Larry Inchausti: When we were talking about the themes for this conference, they said, “Well you know you got a lot of stories in your books about what do you do when the leadership is gone, or when the leaders are absent or the leaders die. Then how does the community reconstitute itself?” And then, the other side of this that we are also going to talk about improvisation as one of the responses that people have to do when they are suddenly thrown in positions that they are not prepared for, or they hadn’t thought they were prepared for, and they have to get the courage to rely on their own internal resources rather than their mastery of a program or discipline or an ideology or something. Usually when this happens, their most creative work emerges or the unexpected emerges and you find that you have a subversive within the orthodoxy, or you have an orthodox within the subversive. And the order and the change turn out to not be as antithetical as people maybe, once thought.
So I thought through the books, a couple of stories that illustrate this, but before I get to what I think as a good story, I was listening to –NPR, a little while ago and I was thinking about this problem and they had a little feature about this book on the Spanish Civil War and it was women’s accounts of their experience on the Spanish Civil War, and I thought this fits right into Chautauqua. I don’t know how! (laughter)But it is a perfect story just to put on the table and we can come back to it after I give you my little riff. It turns out that this woman was in a cadre of revolutionaries on this mountain fighting Franco’s soldiers, and they were getting strafed by these airplanes, and they lost their leader. And the leader had the map as to how to get down from the mountain and so they gather together and say, “Ok, so we can’t stay up here because you know, the light is going to change, and we are going to be sitting ducks, so we have to get down the mountain and but we don’t have the map. So what do we do?”
So one of the guys said, “I know the way down. Follow me.” They said, “Ok.” An hour and a half later they are back where they were. He made a complete circle around the mountain that had not taken them anywhere. So they are sitting there and saying, “God you know it’s all over.” He said, “Well I know the…” They said, “You had your chance and we are not going to listen to you any more.” And then somebody found a map in their pocket and they said, “You know I didn’t know I had this in my pocket.” And they took out the map and they go “Ok where are we ? I guess we are here.” And they used the map and they made it all the way down the mountain and they survived and they made it through and they went strafed by the airplanes and then the woman is looking at the guy who found the map who is looking at the map, and she says, “What’s wrong?” And he says, “It is not the mountain. It is the map of a different mountain!” And she goes, “I am glad we didn’t find that out earlier.”
And there is a metaphor, and I don’t know what the hell it is. Maybe it is you just need a map, does not have to be your map and if you kind of find, corollaries between what you are experiencing and what, you know… I guess mountains aren’t that different. Maybe they are not as different as we think they are and coming down mountain is maybe more of an archetype of an experience. Anyway that is one.
But I wanted to tell the story that is in “Spit Wad Sutras” of how my mentor, Brother Ed taught me about improvisation in the classroom and what it meant to be an improvisational teacher in the classroom. When I started teaching, I never went to educational school. I never learnt any teaching techniques, and so I was just in graduate school and I got this job in a Catholic high school and they said “You have been in graduate school, you should know how to teach this stuff.” So they threw me in this classroom with these ninth grade kids that used to just throw things at me, most of the day. And so I would endure their humiliations from day to day, and start looking into real estate school and other options, because it was so horrendous and Brother Edward worked with me, and they would send me to these workshops on how to deal with discipline, and they were all bogus things, like if the kids do something you put their name on the board and if they do something again you check it, and you know all this behavioral mod stuff, which I was just terrible at. I couldn’t really, they could see through me that I did not really believe in it and it was all bogus.
