Dave ran to catch up to Benny after second-period Algebra.
“Hey,” he said. “Didja hear that practice was pushed back till 3 o’clock today?”
“Yeah,” said Benny, ducking what he knew was coming next.
Dave, true to form, was throwing his open left hand in a casual arc at the back of Benny’s head.
“Do we know why?” Benny asked as he turned and caught his friend’s arm on his own raised arm and countered with a slow, straight shot to Dave’s face. Dave absorbed the “blow” with mock surprise and, with arms flailing, back-pedaled in slow-motion about five feet and crashed into the wall.
“Have you two got nothing better to do than start a war in the hallway?” came the voice of Mrs. Shelton from her classroom.
“Sorry, Mrs. S,” came the unison reply. And off they went, as docile now as they were martial seconds ago.
“I think it has something to do with sixth-period History,” said Dave.
Benny hated History. It was his least favorite class, and it showed. He seldom went to class or did homework. But since he was naturally smart, he aced Science, Math, and English and managed to maintain a low C in History, in spite of his lack of effort.
Today he had decided that he was going to go because there was a strange rumor going around about a special class. His twin sister, Sharon, had Mr. Gonzalez’s second-period History class and when they passed in the hall between second and third period, just before Dave launched his attack, she was somber and distracted instead of her usual giddy self. Caryn, Sharon’s alter ego, seemed almost dead compared to her usual self but when Benny put on his class clown act to get their attention, Sharon stopped short and glared.
“Not funny, Benny,” she said.
“What? What’s your problem?”
“Nothing,” she said as she tried to walk around him.
“Nothing?” Jumping back in front of her, he tried again. “Did I say something to piss you off?”
Trying to form words, she finally just stared at him and ignored his silent mime routine of trying to pull something out of her.
“We’ll talk tonight,” she mumbled as she faked left and moved right, leaving him behind.
Benny related this tale to Dave and asked what History had to do with the fact that basketball practice was delayed.
“Dunno. Did Sharon’s History class run long?”
“She didn’t say, but she didn’t look happy.”
Dave thought better of commenting on that out loud. When Sharon isn’t happy, Benny and Dave usually pay the price and it isn’t pretty. “Maybe we’ll find out at lunch. What’d you bring?”
“Money, Dude. It’s Pizza Day!” And with that, Benny opened the door for Dave and motioned him into third-period study hall, accentuating his kind gesture with a slight boot to Dave’s butt.
Fourth Period and the Periodic Table of the Elements
‘Twas also known as Chemistry class, Benny’s specialty. Sharon’s, too. It was AP Chemistry (Advanced Placement Chemistry), and while Dave wasn’t up for it, Sharon and Benny had both inherited some aptitude for it. They were only two of eleven students in this course, and they each took turns at the head of the class when it came to test scores. Most courses in their high school had somewhere between 25 to 30 students each, but the AP courses usually ran with around 20 students or less. Suffice it to say; competition was fierce between Sharon and Benny.
“What happened in History?” Benny whispered to Sharon as they strolled toward their desks.
She hesitated before saying, “He swore us to secrecy, but I can tell you that — we played a game.”
“A game? That’s what all the hype is about?”
The only games Benny knew about involved running, throwing and catching some version of a ball. And his favorite was baseball. Maybe that was because his favorite movie was “Bull Durham” with Kevin Costner. And of all the great lines in “Bull Durham”, his favorite was when the coach says to his lazy, losing team between clenched teeth in a fit of pseudo-rage, “This is a very simple game. You throw the ball; you catch the ball, you hit the ball. You got it!?“
What did History have to do with any of that?
“Whaddaya mean, secrecy? We’re twins! There are no secrets between us!” That line always worked on Sharon when Benny said it, but he considered himself immune when she used it on him. This time was different.
“Sorry, Benny. You’ll find out in sixth-period, so you have to wait until then,” Sharon decreed and sat down.
Benny often felt like he and Sharon were like the covalent bonds they had been studying in chemistry. That bond occurs when two atoms share an electron pair. They are bonded into a molecule, and neither can exist without the other because they share those electrons. When one atom shimmies, the other one shakes. And man did that ever describe him and Sharon to a Tee. Except for right now.
He wasn’t getting anything substantial, any vibration, any gut feeling. Just confusion. Sharon seemed confused and shaken about something. To the casual observer, they could easily say, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” But Benny wasn’t a casual observer. He would typically get the reason for the confusion, too. But now? Nothing.
Sharon always knew that she was the more sensitive twin, and it wasn’t just because she was a girl. Benny had his moments, and that surprised her because, beneath his “guy” exterior, he knew her better than anyone. They finished each other’s sentences and winked at each other when one knew that the other understood something that no one else did.
But she didn’t want to ruin this for him. She was embarrassed and almost ashamed and what he was about to learn was his alone.
