Organic Intelligence, Toy Story and "What did you do in school today?"
This article was originally published in the Sudbury Valley School Journal, Volume 40, Number 1, Fall 2010, and is reprinted with the permission of the Sudbury Valley School Press.
‘The organic intelligence in that room is automatically higher than even the smartest person in the room.’ Michael Arndt, screenwriter of Toy Story 3
As a new student at Sudbury Valley School I found myself spending a lot of time listening, laughing and sparring with an unlikely bunch of friends. We chose to hang around in what was then called the Smoking Room. Some of us were older, some younger. Occasionally we’d be joined by staff and visitors from all walks of life. Not all of us smoked, but every one of us joined in the ongoing joking, discussion, dramas and arguments. When my pals and I emerged a few years later we all had plans. Most of us felt confident that we were ready to take on the world.
I’ve been on the staff for fifteen years now and I watch this pattern continue. A new student will latch onto another student or group of kids. That group will already have or will soon claim a room, lounge, stall, lab or tree as their headquarters. In each of these forts the bonding, the feuding, the support, the giggles, the tears, the storytelling and the soul-searching will begin and carry on. The gush of crazy and no-so-crazy ideas that first took shape here in the sixties continues to flow and multiply in all those spaces.
A film I saw and an article I read recently helped me to refocus on what I think continues to be a vastly underrated and difficult to define aspect of the Sudbury Valley educational experience.
The movie Toy Story 3 impressed me. As an aspiring screenwriter I was especially struck by the complexity and emotional depth of the script and how many supercharged ideas, references, in-jokes, truths and fears the writer managed to cram into 90 minutes of screen time. I wanted to see the name of the person who could pull together a tale with such wide appeal. As the movie ended the Pixar Toy characters continued to entertain as the credits scrolled. The Toys had me hypnotised. I missed the screenwriter’s name. I left the movie theatre with my niece and we walked over to a bookstore to browse. I was looking through the music publications when I happened to see a magazine with a cover photo that showed Woody, Buzz and the rest of the Tory Story gang all tumbling out of a cardboard box.The headline was, ‘Out of the box writing in Toy Story 3.’ (Inside Pixar’s Toy Chest by Danny Munro, in the May/June 2010 edition of Creative Screenwriting, Vol. 17, number 3.) I bought the magazine and discovered that a New York writer named Michael Arndt was given the assignment to script Toy Story 3. At the time he was an unknown writer. Arndt was hired based on a screenplay he’d sold called Little Miss Sunshine. That film had not yet found a distributor. So starting in 2005 Arndt began to hammer together an outline for Toy Story 3. He had a pretty good beginning and a ‘golden’ ending for the movie, but figuring out what was going to happen in between had him stalled. Now the article got really interesting. Arndt revealed the secret of how his story was completed and ‘what separates Pixar from almost everyone else.’
But first let me tell you about a thing I used to dread when I was a kid. It was when my relatives and parents would ask me, ‘What Did You do in School Today?’ It was bad enough when I was slaving in the required classes at Holliston Public Schools. ‘Umm, I did homework in a Study Hall, then English and then we all had to go to a mandatory Pep Rally and uh, we had to do a quiz in Health class.’ Answering the awful question got much, much harder once I gained my freedom at Sudbury Valley.
What had I done, anyway? I was embarrassed to tell anyone that a bunch of us squandered a beautiful day just wandering the sunny campus making up incredibly dumb stories and songs and reading our journals to each other and laughing our heads off. Worse yet would be to tell my folks that after baking an apple pie with Mrs. Parra I had blown the afternoon engaged in an annoying showdown with a stubborn older kid who refused to agree with anything I said or did. Even lower was to admit that I had got myself embroiled in another standoff with our judicial system or wormiest of all, that I had found myself in deep poo with the entire School Meeting. Again.
As a newbie at SVS it was hard to assess the value of the weekly roller coaster ride of triumph, defeat and adventure constantly unfolding on a campus where young men and women are allowed to trust their own hearts and minds. I occasionally wondered if perhaps we were misusing time arguing about whether Khalil Gibran would have made a good parent while playing barefoot soccer before returning to the Smoking Room to evaluate Bob Dylan’s comeback record. While engaged in these roving debates and respectfully combative sporting activities we were trail-blazing a revolutionary new kind of mental/physical schooling. The small kids were watching and joining in too. Our little guys were always on the go but occasionally they would stop to share their energy and unfiltered thoughts with us. They reintroduced my group to facets of the universe that our previous masters had swept aside and ignored. So we would listen and write and read to one another. Others might draw together, run together or create melodies or maps or games.
Okay, now back to Toy Story for a minute. In what they call ‘the process’ the whole Pixar community, creatives and executives alike, meet on occasion in a large room. Everybody can come. Songwriters, special effects people, editors, vice presidents, animators and even the bean counters. These people are all attached to different studio projects in different ways. Pixar calls this powwow their ‘Brain Trust.’ These folks all have one goal in common. They all want to be sure that every movie that is released by Pixar stays up to par with its predecessors. On this occasion and on several more days the Process/Brains Trust would meet with Michael Arndt, the writer who was still stuck looking for a middle part for his Toy Story 3.
‘As soon as people started talking it was like the Harlem Globetrotters in your living-room,’ enthuses Arndt. One member of the Brain Trust would throw out an idea while others would follow up, add or put a twist on the original thought. ‘Jokes were topped sometimes three times over. The organic intelligence in that room is automatically higher than even the smartest person in the room.’ The article describes an atmosphere of thought-exchange that might sound familiar to anyone who has spend an afternoon in the Sewing Room, the Music Study, the VGC stalls, the Internet Room, the Kitchen, the Creek or just about any other classroom here at SVS.
