Telling Stories

In 1945, a goat owner, disgruntled that he and his odorous pet were removed from Wrigley Field, issued a curse upon the Chicago Cubs: they were done winning baseball games. The team immediately started losing. The curse plagued them for the following century despite many fans’ attempts to absolve them of it, using tactics ranging from a Greek Orthodox priest, goat sacrifice, and even the lifting of the curse itself by the original goat owner. And then, in 2016, the Cubs took their season all the way to the World Series and won. In a game loaded with significance and a century’s accumulation of hopes and disappointments, after ten dramatic innings, they beat the Cleveland Indians and broke the curse.

Here’s another version: The Cubs lost a bunch of baseball games, for a very long time, and then won a lot of baseball games, including the last game any team played this season.

This second alternative is a wholly dissatisfying manner to encounter this rich sports story. It maintains no causal structure, there are no individual characters, and no real stakes exist. The first example is much more engaging, and that’s without even doing the history of the curse justice. Our reality becomes more vibrant when we craft it into story form.

We as human beings value stories, and particularly, we value storytelling at TSS. Perhaps some examples can defend this assertion. Recently, a portion of the Field Education staff had a morning of training with Kevin Taylor and Paul Brown, talented naturalists and biologists who lead our Wildlife Expeditions programs. As we walked through the Murie Ranch, sniffing scat and listening to bird calls, we discussed how storytelling can make education more engaging and effective. Thirteen out of the last eighteen blog posts on the TSS website feature a story, or at least some narrative account of a past experience. That’s a little over seventy percent, even though there’s no requirement or even gentle suggestion to include a story in these posts. I would assert that the excursions Journeys School students go on, and our referring to them as “journeys” as opposed to “trips” or something else less interesting, implies our adherence to the story. Still, as much as we use stories at TSS in our teaching, we would do well to use them more.

But there is a dilemma inherent to telling stories: stories must elevate some perspectives over others, they must dole authority to certain characters and abrogate it from others. In our position as authors, we wield an uncomfortable amount of power over the realities we communicate. We choose to straddle this horn of the storytelling dilemma because the other horn – objectivity – is impossible to reach. We can’t see everything that has happened in every place at every time, so we silence some voices and listen to others. The Cleveland Indians have their own narrative to spin; they now own the longest streak without a World Series championship. In an impoverished, industrial city, sports successes and failures can take on great meaning. Cleveland against the world. That’s a compelling story, and it’s mostly left out of the Cubs 108-year saga.

Perhaps this baseball example no longer can carry that much educational or ethical salience for the point here. But we can take this example and expand it to see our conundrum’s real weight. In this area of the world, stories were told about how Native Americans simply didn’t go to Yellowstone. Another example is the stories we tell in determining which species are valuable enough to save from impending pressures, and which are not. The power of these stories, or lack of power, can determine the success of a species or a people.

As a member of the Field Education staff, it’s tempting to say that this problem can be better sidestepped or avoided when we are teaching field science than when we are teaching history, or literature, or anthropology. We are shielded by the objective nature of science; we teach the importance of rigorous and objective data collection, data that admit no bias. But it would be wrong of us to ignore the human element of science, to forego a narrative structure, or to hide from our students how messy and subjective these endeavors can get. In another recent training we discussed the delicacy of valuing native species over non-native or invasive species, and this dilemma of telling stories raised its head.

So, what can we take from this problem besides anxiety, a stymied teaching style, or an awareness of the blinders around our eyes? Here’s one story that I hope serves to offer some help.

At the end of the summer, I worked with a number of adult participants through our Road Scholar program. Towards the end of one day at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, I was sitting with one group of these folks on the patio at the top of the gondola. Over coffee, they discussed what to do with all the differing historical perspectives on America’s complicated past. The conversation was prompted by a woman disparaging the fact that her home state pressured teachers to teach American Exceptionalism in public schools. One participant, a former student of history, played the devil’s advocate for the trio, arguing that choosing any specific history to teach always shrouds a motivation, that asserting one history’s superiority over another was ultimately disingenuous. The others asked him, “Well, what are you supposed to do with all these different histories, with all these different perspectives?” And his response was this: “There is truth in every narrative.”

Since then, I have tried to remember this phrase and build it into my brain. I have tried to apply it to the stories I tell myself, the stories I read, and the stories I teach. Stories can engage us and transform the way we look at the world and the people around us. Stories can also exclude and diminish those left out. My hope is that we can reconcile these two concepts by telling expansive and truth-seeking stories, stories that capture the imagination while building empathy for all players, stories that originate within our own perspective but link us to more. I hope that I can use stories to teach, but also to expand the way my students view their reality. If there is, in fact, truth in every narrative, then every story has the potential to make us better people if we can hear it with careful ears.

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