Mr. George and Me

There are many great teachers in the world, but I think each of us has at least one who we remember with a special sort of fondness. Maybe for you it was a high school English teacher with great taste in sarcastic novels or the history buff that made the past seem like more than a boring homework assignment. For me it was Mr. George, an elementary school teacher with a kind face and a fondness for tweed jackets…and storytelling.

Recently I contacted my old school about looking up my former teacher. I wanted to thank him for all the ways in which he had inspired me at such a young age. Mr. George was famous for telling stories at our weekly assemblies—folk tales and other traditional stories that helped me make sense of a world that often felt confusing.

My hometown was a good place, a nice town where we sat by the seaside eating ice cream and fish sticks. On a clear day, you could look out and see France. “Bonjour,” I would sometimes say, and I imagine people looking back, saying “Allo!”

Life was good, but it was also challenging at times because there was racism. As Ugandan refugees, my parents had brought a lot of “firsts” to my small hometown. They were the first refugees to arrive, and not so long after that I was the first person of color to be born there. We were a family that stood out. (Later, my dad told me about overhearing a kid tell her mum that she thought we were aliens—the kind from outer space.) It was difficult to understand why we were treated differently. I was bullied sometimes, too, so it was hard to concentrate at school.

I always paid attention to Mr. George’s stories, though. He had such a way of drawing us in—even those of us sat at the back of the classroom—and make us feel excited about learning. Sometimes we didn’t even realize that “learning” was what we were doing. He opened my mind to a world full of possibilities, helping me make sense of the world and my place in it.

Fast-forward to a day not too long ago when I received a letter in the mail from Mr. Len George. (I had never known his first name.) He’s 85, and long since retired, but the school had gotten in touch with his daughter, Clare. Together, they had googled me and written the letter. He wrote about remembering not just me, but also my mother and the house I grew up in. He also said that he’s still telling stories.

As the president of the International Storytelling Center, my job is to help show people how storytelling changes and enriches people’s lives. Reading the letter, I realized how amazing it would be to visit the person who inspired me to tell stories and think about life in this way. As it happened, I knew I’d be traveling in the UK in November, so I made special arrangements to stop through my old hometown to spend the afternoon with Mr. George and his family.

In England, as I drove to his home at Bexhill-on-Sea, a quaint town not so far from where I grew up, I wondered what Mr. George would be like now. After all, we hadn’t seen each other in more than 30 years. As it turned out, he’s slightly shorter than I remembered—but then again, the last time I saw him I was only 8 or 9 years old.

Mr. George welcomed me with a huge hug and we spent the afternoon rekindling memories and telling stories over many cups of proper English tea, cheese and biscuits, and finally chocolate cake. I took out an atlas and showed him Jonesborough, Tennessee, and explained how I got there. He read some of his favorite stories out loud, which brought back all his best stories from when I was a kid. His daughter and wife explained how, each day, he’d go through his books at home to find exactly the right story to tell at the next school assembly.

I owe so much to Mr. George, who not only taught me about life, but about myself—showing me how to become the stories I want to see in the world. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to reconnect with him, and thankful for teachers like him everywhere, using stories to help kids understand themselves and the world.