September 17

1954 –William Golding’s Lord of the Flies published


As a pre-reading assignment for Lord of the Flies, your eighth-grade teacher had presented a group scenario for the class to consider.

The scenario involved everyone being stranded on an island.  Each student was assigned a character name, and received a sealed envelope with other information.  Inside, small slips of paper revealed more about their character’s skills and goals.  Some students also had slips of paper that listed items in their possession that might give them an advantage in the simulation:  food, water, a pocket knife, etc.

Students weren’t allowed to open their envelopes until the teacher gave them permission.  As preface, she emphasized that participation in this activity was “very very important, and will count as much as 50% of your grade for the marking period.”

That comment, as the teacher later explained to the School Board during their inquiry, was intended to encourage students’ active investment in the simulation, and was not an accurate account of how the activity would be scored.

More detailed rules for the activity were contained in a large clasp envelope that the teacher held up at the front of the room.  “You’ll have twenty minutes to complete the simulation.  For the activity to work properly, as a reflection of a book we’ll start reading next week, it’s important that you finish the activity yourself, without an adult in the room.”  She dropped the clasp envelope on her desk, clicked a stopwatch, shouted “Go!” and left the room.

Yes, the teacher actually did leave the class unsupervised for those twenty minutes — a pedagogical decision, she’d argued in that School Board meeting.

You don’t remember the specific rules in the large envelope, but you remember some general ideas.  Some students fought to be leaders; others bargained or threatened with the items listed in their envelopes.  Many students lost points for disobeying rules or not contributing enough to the island society.

Those “lost points” quickly devolved into punishments that the new leaders invented.  As the slow minutes ticked away, the punishments became more creative, and more cruel.

You still can’t recall if you were one of the leaders inflicting punishments, or if you were one of the victims.  You’re not sure which role would have been more traumatic.

One thing remains clear in your mind, however:  when the teacher returned to the room after the twenty minutes was up, more than half of the class was in tears.  A few of the students needed to be taken to the Nurse’s office.

The School Board ruled that the simulation of Lord of the Flies had been all too accurate, and the teacher was fired.  On the evening news, the Principal remarked, “I can see no educational purpose to this unsanctioned activity.”

At the time, you had agreed with the official response.

But as an adult, with borders around your neighborhood creating its own metaphorical island, you can now admit the value of that teacher’s lesson in survival, in social dynamics — and you’ve learned that adults can be even more creative and cruel than children.

And this time, considering the choice between leaders and victims, you know which role you need to play.