Tuesday, May 15, 2007


It often helps, when I'm confronted with something in Japan that I find silly or stupid or insane, if I can think of its American correlation. Like, when I heard that the national weather bureau tries to predict when the sakura (cherry blossoms) will bloom in different areas across the country, and tracks the sakura front across the country from south to north each year, I thought that was kind of obsessive. And then I remembered that the meteorologists in Syracuse also include a fall foliage map in their TV reports when the leaves begin to turn, and recommend areas to visit to see the trees at their peak color.

Sometimes the whole "group mentality" still boggles this mind, but maybe a year ago I remembered something from sixth grade.

We were doing a group writing assignment, maybe a dozen of us together. One person started off a story with one or two sentences. The next person added to the story however they wanted, the next person added more, and so on, until we'd all contributed and finished the story. I'd done stories like this at my old school in the gifted class I'd attended, and they were great fun. Our stories were really crazy and entertaining. This story, though, seemed kind of bland in comparison, so when it was my turn I threw in something wild... I think it was martians. Some of the kids thought it was odd, but nobody really complained, and we continued. A couple minutes later my mom came to pick me up for a dentist appointment, so I had to leave the class before the story was finished.

The next day my teacher approached me, looking guilty. "After you left yesterday... we decided to change your part. We hope you don't feel bad—everyone was really worried about hurting your feelings—but we all thought your part was just too weird."

I. Couldn't. Think. Clearly. Everyone had waited until I left, and then formed a coup against my contribution to the story? They hadn't had the guts to tell me in person that they didn't like my part. My teacher hadn't had the guts to support me in my absence. Nobody had had the sense of humor to appreciate something the slightest bit nonsensical, nor the creativity to move on with the story whether they liked it or not. And the rewrite—oh heavens, the abomination that causes desolation! No more martian intervention; now the grizzly bear just decides of its own volition not to eat the old man. I think I'm more upset about this now than I was then, but I definitely knew that a cardinal rule of Group Story had been broken.

America: Land of the free, home of the brave, amen.


Uncle Jim said...

You talk about a goup writing project that you had in the 6th grade. I wonder when this group project thing started. When I was in the 6th grade everyone was all on their own. There was no such thing as a 'group project'. Even in high school, which I graduated from in 1967, there was no concept of a group project. I was in university in the '70s and then again in the early '80s and still never even heard of the idea of a group project.

When I was younger, we were brought up to be independent. The 'pioneer spirit' was something to respect. Individualism was almost a religion.

Remember the first Star Trek? Captain James (Tibius) Kirk never consulted anyone before making a decision. He succeeded on his instincts. There was none of this 'group think' that became so popular in later versions of Star Trek.

How did this happen? What suddenly turned everyone away from independent thinking and into the arms of concensus?

It's an interesting cultural phenomenon.

Emily Watkins said...

This particular event was somewhat rare. At my former school, we'd done it maybe twice, and the incident I mentioned specifically in this post happened during the only group write we had that school year (and the last group write I ever did in school). Each time it was done for fun, not as a graded assignment.

I'm really surprised that you never had any group projects in school (group write notwithstanding), and it's no wonder that they have since entered into the curriculum. As much as Americans scoff at the group mentality of the Japanese, three years of "Can't we all just get along?" has really been good for me. Life is people, and if we can't learn to work cooperatively with others, our influence will be severely limited.

Which isn't to say I don't love the ideal of the pioneer spirit. <3

Andrew said...

You have to blame me for you're weird story telling Em-. I began when you were born telling you outrageous stories about, for example aliens converting you to Christianity; putting poor helpless dragons' fire out with a bucket of water. You name it, I told some strange bedtime stories.

Emily Watkins said...

The word is not "blame," the word is "credit." :)

I believe it was I who won converts among the extraterrestrials. And those dragons were hardly helpless: they were always ransacking some village or another, and it was up to me to teach the dragon a lesson, after which time I would light him up again.

Those were some great stories.