So, we had this great little curriculum and one of them was, we started with the image in the literature class. We started talking about just images, how images communicate. And then we moved from image to systems of images, which would be like Aesop’s fables and parables. And then we moved from Aesop’s fables and parables to systems of systems of images, which would be like novels or poetry and I had this beautiful little progression. Well logically you would think that would be easy to teach or to sell, but it was not really working for me. I understood it very well and there was one class period in particular in the afternoon and they were all tired and they were looking at me like you know, “Whatever you want to teach.” And I would say, “Let’s interpret some parables and some Aesop’s fables.” So I read them some Aesop’s fables. “Now, what do we do? We isolate the images and so what are the images on the board?” And so we did it a couple of time and it seemed to go well, mainly because the were too tired and disinterested to humiliate me. So that was kind of a victory of sorts. But it also seemed like a hollow victory because I was getting compliance because I was teaching then nothing, and so I remember Brother Ed saying, “If you ever want to know why Jesus taught parables, turn to Jesus’s sermon on the parables and Mathew:12 and read then the first three paragraphs. So this kid has at some point, he raises his hands and asks. “Why are we doing this? Why are we doing this?” So I said, “You want to know why we are doing this? Why Jesus says we are doing this?” So I opened the Bible. It was a Catholic school, and I opened the Bible to Mathew:12 where there is these prophetic lines, “The reason I teach in parables because I teach in parables is because the heart of this nation has grown cold, and I want to speak so that the humble hear me, and the wealthy and the powerful go away confused.” And so I thought, “That’s me man, and that’s me, I am Jesus!”(laughter) and then the next line was something like, “and the people were astounded because he spoke with authority not like the scribes.”
I say, “Remind you of anybody?” Right about that time, a spit wad comes right out of nowhere, hits me right between the eyes, the bell rings and they are out of the room. The kid had timed it perfectly.
Now, they had told me if anything like this ever happened and I should get on the intercom, call them all back and the vice principal would come in and give them a tongue lashing, and then I could stay with them for an hour and a half after school, which is something I wanted to do. So I am just sort of gees, … real estate is a noble profession (laughter). Maybe I am just not cut out to be this teacher thing, and Ed comes in and he asks, “What happened?” And I say, “I can’t tell you. It is too humiliating.” And he says well, “Its nothing that I haven’t seen.” And I knew I could trust him because he looked like about 180 years old to me. He was probably only 65 at that time but I thought he was, near death. (laughter) So I said, “Yeah, you know, I was reading them, why Jesus spoke in parables and that Jesus spoke like the authority and not like the scribes, and this kid’s spit wad hit me right between the eyes. And they laughed around the room and I did not know what to do, and I got to deal with them again tomorrow, and if I had no authority yesterday, I have even less now. So I am just sort of sitting here thinking about what my options are.” and he (Ed) goes, “Oh! Well that doesn’t sound so bad.” And I say, “What do you mean it does not sound so bad” And he says, “It sounds like somebody was listening, to your little speech about authority.” And I said, “Oh yeah?”
He goes, “Yeah, and he made a little comment.” And I say, “Well what was that comment?” And he says, “You don’t have it!” And I said, “You are right. I mean you didn’t even have to tell me that. I knew that’s what that meant.” He says, “Well, you tell them to tell the truth. The kid tells you the truth and you can’t handle it. So what kind of authority is that?” I say, “Well yeah, that is why I am looking into these other job opportunities.” And he says, “You know this is your first year teaching and it takes – you know they can give you these ‘fixes’ at these seminars and that is not real authority. You can learn how to mimic fake authority and that is not what you want to learn. You want real authority, and it will probably take you ten years to get real authority. But teaching the ninth graders, you can get authority in three years, but it will take you thee years because you have to suffer it all out, and this is one of the things you have to suffer out.”
And I said, “Ok. That’s great! I am going to suffer for three more years until I get authority? I gotta to teach them tomorrow. I need a lesson plan tomorrow.” So he says, “Well I know what you can teach them.” And I said, “What’s that.” He says, “Instead of telling them how to interpret parables, tell them the parable about the teacher who got hit between the eyes with a spit wad. And ask them what it means.” And I, you know, it was like an Andy Hardy movie. That’s so crazy it might just work. And I said, “But I don’t know what it means.” He said, “I know, but that is why you have to ask them. Find out what it means and then you build dialogue and then you start, and that’s what improvisation is. It isn’t coming in and watching me riff on Jesus’s authority. You come and ask them a question you don’t know the answer to and you discover it together with them.” So, I said, “Ok, I think I can do this. I can pull this off.”
