Todd Strasser's The Wave is a novelization of a teleplay by Johnny Dawkins based on a short story by Ron Jones. The book recounts a true incident that took place in a California high school in 1969. The central character, a history teacher with the fictionalized name Ben Ross, undertakes an experimental class project in an attempt to help his students understand how the German people could have allowed the Holocaust to occur. The students had posed the question and expressed a strong interest in exploring the issue after viewing a documentary on Nazi atrocities against the Jews.
Demanding strict, militaristic obedience to his commands in the classroom, and using chants and slogans to stimulate morale, Ross creates an environment where power comes from the experience of unity, and conformity to group pressure takes precedence over independent thinking. To his surprise, the students are completely captivated by the experiment, which is christened "The Wave"; they seem to actually revel in the rigid discipline and regimental drills which are central to the undertaking. Interestingly, the individuals who become the most fanatically devoted to the system are those who had been outcasts in the normal school social structure; as part of The Wave, these students discover a sense of acceptance and power they have never before been able to achieve. The Wave, which had begun as a simple class project, soon spreads throughout the school. There is a sinister aspect to it that develops as it grows, however. Many students conform mindlessly to the system, while others are pressured ruthlessly to join in. Fear and near-coercion becomes an integral part of the proceedings, as The Wave takes on the characteristics of a cult.
Fast-moving and simply written, The Wave explores a phenomenon of vital significance in world and social history, the insipid power of group dynamics which, when used wrongly, can seduce people to act in ways totally in opposition to their professed standards of morality. The book is especially valuable in the canon of young adult literature because it stimulates deep thinking and discussion on a subject of critical relevance, yet it is written in a manner that renders it inviting and accessible to even the most reluctant reader.
Ben Ross, in his second year of teaching history at Gordon High School, is surprised when his normally apathetic students react passionately after viewing a grisly documentary on the Holocaust in his class. The students are particularly troubled by the lack of action on the part of the majority of the German population who were not members of the Nazi party; they cannot understand why these citizens did not try to stop the atrocities committed by Hitler, and how they could have claimed that they had not known what was going on. Intrigued by the students' questions, Mr. Ross decides to try an experiment with his class to give them "a taste of what life in Nazi Germany might have been like."
In his original estimation, Mr. Ross's project would take only one or possibly two class periods at most. He opens the session the next day with a discussion about discipline and how it relates to power and success. Mr. Ross then runs his students through some exercises emphasizing posture and coordination of movement, timing them as they practice racing to their desks as a unit from different starting points. The students are inexplicably hooked by the activity, quickly learning to work as a whole, and even taking the initiative to devise ways of increasing their efficiency in completing the task. Mr. Ross then ups the ante, requiring students to stand rigidly by their seats when speaking, and to always begin communication by addressing him by name. Adopting these disciplines into his teaching approach, he proceeds with his lesson by drilling the students in a snappy, lockstep question and answer format. Amazingly, the usually lackadaisical students are spellbound by the process. Describing the feeling they get from being part of the experiment "like a rush," they return to class the next day hungry for more of the same. Astonished by his students' enthusiasm, Mr. Ross decides to develop the experiment further, beginning a discussion on community, and the heady feeling engendered when a person is "part of something that's more important than himself." He gives the new community a name—"The Wave"—and designs a symbol and a salute to be used by members only.
The next day in class, Mr. Ross adds a new twist to The Wave. He tells the students that they must eliminate their attitude of competition and begin to conceive of themselves as a team. He emphasizes that in The Wave, everyone is equal, and instructs students to go out and recruit new members, who will have to "demonstrate knowledge of (the) rules and pledge strict obedience to them." Mr. Ross passes out cards identifying some individuals as law enforcers, and the new directives arouse the students to a higher level of devotion. The movement begins to take on a cult-like life of its own.
Laurie Saunders, an exceptionally bright and popular student, is one of the first to recognize the dangerous direction in which The Wave is evolving. As an editor on the school newspaper, her concerns are exacerbated when she receives an anonymous letter from a...
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