Run Bus Car Broken
“We make sense of our experience through stories. We impose a linear structure on confusing events. From the lofty spires of cathedrals to sleeping bags around a fire, storytelling is an integral part of the human experience and a fundamental means of human education.”
Daniel Quinn’s book The Story of B has an illustration of humans reading some tracks in the dirt. By doing so, they tell the past and the future in the present. This is the ability to create and read stories: How did things get the way they are? What would things be like if something else had happened? How can you recreate the past from what you experience now? What will things be like in the future if some condition persists? Hunters read tracks. Pacific Islanders read the stars. City dwellers read their fellow travelers on the bus. Fortune-tellers read their clients. Parents read their children’s moods (and vice versa). We make stories out of our interactions and observations.
“Run bus car broken.” This amazing story was the first string of words articulated by my then 21-month-old daughter. Coming out of the library, we had discovered that our car’s engine would not start. Seeing the bus go by, we made a dash for it: pregnant mom toting toddler, books, and diaper bag. My daughter thought this was great fun – the running and the bus ride. She blurted it out to her Dad when he came home. It made a great story: run bus car broken.
We make sense of our experience through stories. We impose a linear structure on confusing events. Human legal systems involve recreating events that are unknown to us through pieces of evidence. A legal trial is the creation of a story. If the story is undisputed, the case is “open and shut “(notice the book terminology). Only when we believe we have the story correct can we reach a verdict and impose a sentence. If the story does not satisfy, the proceedings are deadlocked.
Some people claim that humans are unique in their ability to tell stories. However, I don’t think it really matters whether squirrels tell squirrel stores or robins tell robin stories. Storytelling is indeed a wondrous ability whether or not we share it with other creatures.
A friend recently gave my eight-year-old daughter a Shakespeare “treasure chest,” complete with key. It contains a few plays, some historical notes, and a recreated cardboard Globe theater. I find this to be a metaphor for the tragedy of great literature. It is intellectually locked up – reserved for the upper class. Some public school teachers and even some parents say their students don’t find relevance in Shakespeare’s plays. I find this to be a failure of imagination on the part of the teachers, parents, and students. Stories resonate with humans. Despite the difficult language of Shakespeare, it belongs to all English-speakers as our inheritance. The situations can be compared to those we find ourselves in today. Do you love someone your parents or peers disapprove of? Have you ever had the chance to profit at the expense of someone else? Have you been treated differently because someone thought you were someone else? These themes ripple throughout the entire folio.
Shakespeare himself freely borrowed from the stories of others, embellishing, combining, and refining them. They tell truths about our humanity. They are the free treasures of our shared existence. I am an enthusiastic proponent of Shakespeare in the Park and have endeavored to bring it to my city: free, minimalist, open-air theater. Park users can drop in for a scene or stay for the whole play. They are under no pressure to behave like an experienced Shakespearean audience. A play is a story that is not finished until it is performed: the playwright, producer, director, actors, audience, scenery, and music all contribute to the telling of the story. It is a living art form – to borrow a Biblical term, it is the word made flesh – storytelling.
Religions, too, rely on the repeated re-enactment and telling of important stories: the Seder and the Passion are vital components of Judaism and Christianity, respectively. Animist religions transmit values through stories of turtles and bears and rivers. All of these stories are passed down through the generations in ceremonial fashion. More than mere artifacts, they are the lifeblood of learning, culture, and religion. The young have been learning from their elders and continuing tradition through storytelling for hundreds of thousands of years.
From the lofty spires of cathedrals to sleeping bags around a fire, storytelling is an integral part of the human experience and a fundamental means of human education. My children, as life learners, are just like other humans in this way, but perhaps a little more so.
Gina Cassidy is the mother of four and a community college composition and writing instructor. She has master degrees in English and Applied Linguistics and is a volunteer for Illinois Radio Reader for the blind and an art docent with the local park district.