It was the 5th grade in Salisbury, Massachusetts in September 1954. My parents announced that we were relocating to Kent Ohio, a small town near Akron, the tire-making capital of the US.
Within weeks I was torn from my classmates with whom I had shared a lifelong (well, 48 months to that point) friendship, and painfully said goodbye to my teacher, a young red-head (she looked exactly like Teresa Brewer) with whom I had just fallen in love. A few days later, I found myself as a “new kid” unfamiliar in every setting – school, church and, by winter, the Boy Scouts Troop 210. Feeling lonely and unconnected, I signed up for a winter log cabin retreat in the Akron woods with 30 other scouts and 5 adult leaders.
On Saturday afternoon of that cold weekend, the Scout Master scheduled an outdoor orientation contest. It was designed to teach us map-reading, distance-measuring and compass skills. He handed out a list of instructions which contained wilderness vocabulary and useful landmarks. He then split us up into four competing groups of 7 or 8 kids each and discharged us to the wild on our own.
The group to which I was assigned had 8 kids between 10 to 14 years old. I was 11. The oldest (and tallest) boy in our group, obviously popular, became our accepted leader. None of the kids questioned his decisions as he deciphered the list of instructions. Instead, oblivious to its distance and bearing details, they scrambled along in the ankle-deep snow to keep up with the leader as he raced through the instructions. The younger (and less fit) kids trundled along behind the group complaining about the cold snow that was creeping into their oversized overshoes. I listened to the older boy’s rationale as he checked off each clue, step by step. He performed the tasks well in my opinion, up to a point at which he was required to pace off a 50-yard distance.
That became a moment of truth.
The group was off course. The impatient leader, in his hurry, stumbled in the deep snow more than once as he paced off the 50-yard instruction. The resulting error skewed his next compass aim, pointing us toward a birch tree that was not on the list. The correct birch tree, just out of sight, looked very similar but was several compass degrees to the right. We could not find any more landmarks because they were all linked to the birch tree we missed. We soon realized that we were lost. Running out of options, the self-appointed leader suggested we accept what we had for the desired clues and keep going.
Trusting the big kid, the other scouts faithfully followed the leader. Since they had allowed him to do all the mental work along the way, they now had no idea of how to troubleshoot the flawed clue situation on their own. The younger kids, cold and embracing their negativity more than ever, also conformed just to keep moving toward any conclusion of what they considered to be a miserable exercise from the beginning.
As we started off into a random direction, I spoke up. My logic was: unless we figured out what had gone wrong, it would be unlikely that we could get back on track. Conceding that it would indeed cost us time, I petitioned the group to nevertheless go back and restart from the last trusted position.
As you can probably guess from my description of the group, the idea was quickly voted down. Tall Boy’sreputation had been challenged and at age 14, he lacked the ego authenticity to own an error. He surmised that it was not him but the instruction list that was inaccurate. The Follow-the-Leader scouts, having abdicated their own responsibility to understand the problem and its range of solutions, became an insecure committee. They were a majority, rejecting any idea that did not align with the group as led. The Cold Kids complained that it was getting dark and we should just quit, head back to the warm cabin and become sure losers.
I asked the leader if I could use the compass, going back to pace off the 50-yard task a second time. He agreed, but while I was re-stepping that link, the group’s impatience sent them marching off without me. I found the other birch tree and located the rock, which buoyed my confidence. I shouted for them to come back and join my trail. Locked in the grip of false confidence, where the leader’s determination was ratified by an ignorant majority and then, in turn, served the majority it’s need for security, they declined. I suppose the group had by now developed some skeptical thoughts about this kid from New England who had the audacity to leave the safety of the herd to pursue a quality result. Besides, they were comfortable with Tall Boy’s decision because, after all, it was affirmed by 7 of the 8 scouts which was clearly a mandate.
Since I was unfamiliar the adults, I was not at all sure that my solo work would be recognized or even accepted at the finish line, but it was. Fortunately the last step on the instruction revealed a cached, four-sided trinket as proof that the accurate destination had been reached. The exercise was designed to confirm that if the team had accomplished every skill in the competition they could produce the trinket. It would prove completion of all the steps for them and gain respect for quality from all who participated. At the conclusion of the event, when the Scout Master asked if anyone could identify this unusual piece of jewelry, our team won and was recognized for accomplishing the key lessons required to successfully reach the goal.
It’s a wonder that I wasn’t hated by my teammates, who accepted my contribution with grace. The experience helped me shed the newcomer status in the troop and gave alert to the kids who had trusted the majority without thinking on their own. It also set a permanent caution in my heart to be skeptical about the popular perception that a majority is always right.
Henrik Ibsen, in his famous 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, created a character who’s role is to help the reader wonder if the majority does always rule. His point: it is an age-old lie that the majority is always right! In fact, he asserts via the character’s lines that the majority is usually wrong!
At 11 years old, philosophy was not my concern. However, having watched the process of decision-making on so many boards and committees over the years since, I often wished that more of those members had been with us in that cold Akron wood in 1954.