story of a man named Theophilus Niger as part of the Witness Stones Project,
an undertaking which, through research, education, and civic engagement, seeks to restore the history and honor the humanity of the enslaved individuals who helped build our communities. After seeing the results and listening to students weigh in on their research, Mr. Therrio shared his heartfelt gratitude, thanking students for — some 252 years after Theophilus Niger’s death — allowing this formerly enslaved man to finally be seen. As Mr. Therrio said, “You have pulled this man from the dustbin of history and allowed his story to be told.”
In his final message Therrio reminded the students, “Stories build, stories bridge, and stories connect.” But most importantly, “The telling of stories is the laying of seed.” For the young people of The Country School and of Polson Middle School, seeds have been sown and the town of Madison will bear the fruits of the collective story our young leaders, creators, and storytellers are writing.