The BOOKPRESS March 2000

Our Town


Barbara Regenspan

 

I’m on a research leave from Binghamton University this term, facing my tenure decision when I return. I’ve spent the majority of my five years at Binghamton building a social justice-focused Master’s program in elementary education, mostly loving the labor-intensive work, particularly the development of a conception of social action as curriculum that has led to significant involvement of energetic students in the local community. But I haven’t published enough, even though I like to write and have collected lots of great data.

So now I have this wonderful block of time to write up, without the distraction of new data pouring in, what I’ve begun to figure out through my work: how John Dewey’s particular understanding of imagination might help us revitalize teacher education. What has inspired my own work is Dewey’s contradiction of the sentimentalized conception of the child’s imagination as focused on the unreal and the asocial: he observed, rather, the desire of children to make sense of their social reality and to participate in their community as the project of their own growth.

For Dewey, the division of labor between cultured people and workers was antithetical to the nature of human beings, 99% of whom were not distinctly intellectual, but rather wanted to use their imaginations to design a work and social life that made sense in the context of living in a democratic community. My writing involves the development of a teacher education curriculum based on this assumption about the nature of human imagination.

But every so often one is serendipitously positioned in a conversation between art and life that is uncanny, even mystical, reviving an earlier belief in political and spiritual resources yet to surface. I was fortunate enough to have had such an experience during the last week in January when my eleven-year-old daughter insisted we attend, and then testified at, the hearings about the City of Ithaca’s Southwest Development Plan. As it happened, it was the same week my thirteen-year-old son played storyteller Rashid Khalifa in his middle school’s production of a dramatic adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

It was not a simple case of art illuminating life. It was art issuing a personal invitation to participate in the life of the community in a way that took Dewey’s conception of imagination and made it real in the present moment. Though the hearings happened first, and established a need for more general public activism, it was the way the play spoke to this cause that awakened my determination to find my own place in the opposition campaign against the City of Ithaca’s current process and plans regarding big-box development.

A frequent theme among those who spoke at the hearings was the City Attorney’s ruling, permitting the city to segment the environmental review process in such a way as to make possible the dumping of 80,000 cubic yards of gravel fill by the Widewaters Corporation at a critical flood-plain site across from Buttermilk Falls. More generally, though, the speakers focused on a multiplicity of troubling issues related to the city’s pursuit of big-box development, some regarding the likely impact of this development on both the future vitality of downtown and on wages for the lowest paid workers locally, some on a complex of environmental issues, and many on the city’s highhanded and possibly illegal tactics, including the firing of the building commissioner who had originally denied Widewater the fill permit on three well-publicized and reasonable grounds.

The Rushdie play was about politics, too; its ultimate message, get control over people’s stories and you can control the world; let the story stream flow freely and no single force can dominate. To save our stories from being poisoned or plugged up is related to recognizing the insanity of armies (in the play the good guys win the war because they have no discipline), rejecting all orthodoxies, and questioning long and hard whether science really can manufacture happy endings.

The play began with a classical chorus that resonated with the fears for our city’s future voiced at the hearings:

There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured, packaged and sent all over the world, which never seemed to get enough of it. Black smoke poured out of the chimneys of the sadness factories and hung over the city like bad news.

And in the depths of the city, beyond an old zone of ruined buildings that looked like broken hearts, there lived a happy young fellow by the name of Haroun, the only child of the storyteller Rashid Khalifa.

The action progressed quickly from this ominous beginning, with the unbearable sadness of the city predictably contaminating the lives of the storyteller and his family. The beloved Soraya, Rashid the storyteller’s wife and Haroun’s mother, abandons them, running off with the upstairs neighbor, Mr. Sengupta. Soraya leaves Rashid the following note:

You are only interested in pleasure, but a proper man would know that life is a serious business. Your brain is full of make-believe, so there is no room in it for facts. Mr. Sengupta has no imagination at all. This is OK by me. Tell Haroun I love him, but I can’t help it, I have to do this now.

The identification of "an old zone of ruined buildings" with Ithaca’s downtown was instantaneous for me, especially later in the play when Iff the Water Genie laments its probable fate:

Iff: The Old Zone is where the Source of Stories is located, from which the ancient stories flow. You know how people are—they want new things, always new. The old tales, nobody cares. But if the Source itself is poisoned, what will happen to the Ocean—to us all?