So I come in the next day. I have it all planned and they were so funny because they knew that something was up. So they all come in after their lunch and they are more reserved than usual. They are expecting the vice principal to come in and chew at them again. So I say, “Ok guys I got a parable for you. I want you to help me with, an Aesop’s fable, a fable that I want you to interpret for me. There once was a teacher, that was teaching his class about parables, and he read a passage from Jesus about how Jesus used parables because he taught with authority and not like the scribes. And right in middle of it, a student threw a spit wad that hit him right between the eyes, and the class laughed and ran out of the room. What does it mean?” And they are all looking down. And my best student raises his hand and I go “Yes Jim.” He says, “It means we should always listen to our teachers and do what they tell us.” And I said, “Jim those are valid sentiments and I appreciate your support here. We have a method though, for interpreting the parables and that is that we isolate the images and we look for the system or systems of meaning that connect those images, and I am having a hard time seeing how those images connect with the message that we should always obey our teachers.” And he says, “Well, nevertheless its true.” And I go, “Well. Yeah. We are trying to interpret stories and parables here, and one of the things about parables is that they have unexpected meanings and they are surprises. And that is not too surprising.”
And then I say, “Ok. So let us isolate the images. So, Ok who is the teacher?” And they go, “You.” “That’s good.” I go, “Who are the students?” They go, “Us.” I say, “What is the spit wad?” And then they weren’t quite sure what the spit wad was. And so finally one kid raises his hands and he says, “Spit wads are kid’s stuff. They are what kids do. And adults say they are interested in kids and in what kids do, but when they are really confronted with kid’s stuff they can’t handle it.” And I said, “That’s pretty interesting.” And now at this point, this is the longest conversation that we have had as a group in the entire year. It was more attention being paid to this little drama unfolding than I had ever been able to concoct by any kind of fear mongering that I had ever been able to establish. And there was a degree of reality about this conversation because I was vulnerable and I was part of it because I was trying to work out my fate with theirs, rather than just me telling them what my fate was.
Another kid raises his hand and he says, “No, I think that the spit wad is the truth.” And I go, “Well, that’s pretty advanced.” And I said, “How so?” And he says. “Well the teacher thought he had the truth in his head but the truth was in front of him, in his class. And when the truth hit him, he didn’y know what to do.” And I said, “God, I will take that to my therapist. That’s pretty good.” And this other kid says,”No,no,no the spit wad is against truth. The teacher was speaking truth and the students did not want to hear it, so they took out the voice of the prophet.” And I go “Man! that’s really great.” And then one of the kid says, “Well, which is it? Is it the students have truth or did the teacher have truth?”
And I said, in the moment of improvisational genius, “What if they are both true?” And then there is a little moment of, “hmmmm.” and then Marlo dropped Robin’s book bag out the window, and a fight broke out in the back of the room, and so we had to break them up and we had to talk about civil behavior and all of that stuff, but I had turned a corner because I had seen the promised land, and I knew it did not have anything to do with me mastering this little system of images connect the system. That was useful and it helped keep the discussion going but really it was the willingness to enter into unknown territory with these kids. And that created authentic dialogue and it created authority that was not mine. It sort of the authority that came out of what we did together and I never really understood that it was also teaching them about their own authority.
Now, I will give you one more story. Because I know you all are thinking about your own stories because this is not unique to my experience or me. We had this other project for the year. It was a great little project .It was called, ‘The Dig’. It was an archaeological project and the students broke up into little groups and they created an imaginary civilization and they had to answer, the six markers of an advanced civilization, you know, great architecture, religious mythology, food distribution systems, a civic authority and these things. They had to come up with an imaginary civilization that had a story about it and a history, and then they made little artifacts of each of these aspects of their civilization and they buried them in these little sawdust crates. And the other team would dig up the artifacts that they made, and then try to interpret the civilization that they had discovered. And then at the end of this project we had this mock academic conference where each anthropologist for the six aspects of the civilization would present their findings based on their analysis of the artifacts, and then the people from the actual civilization would get to tell how close they were, and so it became a very interesting – they took it as a kind of competition.
