Wednesday, August 02, 2006

tears in English class

I had warned my students about this, and sure enough: the Lifeboat Game caused tears in my advanced intensive English class today. The game, which we'd done before as a role-playing exercise, was played as it was meant to be played this time: each person in the lifeboat was herself-- i.e., not playing a role. The game proved quite difficult and elicited humorous and not-so-humorous remarks ranging from "I'll never step on a cruise liner" to "this is cruel."

We had only six students today (we usually have eight), and I changed the rule to allow students to be as honest as possible with each other. When the game is played as a role-playing exercise, the ironclad rule is, "No self-sacrifice!" The utility of the rule is obvious: the game can end far too quickly as people escape the problem by offering themselves up to the gods of the sea. Five minutes-- done. Today, however, I allowed the self-sacrifice option because there was a chance that some student might actually feel enough concern for her boatmates that she would honestly be moved to give up her own life.

This is, in fact, what happened: a student thought the matter through and decided that it was too painful to countenance anyone else's death. The hour-long process to arrive at that decision, though, was filled with a pretty deep discussion about life, family, depression, renewal of hope, and quite a few other very personal matters (which shall not be divulged here). Along the way, there were tears, especially as one student, who realized she had started the game in a selfish frame of mind, found herself humbled by the other students' stories of loss and difficulty. She crept very close to sacrificing herself, but the one who did finally sacrifice herself wouldn't allow the "selfish" student to do it.

"You're two years younger than I am, and you've still got a lot to learn about not being selfish," said the older student. It was, in some ways, a classically Korean moment, but it was also simply touching, culture notwithstanding. I did a good job of keeping a poker face, though I risked becoming misty-eyed during some of the more intense moments of the exercise.

The Lifeboat Game, as originally conceived (and today's session came close to the original version), isn't meant to be an English class exercise: it's part of the arsenal of team-builders and icebreakers used by rah-rah organizers of corporate training workshop events and addiction/abuse recovery groups. That's actually somewhat bizarre, given that the object of the game is to come to a communal agreement to order one person off the boat and to provide a reason why that person has to go.

But, strangely, the net effect of the Sturm und Drang experienced during the game is one of bonding. I think this is in part because people have to reveal normally hidden parts of themselves to others. Also, because the game is undeniably cruel in its structure and goal, this cruelty may evoke in most people a native feeling of compassion. Mencius would have approved.

One student expressed surprise about how the game went: she had thought, at the beginning, that most of the students would selfishly argue to stay aboard. By the end of the hour, though, at least two students had decided to sacrifice themselves, while the rest had recoiled from the prospect of condemning a fellow lifeboat passenger to a watery death. The session ended with a sigh of relief-- not necessarily because the students hated the exercise, but because they weren't comfortable sitting for so long under the Sword of Damocles.

I've never played the game myself. I've refereed it on several occasions, and today was the first time I'd managed a non-role-playing version of the game. I was touched by what I learned today, very touched. There's a lot for me to think about.


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