But it was Soraya’s note that triggered my self-conscious awareness about participating in an important conversation with art. This woman left her beloved husband and child; that’s how desperate she was for lack of imagination. And I recognized the play on words as the sentence was forming in my mind. She was desperate because of her lack of imagination; she was in desperate pursuit of a lack of imagination.

That note captured for me the peculiar wild emptiness of our city’s pursuit of big-box retail. Here was the same abandonment of precious family: sensitive wetlands and the majestic views from Buttermilk Falls, already compromised by 80,000 cubic yards of gravel fill deemed illegal by a conveniently fired building commissioner. This in the name of urgent need for development, despite the universally acknowledged failure of the model.

The play responded with an appropriate perspective on both need and urgency: Rashid and Haroun leave their city, which is now too weepy for words, and travel into the surrounding letter-named countryside where Rashid will tell made up stories whose unabashed integrity will help elect local politicians:

Chorus: It was almost election time. And it was well known that nobody ever believed anything a politico said. But everyone had complete faith in Rashid because he always admitted everything he told them was completely untrue. So the politicos needed Rashid to help them win the people’s votes.

In his sorrow over the loss of his wife, nothing but barks come out of Rashid’s mouth in the Town of G. He is threatened with dismemberment by angry politicos, and accompanied by his protective son Haroun, he flees on a speeding bus to the Valley of K where he promises a "terrifico" performance. It turns out that the busdriver, Mr. Butt, is a philosopher of sorts:

Rashid: "Do we need to go so blinking fast?"

Mr. Butt [the busdriver]: "Need to stop? Need to go so quickly? Well, Need’s a slippery snake, that’s what it is. The boy here says that you, sir, Need a View Before Sunset, and maybe it’s so and maybe no. And some might say that the boy here Needs a Mother, and maybe it’s so and maybe no. And it’s been said of me that Butt Needs Speed, but but but it may be that my heart truly needs a Different Sort Of Thrill. Oh, Need’s a funny fish: it makes people untruthful.

During election season here in Ithaca, local politicians are quick to present themselves as Mother to Ithaca’s unique character (often including its View Before Sunset, not to mention its vibrant downtown arts community, held together with a web of independent bookstores) but the definition of that character is quite conveniently a funny fish; it changes when anybody calls for its preservation. (Need to stop?) And what will the city sell to developers at what Speed? Bridgewater’s offer of $960,000 following their earlier bid of $804,000 for Carpenter Park met with no response from the city, being deemed inadequate; yet when Building Links, (a funny fish of Cynthia Yahn’s who supposedly operates as a non-profit dedicated to building a healthy downtown economy) insisted on and got a Speedy acceptance of its $900,000 offer, its client was the same Bridgewater and Ms. Yahn was sharing with local booksellers the news that the tenant was Borders. Now a former Common Council member tells us that there was no discussion at the time of the earlier bid which she knew nothing about. (Need to go so quickly?) And the contorted language of the purchase agreement reveals the city’s effort to cover up probable environmental contamination of the Carpenter Park site.

Mr. Butt: "It was a figure of speech. But but but I will stand by it! A figure of speech is a shifty thing: it can be twisted or it can be straight."

The bus ride continues and Haroun convinces Mr. Butt to stop for a view of the sun setting over the Valley of K, a view Rashid has often described to his son as incompatible with sadness. Indeed, the view has that effect on Rashid:

Rashid: "Thanks, son. For some time I thought we were all done for, finito, Khattam-shud."

Haroun: "Khattam-Shud. Wasn’t that a story?"

Rashid: "Khattam-Shud is the Arch-

Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. ‘It’s finished,’ we tell each other, ‘it’s over. Khattam-Shud: The End.’"

It hadn’t occurred to me before that there is a dialectical relationship between hope and storytelling, and that this relationship might help us to understand some of the conflict experienced by communities like ours over issues of big-box development. Rashid the storyteller has somehow remained cheerful despite the sadness that has descended on his town, causing it to lose its name. The factories spewing smoke have apparently poisoned everything, but Rashid, magically connected to the Story Waters in the Great Story Sea, loses his hope only when his beloved wife, his deepest and most intimate connection to humanity, abandons him. But a View Before Sunset is sufficient inspiration to reverse Rashid’s desperation.

People who argued at the hearings and continue to argue daily for an understanding of what big-box development means from a global/ecological perspective are labeled "elitist" and/or "classist" and/or unsubstantial. The implications are that awareness of our spiritual and economic connections with others, and with all natural resources, the reality that John Dewey conceived of as the basis for the functioning of human imagination (and Rushdie, the basis for storytelling) is an unfairly privileged state that leads to irrelevant knowledge. In other words, our mayor tells us that you have to be rich to know that you don’t deserve "development" purchased at the expense of your neighbors across town or across the world or through the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.

