Florence Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh, PA.
In September 1982, my daughter, Joy, entered the sixth grade at Reizenstein Middle School in Pittsburgh. This school opened in 1975 had been placed between the white community and the black community to help integrate the Pittsburgh public school system. It was later determined that this strategy does not work as the white students flee while the black students are anxious to enter a newly built school versus their old decaying school. By the time that Joy and then my son, Tommy, a year later, entered the school, it was classified as the worst middle school in the Pittsburgh Public School system. I agree it was a tough school.
This actually was beneficial to Joy’s and Tommy’s education because the school authorities wanted to turn the school around and gave it numerous special programs which my kids benefited from. Tommy commented on a draft of this Report, I never thought I was going to the worst school. I found the teachers dedicated, we had state of the art classrooms (for example, we had an Apple lab and after school Apple club, talent shows, musicals, the list goes on). Most likely with a lot of things in life, the school was deemed “worst” by people who never spent real time there. Years later when I was driving Tommy to the University of Rochester where he was attending college, he surprised me by saying, “Thank you for sending me to Reizenstein School.” I asked him why and he replied, “I learned how to deal with all kinds of people.”
One day in 1975, the first year the school was open, I was walking past the school and I saw the PE instructor on the field organizing a softball game with the boys. One team was composed of all black students and the other team was composed of all white students. This, it seemed to me, wasn’t what integration was all about. Since I knew the principal, I went in to complain to him about this segregation. The next day when I walked by the school, I saw that one team was all black except for one white student while the other team was all white except for one black student. To say the least I was extremely discouraged.
When Joy entered the school, the first book the students were assigned to read was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, written in 1954. I was appalled as I think this is one of the worst books in the world and this would be the first “adult” book that Joy would read. What a disastrous introduction to world literature! Wikipedia (see here) summarizes the book as it “focuses on a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island and their disastrous attempt to govern themselves.” The underlying theme is that people are incapable of organizing themselves without the coercive power of “civilization.” In other words, people in their basic values are brutes, egotistic, power hunger individuals. It was clear to me at that time that the Pittsburgh Public School authorities assigned this book because they wanted the students to realize that their authority was what kept the students for degenerating into violent beasts.
When Joy had finished reading the book, I asked her, if the boys she knew in the neighborhood, if they had been the ones stranded on the island, would have acted like this. To my relief, Joy responded that the local boys would not have acted like those in the book. In other words she rejected the underlying thesis of the book that human nature is evil. The following year Tommy read the same book and he, like Joy, rejected the thesis of the book. But then my kids were growing up with parents who believed that there is that of God (good) in every individual. I was not so confident that the other students and even their teachers and administrators didn’t subscribe to the book’s thesis.
There are also other books with the same theme and message. Animal Farm by George Orwell (1946) is another book commonly assigned in schools. Another is Joseph Conrad’s novelette, Heart of Darkness (1899). The fact that all three of these authors were British (while Conrad was born in Poland, he migrated to England and wrote in English) is interesting. Essentially their negative attitudes on human nature is justification for the British Empire’s crusade to “civilize and Christianize” the rest of benighted people of the world. Much of western literature is premised on this uncontrollable, selfish premise of human nature.
On May 9 Tommy recommended a book to me from an article in The Guardian (see here), The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. He commented, “Good reminder of what we think would happen vs. what actually happens.” The book gives the real life example of boys marooned on a deserted island and survived. Their experience is completely opposite to the fictionalized boys in The Lord of the Flies. The Guardian article already had more than 7 million views when I read it. I think people are hungry for a different, better interpretation of humankind than what has been spooned fed to us in the past. The book is being published tomorrow and I have already ordered it.
Mr. Peter Warner [who rescued the boys from the island], third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives
The article concludes with
It’s time we told a different kind of story. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other…I looked down at the first page [of Peter Warner’s memoirs] ‘Life has taught me a great deal,” it began, “including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.’
Here is the story in a nutshell of the six boys stranded on an island for 15 months:
Then, on the eighth day, they [the six boys] spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean. These days, ‘Ata is considered uninhabitable. But “by the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarreled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.
Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”
They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).
Why is this important today? With the Covid-19 crisis upsetting the world order, the old Lord of the Flies thesis – that power, individuality, and domination organized through the current capitalistic neo-liberalism – is being destroyed. It is important to develop and articulate a new thesis to envision a brave new world. It must be based on the premise that in order to survive and thrive all the world’s people need to work together with cooperation and compassion.
I can’t wait to read the book.
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