Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Lifeboat

This was the one where the ship, after striking an iceberg, went down leaving thirty survivors adrift on the arctic sea in a lifeboat designed for a third that number.
In order to weather the oncoming storm, so the story went, the captain ordered most of the survivors overboard.
His reasoning? Better sacrifice some in order that others may survive. The curveball was that the captain kept the strongest while the weak went into the drink.
I don’t know if he had tryouts but there was a long row ahead for the survivors so he chose the ones he thought were up to the task.
It’s a moral dilemma. We presented the choice, one teacher and I, to a class of seventh-graders.
“Have you ever heard of a choice ‘between a rock and a hard place’,” my co-teacher asked. “Or 'the lesser of two evils', 'between the devil and the deep blue sea', 'between Scylla and Charybdis'?” The students’ expressions ranged from blank to confusion.
“Hobson’s choice?” I added unhelpfully.
On Friday, we do this kind of thing, weather permitting. We call it ‘Peer Relations Friday’. Cooperative games, mock trials, anything that might help these kids learn how to work together instead of tear each other down day after day.
“What would you do?” We asked. “Was the captain right?”
Many students refused to accept the choice. One suggested that the extra survivors could be tied together and hung overboard. We had a lengthy discussion about hypothermia and of how long a person could survive in frigid water. Immediately afterward, another student proposed the survivors take turns swimming. Again, an explanation of hypothermia. But the students had made up their minds and that hypothermia stuff is just more mumbo-jumbo from a grownup’s lips.
“But I can swim mad long in cold water,” another student insisted to cheers from the rest.
Much of what adults tell them is viewed with suspicion. It’s all a plot. A diabolical trick to get them to become old and ugly like us. It’s not time that makes you an old fart, it’s information punctuated by regular punishment for no apparent reason that makes your hair grow gray and fall out, makes your breasts, buttocks and jowels succumb to cruel gravity, makes you groan when you get up from a chair.
Their view, not mine.
But they may have a point.
Another student, the small one wearing impossibly tight clothes said, “I’d punch the captain in the mouth!” She knotted her tiny fist and punched an imaginary captain to emphasize her point.
I began to rethink the value of these ‘Peer Relations Fridays’...

“I have the list right here,” my co-teacher said in the teacher meeting the next morning. “But you all know who’s on it.” Yes, we did. We had our own lifeboat dilemma and the list represented the students we were giving up on. There was no hope for them and their presence in the classroom reduced everybody’s chance for survival; students and teachers alike.
So we made a class of the cast-offs.  Castaways.
We consigned them to a fate of being with each other so that the other kids, the ones willing to do a little work, to sit in their seats, to keep to themselves and allow the educational process to have a fighting chance. We ordered them overboard.
In the lifeboat dilemma, the captain was right. At least he was right in that the remaining people, the ones he chose, survived. Unfortunately, the story they told landed the captain in court charged with 20 counts of murder. The real dilemma wasn’t the captain’s. It was the jury’s in the courtroom.
Was he or was he not guilty of murder?


  1. Nice post. But being a film nut, I was a bit confused by your beginning and the photo. The photo is from 'Lifeboat' by Alfred Hitchcock. The boat that they were in was sunk by a German U-boat in WWII. The dilemma from this movie is that they pick up a German survivor, who ends up being the captain of the U-boat that sunk them in the first place. And it's the German who ends up drowning the weakest person on board unbeknownst to all of the others who sleep. Then when it's discovered that the he has been stealing precious water, he is thrown overboard by everyone else. Also, this movie is a cinematic puzzle because Hitchcock had to figure out how to make a 2 hour movie cinematic while focusing only on the boat.

    All this said, the point of your post is excellent.

  2. I picked the picture because it was sexy. I never saw lifeboat but I did know it was an early Hitchcock. Run a Google search on lifeboat and you get the darndest things. Push comes to shove, Hitchcock's Lifeboat, especially when I added the sepia tones, looked cool. Your comments have only added to my resolve to see Lifeboat. Netflix?

  3. Sandra sent me your blog post. Unreal. I read Tracy Kidder's book "Among Schoolchildren" and realized that I could not teach in public school because I could not live with myself after casting a few off, even if it meant saving others. I think I would not survive myself. I therefore think you are a brave man to take on these kids! I admire your ability to make choices, even if they are difficult ones. I wish you all the best luck in your classroom, with these kids; some of whom will be great because of the choices you must make for them.