Fifth Period Lunch – Mean Girls and Jocks
Dave was waiting for Benny at the Jocks’ table and had just unwrapped the first of his three ham, cheese, mayo and tomato sandwiches when Benny arrived with his three slices of mushroom and pepperoni pizza and mushroom soup.
Chuck, Zeke, Manny and the rest of the crew followed in short order. In this part of the cafeteria world, the neighborhood was complete and strangers knew not to bother.
Caryn and Sharon’s table was nearby with a similar number of girls and the common theme was beauty. Beauty meant Popularity. Brains didn’t hurt, but it didn’t get you a seat at the table. Zoey was kind of on the edge of both categories, but she came from some serious money.
Then there was the rest of the world. It didn’t really matter if you were male or female. You were somewhere out there, trying to find your place either up from the bottom, up one more step, or clinging where you were and trying to avoid a downward step. Spelling Bee winners, VoTech, Camera Club, Nerds, Home Ec. They all made up the rest of the world and the unwritten rules were: know your place.
Suffice it to say if you placed roughly 300 adolescents in a large enough room with food for fuel, a reasonable lack of structure or discipline, and thirty minutes to burn, and cacophony would fill the air and chaos would ensue. Any teacher charged with the lunch-room duty that day could easily be driven into the hall looking for a vice-principal, to no avail. The VPs knew better than to eat lunch anywhere near the cafeteria.
Then Something Indescribable Happened.
On the other side of Sharon’s table was an empty table, kind of a boundary. Two girls who looked to be new freshman (because Benny didn’t know them), walked in carrying their food trays and paused, looking for a place to sit. Surveying the cafeteria and finding nothing close by, they sat at the empty table.
While this caused a minor bustle at Sharon’s table, that was nothing compared to what was about to happen. Sharon and Caryn went into some sort of huddle, as they were seated across from each other. Then Lucy, Joanne, and two others joined.
Normally, it wasn’t unusual for new students to walk into the cafeteria, but not only were these girls new and young, they were also watched with casual interest as they seemed to be headed for the Popular girls’ table. One was a light-skinned black girl, and the other was an Indian. Not Native American, but a real Indian Indian. A small palpable sigh of relief seemed to go through the rest of the cafeteria when they sat at the “boundary” table.
Dave was watching because Benny had his back to the action, and when Dave tapped Benny’s arm, he turned to see what was going on. After satisfying himself that all was under control, Benny kept watching his sister’s table because obviously, something was going on there.
And then it happened.
Sharon and Caryn both stood up at the end of their table, turned and walked over to the new girls and started a conversation.
As silence descended on the cafeteria, the new girls looked at each other in confusion and slowly shook their heads. With that, Sharon and Caryn returned to their table, picked up their trays and motioned for the rest of their crew to follow them to the adjacent table.
Introductions were made, smiles were exchanged, banter was had, and all was well with the world as the usual din was restored. Except at the Jocks’ table.
Silence and stares continued unabated except for the whispered words, “What the hell is going on?”
Sixth Period History – Let the Games Begin!
“Mr. Franklin! To what do we owe the honor of your presence today?” exclaimed Mr. G as soon as Benny crossed the threshold. Mr. Gonzalez wasn’t a fan of Benny’s attendance record, but they had a convivial relationship with a back and forth that made the times that Benny did attend fun at least.
“I heard you were giving out candy,” Benny replied with a smile.
“Ah, yes. I started that rumor so that you’d show up. Glad to see you got the message. Try to find a good seat.”
Dave motioned, and Benny sat next to him. It was an unusually large class since US History I was a requirement in the Junior year. Thirty students filtered in and found their way to their desks.
“Okay,” Mr. G began. “For the benefit of those of you who might need to play catch up here,” he said as he sat on the edge of Benny’s desk, “where did we leave off yesterday? Mr. Franklin?”
Fortunately, Benny had checked with Dave on the way to class, and with high confidence replied, “We were discussing the differences between the actual Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Miller’s play, ‘The Crucible’, which took aim at the McCarthy hearings on communism in the 1950s.”
Mr. G stared at Dave and said with a smile, “Excellent, Mr. Franklin.”
“It’s Good to Have Friends in High Places, Isn’t It?”
“All right then, let’s get started. How many of you have heard what we’re doing today?”, Mr. G continued.
Every hand went up.
“And how many know the outcome?”
Not a single hand.
“Excellent! If you are to be believed, it restores my faith in humanity!” he said. “And I do believe you — because I believe in the second-period class.
“So here’s the deal. You are not to discuss in any way or with anyone, anything about today’s class, because I’m playing the same game next period. Do I have the solemn word of everyone here? Raise your hand if you agree.”
Slowly every hand went up and looks glanced around the room.
“Fine. Next, I’m going to ask you to come up to my desk when I call you, and I will whisper in your ear that you are either a Witch or a Normal Person. It doesn’t matter if you are male or female. Male witches are called Warlocks. Do not in any way indicate to anyone what I’ve said. Clear?”
