Not many people can say that an episode in their life was dramatized in a television movie—but for Ron Jones, it’s happened three times.
Before “A Special Victory,” about his Special Olympics basketball team, and “The Acorn People,” about working at a camp for children with disabilities, was “The Wave,” a 1981 ABC short movie that also aired as an Afterschool Special.
The latter is about an experiment he ran in his Cubberley High School classroom in 1967, when he was a 25-year-old history teacher in Palo Alto, California. A student was curious how the German people tolerated the rise of Nazism and allowed the Holocaust to happen. What started as a demonstration of authoritarianism spiraled out of control over the course of one week of school, before its dramatic conclusion.
The true story of the project, which he called the “Third Wave,” will be told this weekend in the form of a one-person play presented by Cincinnati-born actor Jon Kovach at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
In an interview last week—not long after he attended an event in Palo Alto marking the 50th anniversary of the Third Wave experiment—Mr. Jones himself relayed the story and explained that it haunts both him and his former students to this day.
“The first day was scripted,” he said of the experiment, which started on a Monday. “It was a lesson plan on discipline. I was hoping to introduce the idea of fascism by giving the students the feeling of being under the heel of a dictator.”
He didn’t take it very far on the first day, but he did make the students sit up straight at their desks. He thought it would have been forgotten by Tuesday. “But the second day, I came back to class and the students were sitting in the same posture that I left them the first day. They had these little smiles on their faces. The curiosity was overwhelming, so I just plunged in. ‘OK, what is fascism? Maybe it’s community, the idea of being a part of a special group.’”
He gave the class a slogan: “Strength through discipline. Strength through community.” He named their group the Third Wave, which was a reference to the Third Reich that the students did not pick up on. He also made up a salute—a curvature of the hand in the shape of a wave.
He gave out membership cards, some of which marked certain students as spies—they would be tasked with reporting other students who were not following classroom rules. He held trials for students who cracked jokes about the Third Wave, kicking out violators. And grades were no longer based on an individual student’s performance, but rather on the performance of the class as a whole.
He noticed that it wasn’t the brightest students sitting up front who took easily to the Third Wave, nor the troublemakers in the back of the classroom. “It was that middle group that became energized,” he said. “They became the winners for a moment.”
The fact that many students gravitated toward the Third Wave also had to do with the circumstances in California in 1967, he explained. “You have to understand the times. There was racial integration taking place in this high school for the first time, and that threw the school upside down ... All of the young men were facing the draft when they graduated.”
It set up a turmoil—and a desire for something different, Mr. Jones said. “I was promising, basically, ‘I’m going to make you safe again,’” he said, noting parallels to today.
The Third Wave quickly expanded its reach. Students were cutting other classes to attend his, cramming into the classroom. “So there’s this sweaty feeling of something important happening,” Mr. Jones said.
By the third day, a student had followed him into a faculty room. When another teacher told him students weren’t allowed there, the student insisted, “I’m not a student—I’m a bodyguard,” Mr. Jones recalled.
“And I knew at that moment that he had crossed some invisible line. But the tragedy is, I had crossed the same line, because I was beginning to like the order, the power, the discipline, the sense of adulation. So I was being trapped in my own experiment.”
It was his wife, Deana, who finally helped him snap out of it. “I don’t like who you’re becoming,” she told him. “What happened to your playfulness? What happed to your questioning? What happened to your kindness?”
So, that Thursday, he informed students that the Third Wave was part of a new national movement, taking place at many schools, and a new leader would reveal himself during a rally on Friday. “I was hoping that rally would be a culmination of some kind,” Mr. Jones said.
It was—it punctuated his lesson like no other conclusion could have.
On Friday, students gathered in an auditorium to wait for the leader to come on television. He had started the experiment with just 30 students in his class—but 200 attended the rally, some from other schools.
When the leader never emerged, and the students became impatient, Mr. Jones dropped the bombshell: The students were behaving like the Nazis they professed to detest, and he screened footage of a Nuremberg rally.
It was many years later when Mr. Jones learned that members of the Third Wave had beaten up a writer for the school newspaper on the night before the rally, telling the student not to write anything negative about the movement.
The reason he didn’t learn of that incident until much later may have had to do with his reluctance to talk about the overall experience, a reluctance that his students shared. “It became a secret almost, as something we were ashamed of,” Mr. Jones said of the Third Wave. But, about a decade later, it became public knowledge when he felt inspired to write down and publish the story: “I ran into a student in Berkeley, he gave me the salute, and I went home and wrote the story.”
Though he has tried to cast off the Third Wave, and quit thinking or talking about it, it has persisted, and he still finds himself conveying the story: as a musical, as a full-cast play, and now as Mr. Kovach’s one-person play, “The Wave.” Mr. Kovach ostensibly takes on the role of a young Mr. Jones to tell the story.
Mr. Jones himself will fly from his home in San Francisco to Sag Harbor this weekend to take part in a “talkback” with the audience after each performance.
“The Wave” will be staged at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, on Friday, April 7, at 8 p.m.; and on Saturday, April 8, at 2 and 8 p.m. Tickets range from $20 to $45. Call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.
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