Years ago, when B and her friends complained about how “flat and dead” The Textbook was and ultimately inspired the Tres Columnae Project, their complaints helped me understand something important about stories. I had liked and enjoyed That Textbook because it did have stories and continuing characters … but stories and continuing characters weren’t enough to make The Textbook come alive for B, E, and the others. “We like making our own stories and our own characters,” they told me … and I know I’ve told that story many times before, but every time I think about it, I see something I haven’t seen before.
What I noticed today was that a living story and living characters must have room to breathe. But The Textbook was airtight. You could try to make up stories to fill gaps and cracks between existing stories … but of course you couldn’t publish them anywhere or share them with anyone. And even if you did, there weren’t many gaps or cracks to fill.
And the trouble with airtight is that, in the absence of air, you can’t breathe … and eventually, if you can’t breathe, you die. The Textbook, the kind that tries to be a complete learning ecosystem, aims to be airtight … but it fails, and it has to fail, in a world where knowledge isn’t fixed or static. And other attempts at airtight fail, too, in a rapidly changing world.
But if the trouble with airtight is that it ultimately brings death, the opportunity from airtight is that you can break out of it … and people do it all the time. B and E’s struggles against airtight led to the Tres Columnae Project; other struggles against airtight have led to enduring friendships.
I’m thinking of another B and another E this morning. Both are former colleagues of mine; I met them both about twenty years ago, early in our teaching careers. B had taught for a while, moved to the Big City to do other things, and then come home (and returned to teaching) because he needed to care for an elderly relative. E had left military service and joined the Troops to Teachers program. E was as straight-laced and conservative as B was relaxed and liberal … and somehow they formed a friendship that’s endured for decades despite the vast differences in their world views. Sometimes they argue, sometimes they fight, sometimes they tease each other, sometimes they just agree to disagree … but the friendship endures, and I’m grateful to have both of them as friends of mine.
But why does their friendship endure, and how did they get to be friends in the first place? If you gave E a generic description of somebody like B, he’d probably slap on a label (something like “crazy old hippie,” perhaps) and never imagine the possibility of becoming friends with Somebody Like That … and B, in turn, given a generic description of someone like E, would respond with equivalent labels and rejection. But when B and E became friends, the label wasn’t airtight; they were able to see each other as people, to find common ground, to form an unlikely but enduring friendship. And when I stop for a moment, I can think of several other unlikely sets of friends I know.
That gives me hope on a chilly Fall morning, but it also makes me wonder why friendships like that, friendships that ignore the airtight labels, seem to be so rare. Are they actually rare, or is it just that we tend to see the public labeling more than the private friendships? In the wake of bitter, negative political campaigns, where public labeling was omnipresent and extraordinarily expensive, will former rivals be able to form a community the way B and E have done? And what about the joyful learning communities we’re attempting to build at District Y and District Q?
The stories and labels in the Tres Columnae Project are far from airtight. There are gaps and cracks we included deliberately, in the hopes that participants would generate new stories to fill them … and there are other gaps and cracks we never noticed until somebody pointed them out. As we developed the storyline, we started to notice that formerly bitter rivals began to become allies. That happens early on, at the end of Lectiō IV, with Medusa the dog and the mouse-family, and it happens later with grown-up Cnaeus Caelius and Lucius Valerius.
Perhaps art imitated life. As we built and rebuilt these stories, we were also building and rebuilding a joyful learning community … and it was a very diverse community in which formerly bitter rivals did, over time, become allies and even friends. T would describe himself as extremely conservative, C as extremely liberal … but they’re still friends despite the differences and the hundreds of miles that now separate them. And both had a lot of influence on the stories and on the community at Former School.
Does a joyful learning community create spaces for labels (and stories) to become less airtight? Or is it that, as your stories and labels become less airtight, you’re more and more willing to participate in a community where other members aren’t exactly like you? I’m not sure there’s a simple answer, and I’m really not sure it matters. “Start anywhere, follow it everywhere,” the folks at Walk Out Walk On say.
And on this chilly Fall morning, I’m grateful for the diversity of the joyful learning communities I’ve belonged to, and I’m grateful for friends who embrace each other (and me!) despite, or even because of, our differences. I wonder what new insights and discoveries await as we keep poking air holes int he formerly airtight labels and stories that once divided us … and I wonder what remarkable new gaps, cracks, and stories we’ll build together in the days and weeks to come.