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Dispatches from the Moth · Posted On: Dec 20, 2013

A Night To Remember: The Inaugural High School GrandSLAM

by George Dawes Green

This past Monday, we held our first ever High School Grand Slam, featuring ten high school students from around New York City. George Dawes Green, our founder, reflects on the night.

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The first name called was Willa. When she approached the mike she seemed a little shy, as most high school girls would be before a microphone and a couple of hundred classmates and parents and teachers and Moth staff and Moth friends and Moth addicts.

She was nervous. We were all nervous. It was the first Moth High School GrandSLAM, featuring the stars of high school slams all over New York, gathered for a night of competitive story telling—and since most new things on this planet tend to disappoint, we were braced for that.

Then Willa told us a story about her accident-prone brother and her fear of blood, and of a terrible collision involving her brother running full-tilt and a cousin running full tilt towards him, and a lot of blood and a hospital and Willa finally overcoming her fear. And the story was so polished and funny and elegant that if you shut your eyes you’d think it was a professional raconteur up there. The audience laughed hysterically sometimes and sometimes gasped, and when Willa was done everyone cheered and the judges gave her really high scores, and I was a little worried, thinking, "They’ll never sustain this."

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But the next teller, Tcheser, a gangly young man, told us of how his wild uncle led him on a reckless expedition into the woods one night, and how they stumbled upon what they thought was a Ku Klux Klan rally, and his telling was so riveting and assured that we all hollered ourselves hoarse and the scores were fabulous.

One after another. Nica’s memory of being six years old in Jamaica and chasing a tormenter with a knife because she desperately missed her Mama. Christian’s breathtaking image of running away when she heard the news of her grandmother’s death, running through fields and jumping across creeks. Taylor’s heartbreaking meet up with her estranged Dad at a funeral (another funeral—these kids were not afraid to tackle darkness).

The scores kept climbing and climbing, as they will when all the judges are blissed-out and the host is rocking it (the sweet, silver-tongued Baratunde Thurston); and one after another characters were revealed to us in all their radiant human-glory. Emily’s story of losing her eyesight was somehow incandescent; Alfonso had us on the floor with a simple tale of a haircut gone bad; Chris’s story of buying the outfit that his grandfather was buried in was Runyonesque. The lovely and delightfully quirky Truly slayed us with her charm even before she spoke a word. Dante gave us his impossible prom tale and we had no breath left for huzzahs.

We were worn out.

Proud, ecstatic, shaken, challenged, undone.

Catherine McCarthy and Micaela Blei are the sorceresses who helped these students transform their raw stories into works of art. They were assisted by wizards Tim Manley and Erin Barker and David Crabbe and Casey Donahue.

Thanks to Joan Firestone, my beloved friend who shepherded this program during her watch as Executive Director, Catherine Burns who is always willing to get behind any harebrained scheme. Sarah Haberman who spoke profoundly to us about the educational value of this program.

Me, I don’t know nothin’ about education.

I just love compelling stories.

We heard ten of those on Monday night.

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All photos by Jason Falchook.

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