The old Smoking Room gang never called our hangout a classroom nor did we consider ourselves to be a brain trust. Reflecting back on it we were all that and probably a lot more.
Arndt’s term ‘organic intelligence’ fits our room well. Once in the door it was impossible to avoid sinking ankle-deep into the enriched, unbridled muck where the topic of the minute could bounce along from ethics and biology to politics and metaphysics and then back to logic, poetry and the Beatles.
Of course we never limited our verbal explorations using those dumb department headings. We would swiftly improvise on each others’ riffs. Someone might introduce a new theme and others would embellish that melody or even modulate right up to a whole new key. The mind flow would continue to evolve as interesting new licks and hooks until finally returning to a roaring refrain that we could all join in on.
Over time and with a potent mix of little kids, staff, other Room Groups, the Judicial System, the School Meeting and lots of fresh air we were casually assembling customised mind-structures that would become the vehicles of each of our own life stories.
A beginning for mine came to me when I saw myself reflected in some of my younger friends in the school. It was the first time I saw a glimmer of my own worth. This started a train of thought leading me eventually to imagine what my ‘golden’ ending could be. The in-between part was hazy and it was going to be up to me to figure it out. When I need some help along the way I could still consult my revolving/evolving brain trust.
This was all way heavier than we could comprehend back then. I still can’t totally recall or fully grasp the cosmic forces that pulled our group together. I was fifteen and most of us were still bobbling around in those soon-to-end, mega-important formative days of youth. Many of the topics we found ourselves discussing and grappling with in the Smoking Room will never be found in any classroom or even Googled. Primal bonds were forged, we made up our own codes and rituals. We traded secrets, nightmares, crushes and goals. From the git-go the School had given us total respect and trust and over time we found ourselves giving that same respect and trust back to the School.
Back at Pixar the studio boss maintains that it takes 10 man-years of labour to create a good script. This could mean two gals writing for 5 years, or 10 guys working for a year.
That concept throws a spotlight on my 9 years of traditional schooling where each subject was explained by a lone master. The snailish pace was doing amazingly little to inspire me. The single-minded grind fed my self-doubts. The system made me feel small and cynical. I dreaded each new day. I was shutting down.
At SVS my dried-out pea of a brain was plopped into this swirling pool of wild imagination, physical challenges and countless possibilities. Overnight I found myself becoming optimistic again. During those first months of mind and body freedom I began to effortlessly scoop up lost years of meaningful interaction and experience. All of a sudden everything I chose to turn my attention upon was absolutely fascinating and relevant to me. I gained a lion’s share of my education at SVS in a natural, integrated, organic way. Mine was a practical, invigorating course of study infused with the costs and rewards of taking responsibility for myself. The way we do it at SVS is incredibly more complex but simultaneously way simpler than the other ways. Ours is a highly personalised process – so personal that it is nearly impossible to comprehend or weigh or appreciate the value of what our School allows us to accomplish on our own on any given day. I guess this is why I had such a hard time finding a satisfying answer to ‘What Did You Do in School Today?’
Conveying exactly how an SVS education will occur continues to be an elusive task for a lot of us. It leaves some folks unable to fathom how a school environment so open, fast-paced and seemingly random will ever compare to the rigorous compulsory education available at other schools.
A nice thing about all those standardised schools where every student follows the approved path and no student is left behind is that they make it a whole lot easier for bored kids and teachers to answer the What Did You Do in School Today? question. It is a no-brainer for Junior to shoot back, ‘I did English Literature, Precalc and Nutrition. Can I go now?’ Hard to argue with that impressive answer. Grandparents, politicians and union leaders in turn can boast to their constituents that Junior and his future taxpaying school chums ‘did English Literature, Precalc and Nutrition!’
Standardised students are tested constantly and many will figure out the trick to performing well on these monkey drills. Bored pupils trudge home clutching their impressive high test scores. The grown-ups dance in the street when the local school system produces a high scoring class. I dance a little jig too. Those controlled children, sitting inside all day and marching quietly in single file are going to raise the value of my home and all the other real estate in my school district each time they test well. You can see the head and shoulders of every Public School student droop whenever the elders start crowing about their town’s wonderful schools.
Back in Hollywood Michael Arndt did very well with his first script, the one he penned all by himself. Little Miss Sunshine went on to win the Oscar of Best Original Screenplay. Still, Arndt admits that his screenplay for Toy Story 3 puts Little Miss Sunshine in the shade. ‘Pixar was very, very generous in giving me sole screenplay credit. But what’s up on screen is the product of a huge team effort.’
My team of daydreaming Smoking Room regulars grew up to become a registered nurse, an environmentalist, an Air Force officer, a medical technician, a fashion designer, an orchestral musician, an audio lab engineer, a business-woman and a mortician. Some of them were listeners, some were talkers, some conservative, some liberal, some were extremely shy and others were bold. They were mixed race, religion, age and gender. After SVS a few went to the military, some dove straight into apprenticeships, internships and their chosen trades. Others packed knapsacks and headed for the hills and a lot of them journeyed back to the classrooms of universities and colleges.
Throughout my life in and out of SVS I have fortunately chosen some excellent mentors, gurus and role models but no single one could ever match the team of freewheeling young minds that deliberated daily in that smelly old Smoking Room. At SVS everyone still gets the opportunity to be bombarded from every angle with observations and emotions. We are allowed to hear a rainbow of beliefs and ideas spouted from every viewpoint. At Sudbury Valley School we are free to pluck whatever we choose to harvest along our way through a lush garden or organic intelligence. This is where we learn how to make up our own minds. We don’t just learn from the smartest person in the room any more.