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Missouri storyteller Gladys Coggswell inspires elementary students

Thursday, February 2, 2012 | 5:37 p.m. CST; updated 11:47 a.m. CST, Friday, February 3, 2012
Storytellers Gladys Coggswell and Angela Williams present stories to Lee Elementary School students. Coggswell and Williams will be at Lee Elementary and West Boulevard Elementary schools all month as part of the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology’s new exhibit, "Black Women in Art and the Stories They Tell."

*Storyteller Gladys Coggswell is originally from New Jersey and now lives in Frankford, northwest of Louisiana, Mo. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect home state and current town of residence for Coggswell.

COLUMBIA — "Give me an 's!'"

"S!"

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"Give me a 't!'"

"T!"

That's how award-winning Missouri storyteller Gladys Coggswell excited a class of fourth-graders Wednesday at Lee Elementary School. In a room alive with bright paintings and drying clay pots, she continued on with the letters o, r and y.

Coggswell threw her hands in the air. "What’s that spell? 'Story!'" she said, her face lit up with a big smile.

*This week, Coggswell, of Frankford, is a guest resident at Lee Elementary, as well as at West Boulevard Elementary School, to mentor students in writing and reading.

The residency is in conjunction with the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology’s new exhibit, "Black Women in Art and the Stories They Tell," which runs until April 29.

The class began with a story from her co-storyteller and former apprentice, Angela Williams. Equipped with a djembe drum and a melodic voice, Williams hooked the students into her "Excalibur"-like story, "Master Man," about a magically sealed water well and a vain man.

Williams lumbered around, imitating a ferocious man, her voice jumping flawlessly from the man's low-pitched growl to a high-pitched trill of a young woman. As the plot built, the fidgety students became transfixed, mouths agape and shoulders forward.

"I liked the story a lot," student Octavia Jaszczynska told Coggswell. "I really liked how she did the voices."

After the story, the children volunteered to read excerpts of journals they kept about a fictitious journey on the Oregon Trail. The assignment was a way to teach them about the westward expansion from Missouri in the 19th century.

More hands inched up as students became more comfortable with Coggswell and Williams’ spirited presentation of stories and songs that emphasized student participation.

"We are bringing two oxen, one cow and one pig. It is 1850. My pa is a doctor, and Ma is a writer," Tamia Flowers read, hesitating as she started the next sentence. She showed her teacher, Ann Norris, her paper.

"Oh — Conestoga. A Conestoga wagon," Norris said. "That’s a type of wagon they used on the Oregon Trail."

"Well, good," Coggswell said. "It’s good to use new words. I didn’t even know what that meant myself. That shows that you can always learn new things."

In between presentations to students, Coggswell, 69, said she never liked storytelling when she was young. But after going through a traumatic experience, vengeful thoughts often entered her mind, and the only peace she got was through stories her husband would tell her, she said.

Storytelling played a part of Coggswell's life before that. Whenever Coggswell acted up as a young girl, her grandmother would teach her lessons through elaborate moral stories instead of reprimanding her.

"It wasn’t until I got married in 1972 when I realized what a great thing she (my grandmother) did," Coggswell said, recalling her grandmother’s stories.

*Originally from New Jersey, Coggswell started memorizing the stories she had been told until she was able to perform them. She has told them ever since.

Now, Williams, 28, is picking up the reins of storytelling as she follows in Coggswell’s footsteps.

Williams was 9 when she met Coggswell, and they reunited years later when Coggswell was part of a performance group and saw Williams out in the audience lip-syncing to the words.

"That’s all she ever did, lip-sync — she was so quiet," Coggswell said. "But I could see within her that there was a storyteller."

She told a story about a fifth-grade boy she had met once during her storytelling travels who was  shy and averse to the spotlight. Yet, when a singing part was required in a story and this boy came up in front of everyone to sing it, his voice surprised everyone.

"He sounded like a bird," Coggswell said, smiling at the memory. "Everyone was shocked. Parents were crying. Everyone was clapping. It was beautiful."

The next summer, she saw the same boy at an event where she was speaking in Florida, Mo., with his parents. When he went to high school, he became active in the glee club and choirs.

"You can find out a lot about people through storytelling," Coggswell said. "You can help them understand themselves." 


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