All heads bobbed up and down.
“Great. Now here is the goal of the exercise. For almost the rest of the class, you can wander around the room and talk amongst yourselves. Try to find out who is a Witch, because you are to form the largest group you can that doesn’t contain any Witches. You may disagree with your group, and if that’s the case, you need to form another group without Witches. At the end of class, we’ll stop, and I’ll ask the Witches to identify themselves. If your group has a Witch, your group fails. No exceptions. Clear?”
Silence. “Fails? The course?”
“Not the course. This counts as a major marking period test. Okay? Begin.”
And Somehow — the Game Began
No one really knew what to do. How do you find a “fake” witch? In “The Crucible” someone either confessed or was accused of doing things witches do, like flying around, or casting spells, or dancing with the Devil in the moonlight.
Mr. G gave them some hints on how to find the witches.
- No one knows how many witches there actually are.
- Question everyone in order to catch them in a lie.
- Look for possible witnesses to accuse the witch.
- Witches could (and would) lie to avoid discovery.
- Witches would seek to blame others to throw the group off the scent.
They decided to split into three even groups of ten people each. The next goal was for each group to talk amongst themselves and try to find witches. If someone was suspected, they were kicked out of the group.
Since no other group would take them, the castoffs became a group of witches, and hopefully, it would be a small enough group to spare the rest. They also decided that if two or more groups agreed that they were entirely “witch-free”, they would merge and become the largest group.
It seemed like an impossible task. Charges and accusations flew. Tears and anger became the norm because no one wanted to fail. Facts were trampled because everyone was a suspect at some point. All the while, Mr. G kept a cool distance and they were on their own.
When Mr. G called time, there was a group of 10 witches and two other groups. The largest contained 14 witch-free people and another group of six that was pretty sure it was witch-free, but not absolutely sure.
“So, what did you discover?” said, Mr. G.
Karen, the leader of the largest group said, “That was really rough. We had nothing to go on, except possible lies. The only way to find the lie was based on what someone else said.”
“And yet you found ten witches,” said Mr. G.
“I’d only swear to three of them,” said Kenny, someone in the smallest witch-free group.
“So you’d let the other seven fail rather than stick up for them?” questioned Mr. G.
“Hey, I had three people in my group threaten me with witchcraft if I kept fighting for them,” said Kenny hotly.
“So peer pressure got to you?”
Kenny was silent. Benny thought of Sharon in the cafeteria just an hour ago.
“What else did you discover? How about you ‘witches’?”
The “witches” were silent and looked at the floor.
Mr. G pressed. “How are you feeling?”
“Not good. I think I kind of lost some friends today,” said Lorraine, a small girl with glasses and worn-out shoes and jeans.
“Really?” Mr. G exclaimed. “How so?”
“No one believed me, no matter what proof I offered. When I cried, they said I was faking.”
“I am truly sorry to hear that, Lorraine. And I hope that you can all put yourselves in Lorraine’s shoes. Anyone else feel that way?”
All the witches’ hands went up and several others in the other two groups.
“Wow,” said Mr. G. “Well, I hope you’ll feel better knowing the real takeaway from this exercise. Based on the actual Salem Witch Trials, they pretty much had the same approach that you took, and they hung quite a few people.
“Then in the 1950s, in a nation of laws, where no one is above the law, we had the same outcome. People went to jail, careers were ruined, people turned against each other. Why? Because they did the same things you just did. All it took was suspicion, rumors, accusations, and fear.
“Yet, what does it say on most of our currency and the Great Seal of the United States? ‘E Pluribus Unum.’ Latin for ‘Out of many, one’. Or maybe you’ve heard of ‘United We Stand’?
“How are we so easily divided? We listen to lies and pass them on without confirming or confronting them. We rationalize to stay safe from the accusations of people we thought were friends.
“Folks, from the philosopher George Santayana, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ You’ve just repeated it, but don’t worry. So did the Germans with Hitler.”
“Mr. G, who failed?” asked Dave.
Benny chimed in. “You know, Mr. G, I think I should probably come here more often. And I know what you said in the beginning about who would fail, but from what I’ve just heard, I’m kind of thinking maybe we all should.”
Mr. G exhaled slowly and said, “Rather a keen observation, Benny. But I think the original premise might drive the point home even more. Would all the ‘witches’ please raise your hands?”
Not one hand went up.
Muttering sounds of “What the –” and “That’s not fair!” ensued.
Mr. G raised his hands for quiet. “How many actual people in the Salem area were really witches? — How many people lied? — How many people died?
“How many innocent people did you just convict here? We can be better than this. — We must be better than this.
(The passing bell rings signaling the end of class.)
And that, my friends, is why we study History.”
My friend, Steve, sent me a snippet of a story that a friend of his saw somewhere on Facebook. That two paragraph kernel became this. Credit to the original source, whoever it is.