At the same time, because the real conversation is about making the deal go through, you are not real and your knowledge not substantive when you don’t respond to the specifics of the actual development plan. Here you can have real input, the city tells us. What should we require of these corporations, even though they are a more powerful version of the ones we already have that won’t pay for traffic lights, even as they threaten to go elsewhere during the very planning process? Loss of Deweyan imagination leads to magical thinking, but not the inspiring kind we find in stories. Instead, we are asked to negotiate with Khattam-Shud.

The problem is that the charges of elitism, so effective in silencing the dialogue that needs to happen about development issues, works for two reasons: The first is that in an era where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer at an alarming rate, those of us who live in relative comfort are ashamed and confused. Understanding vaguely that in this new global economy our standard of living is artificially bolstered by the poverty of others, usually of color, often far away, and usually having stories either poisoned or silenced by the Khattam-Shuds of this world, we are perpetually guilty.

The second is that there is some truth to this charge, even within the context of the local debates. John Dewey correctly saw that the division of labor into cultured people and workers was antithetical to the nature of human beings. But what we’ve learned since Dewey’s time is how much of what we call human is open to social construction and destruction. Those who have been able to hold onto or recover the awareness of connectedness to others and to nature, the basis for imagination in the Deweyan sense, and for generating stories in the Rushdie sense, have somehow outwitted the division of labor in our own lives. But we have not successfully fought the global political struggle to ends its economic and spiritual domination of the majority.

Sometimes this personal outwitting is accomplished through a process of spiritual awareness and transformation and sometimes it is achieved through education, often "elite" education. It typically involves a certain amount of sweat and personal sacrifice, but the sacrifice is usually experienced as a choice. Sometimes it represents a reversal of the patterns of oppressing others and patterns of exploiting the natural world to which we have been socialized; sometimes it represents a reversal of patterns of accepting oppression. Typically it is partial and unfinished, like all human processes, meaning that people are still influenced by past limitations and ongoing disconnections despite their best intentions of moving toward a common good. Economic privilege and/or luck often makes such personal transformative processes, incomplete as they are, possible. The point is that without a massive political movement, such transformation is available only to the few.

There are no easy solutions to these contradictions, but again, Haroun and the Sea of Stories offers hope. Strategizing about how to defeat Khattam-Shud and his Warriors of Chup, Rashid translates the ancient sign language revived in this silenced community by a renegade officer: "Don’t think all Chupwalas follow Khattam-Shud...Mostly they are simply terrified."

Strategizing on this basis, the war is won, the Sea of Stories is unplugged, and the fortress of Khattam-Shud, including its story-poisoning apparatus, is melted, quite literally, by light, thanks to the son, Haroun. Soraya’s love affair with lack of imagination is predictably short-lived and we are left with the impression that under the influence of Haroun, Rashid has grown out of his earlier self-absorbed befuddlement to become a storyteller with a better capacity to attend to immediate reality.

Though we know that reality is often stranger and more complex than the best of the arts (like this marvelous play bravely produced by our local Montessori Middle School), perhaps we can learn lessons from Rushdie. Perhaps Ithaca’s arts and protest communities might unite to develop strategies of organization against the fears that polarize our city, silencing dialogue and giving power to Khattam-Shud, and we might even find ways to collect and disseminate the currently silenced stories in our midst.

Two recent developments suggest support from organizations that have long served as community anchors: The new editor of the Ithaca Times formally invited stories from poorly paid local workers in his last editorial, and the Board of Zoning Appeals, an independent body that can serve as a check on City Hall’s power exercised that independence both by overturning the fill permit that allowed Widewater’s to dump its gravel across from Buttermilk Falls and by dictating into the public record the story of the city’s harassment of it’s own (zoning board) members.

So it’s important to remember that our story is in process. And Rushdie’s character, the Walrus, synthesizer of Happy Endings by P2C2E (a process too complicated to explain), and Haroun leave us with a final bit of wisdom:

Walrus: "Happy endings must come at the end of something. If they happen in the middle of the story, or an adventure, all they do is cheer things up for a while."

Haroun: "That’ll do."
 
 

Barbara Regenspan is an associate

professor of Education at Binghamton

University.

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