Stop taking sides


Stop taking sides, we’re all in this together.

When I taught philosophy, I began the course by walking into the room after the students were seated and announcing, “We are now going to play musical chairs.” The only further instruction was, “Please arrange your chairs and get ready to play.”

No student ever asked why. Ever. And no student ever asked how to play.
They knew the rules as surely as they knew hide-and-seek.
Always the same response– the students enthusiastically arranged the chairs in a line with the seats alternating directions, then stood encircling the row of chairs. Read, ready, ready!
All I had to do was punch up “Stars and Stripes Forever” on the tape machine, and the students marched around the chairs. Mind you, these were seniors in high school. They hadn’t played musical chairs since second grade. But they still knew how, and jumped into the game without heisitation. Musical chairs! All right!
After removing a few chairs, I stopped the music. There was a mad scramble for the remaining chairs. Those without chairs were stunned. They knew how this game worked–music stops, get a chair– how could they not have a chair so soon? They had “how dumb can I be?” written on their faces.

Too bad. But they were losers. Out. Over against the wall. Only a game.
Music continues, students march around, chairs removed, STOP!
Students go crazy trying to get a chair this time.
As the game goes on, the quest for chairs turn serious. Then rough.
Girls are not going to fight jocks for chairs. Losers to the wall.
Down to two members of the wrestling team, who are willing to push, knee, kick or bite to be the last person in a chair. This is war! STOP! And by jerking the chair out from under his opponent, one guy slams down into the last chair– a look of triumph on his face– hands raised high with forefingers signaling NUMBER ONE, NUMBER ONE.

The last student in the last chair always acted as if the class admired him and his accomplishment. He got the CHAIR! “I’m a WINNER!” Wrong.
Those losers lined up against the wall thought he was a jerk.
Admiration? Hardly. Contempt is what they felt.
This was not a game. Games were supposed to be fun.
This got too serious too fast– like high school life– and real life.
Did they want to play again? A few of the jocks did. But not the rest of the class. It all came back to them now. Big deal.

I insisted. Play one more time. With one rule change. Musical chairs as before, but this time, if you don’t have a chair, sit down in someone’s lap. Everybody stays in the game– it’s only a matter of where you sit.
The students are thinking– well…OK.

Chairs are reset. Students stand ready. Music starts and they march. Chairs are removed. STOP! There is a pause in the action. The students are really thinking it over now. (Do I want a chair to myself? Do I want to sit on someone’s lap or have someone sit in mine? And who?) The class gets seated, but the mood has changed. There is laughter– giggling. When the game begins again, there is a change of pace. Who’s in a hurry?
When the number of chairs is sufficiently reduced to force two to a chair, a dimension of grace enters in as the role of sittee or sitter is clarified– “Oh, no, please, after you.” Some advance planning is evident as the opportunity to sit in the lap of a particular person is anticipated.
As the game continues, and more and more people must share one chair, a kind of gymnastic dance form develops. It becomes a group accomplishment to get everybody branched out onto knees. Students with organisational skills come to the fore– it’s a people puzzle to solve now — “big people on the bottom first– put your arms around him — sit back– easy, easy.”

When there is one chair left, the class laughs and shouts in delight as they all manage to use one chair for support now that they know the weight can be evenly distributed. Almost always, if they tumbled over, they’d get up and try again until everyone was sitting down. A triumphant moment for all, teacher included.

The only person who had a hard time with this paradigm shift was the guy who won the first time under the old rules. He lost his bearings–didn’t know what winning was now.

As a final step to the process, I would tell the class we would push on one more round. “The music will play, you will march, and I will take away the last chair. When the music stops, you will all sit down in a lap.
“Can’t be done,” they say.
“Yes, it can,” say I.
So once more they marched and stopped–what now?
“Everyone stand in a perfect circle
“All turn sideways in place, as if you were going to walk together in a circle.
“Take a single step into the middle so as to have a tight circle now, with each person in the group bellyside to backside with the person ahead of them
“Place your hands on the hips of the person in front of you.
“On the count of three, very carefully guide the person onto your knees at the same time as you very carefully sit down on the knees of the person behind you.
“Ready. One. Two. Three. Sit.”
They all sat. No chair.

I have played the chair game in this way with many groups of many ages in varied settings. The experience is always the same. It’s a problem of sharing diminishing resources. This really isn’t kid stuff. And the question raised by musical chairs is always the same:
Is it always to be a winners-losers world, or can we keep everyone in the game?
Do we still have what it takes to find a better way?

– Robert Fulghum, “Maybe (Maybe Not)” (1993)

Stop taking sides, we’re all in this together.

In the process of re-learning and re-internalising a value I’ve always believed in.

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