BY KRISTA RAMSEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer
When her Avondale house is dark and her family sleeping soundly, Rhonda Rae Smith slips into her teen-age sons' bedrooms and kneels beside their beds.
She whispers into their ears the same message she has told them for years. "You are great. You are wonderful. You are beautiful young black men."
They are powerful words, sometimes meant to soothe, sometimes meant to counter what the world has told them that day. Most of all they are meant to convey, deep into her sons' unconscious, who they are in their mother's eyes.
Rhonda Smith was a pipe fitter for 14 years, but words have always been her best tools. Today she works a 40-hour week as an estimator and is completing a degree at the College of Mount St. Joseph, but she still finds time for what she calls her gift and her destiny. Rhonda Smith is a storyteller.
To contact Rhonda Rae Smith for storytelling, call 559-1280.
Her dark eyes gleam. Her voice rises and falls, slows and quickens, stretching out some words and rhythmically repeating key phrases. She takes her listeners -- children in schools and in her neighborhood -- to ancient Greece or 18th century America. She becomes Odysseus or Pocahontas.
She is very good. When the words end, her listeners don't just applaud, they awaken. Woven within the story is a message: You are great. You are wonderful. You are competent. You are needed.
The Pied Piperess
Rhonda Smith calls herself the Pied Piperess, the "great-great-granddaughter of one of the children taken by the Pied Piper." She has always been fascinated by the fable, in which a mysterious man hired to rid a town of rats lures off its children as well.
"We never knew what happened to the children," she says. "We never knew. He took them, and their mothers and fathers woke up the next day."
She believes the Pied Piper took the children to rescue them from "a society that did not honor its word."
She believes we could use a piper -- or piperess -- today.
Today's children are lured off by drugs, greed and violence, she says. Today's parents do not know where their children are, physically or emotionally. And today's society has not honored its own word, its duty to its children, "which is to lead a life that someone can follow."
Rhonda Smith would like to rescue all children. She believes that, like those in the mythical town of Hamelin, they have all been overlooked. But she believes that in modern-day America, black children and poor children are especially forgotten.
This week a study by the Southern Education Foundation, an educational equity group, found that black students still trail far behind white students in college entrance and graduation. Court decisions against affirmative action and public apathy over racial inequities have left black students little better off educationally than their parents before them.
Rhonda Smith understands. In fact, she has lived the story. She remembers being an eager teen-ager, with good grades and high ambitions -- and, upon applying to nursing school, being asked sharply, "Are you sure you can do it?" She was, but still the college did not believe her.
So Mrs. Smith had to start telling herself her own stories. She had to find her gifts, stake out her place in the world, and believe in it with all her heart.
Now she would happily spend her life doing the same for children. She would tell them a story, face-to-face. Up close. She would look into their eyes, reach down beneath the loneliness and emptiness, and hand them a dream.
You are wonderful, she would tell them. You are beautiful, and able.
This time, instead of leading them off, the Pied Piperess would help them find their own way home.
Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at the Enquirer, 312 Elm St. Cincinnati 45202.