So, there was this one group that was kind of subversive and the other group was kind of orthodox, and they wanted their religion to be worshiping women’s breasts. These are 14-15 year old boys, right. And there was one kid in the group who was saying, “We can’t do this. We can’t do this. Mr. Inchausti, they are doing it wrong.” And I said, “Why is it wrong?” He said, “These guys want to worship women’s breasts. I mean this is a catholic school. Jesus Joseph and Mary don’t you remember?” I said, “Well you know, when you look at the Venus of Willendorf, an ancient civilization, you know there are a lot of naked women, there’s a lot of breasts. It isn’t like they just came up with it.” And he says, “How is that going to look on back to school night?” And I said, “It will probably look really good. No on second thought you are probably right Joseph. Maybe we could, maybe you could write a minority religious report.” So they switched. They went Catholic.
They had cockamamie story about this Octopian civilization that was run by Bathos that had a nuclear holocaust and all these things. To make a long story short, the day of the presentation one of the other kid’s job was to explain their religious values or their cultural values and so he gets up in front of the class and he says, “Well after you know a deep study, I dub this civilization, “civilization X”, and we find a lot of dolphins in the iconography of this civilization and looks like there is a temple, it has a dolphin on it. There is a book that looks like some sort of Bible or myth in a language that we don’t understand, but there is a dolphin in it. So my best guess is that these were a seafaring people and they must have admired dolphins and they must have liked the way dolphins lived, and they must have been very free and progressive people. And I think that this civilization I like to call this, not civilization “X” but “Dolphinia,” and that’s what I think their values were.”
And so then it was the other kid’s turn. He says, “You’re way off. You are way off Jonathan. We don’t worship dolphins. We eat dolphins. That place you thought was a temple, that was a canary and we eat and we destroy dolphins. We have dolphin sandwiches and we are Catholics and we are into disco and we are not interested in dolphins and we don’t even like to get into the ocean except to eat dolphins. So you are wrong.” And so Jonathan sort of says, and he is listening to all this and he says. “I’d like to make an amendment to my analysis.” And the other kids say, “It is not going to count, it can’t change now.” And he says, “No, no, in light of your revelation, I think I got a new idea.” Now this was the kid improvising now. Not me improvising, but watching this kid improvise on this assignment. He was a little taken aback that he had a more beautiful vision of a civilization than had actually existed, but he wasn’t going to let that go to the crude habitants of Octopia, who were Catholics who ate dolphins and octopus.
So he got up there and he said , “I would like to change my findings” He says, “Anthropologists, when they study a civilization. Don’t just study who the people thought they were. They have to study who the people are, and the evidence teaches me that prior to canning dolphins, people admired them and they were replaced by a warlike stupid group of canning assholes, that took their beautiful civilization and turned it into mud. And they can call themselves Octopians, but they were just jerks if you ask me.” And his team is applauding going, ‘Yeah, yeah! The Dolphinians.”
And I thought that was so powerful because it was like, who tells our history? Where do we mark who we are from what we become? What’s the evidence of who we are versus what you know are we really a mercantile that can eat dolphins. Is that who we are, or is there is some other mythology or story that is more inspiring? The kid wanted the more inspiring story but he had to deal with the fact that the story had been replaced by a dumber story, and yet he had the where-with-all to say, “Even though it does not count for the grade, I want to tell you how that story relates to this story.” And I think that’s what we are all doing. How does this map relate to that map on the ground of our shared experience? Or how does our sad story relate, you know to one that fits all the evidence, with our more our inspiring story. And so I thought that would be one way of talking about this question of where does this improvisation come from. You know what are we being asked to do when we are being asked to improvise. We are not being asked to come up with something totally new that is astounding to people. We are just asked to co-participate with them in the creation of an intelligibility, and if that intelligibility is hostile, we are not held hostage to their hostility. (Our improvisation says) that we could maybe respond back in a way that defends our higher values, but in conversation.