How astute fifth-graders analyzed the caste system in their school (in the context of a masterpiece by John Russel); fascinating to see children fight against dehumanization through “aha” moments!


For a number of years, I taught a short and complex history to a group of gifted senior elementary school children, as part of a selection for an advanced college internship (my old school was located in an affluent suburb). The title of the story was The fourth man, and it was written by the late John Russell. * If you search for Russell or “fourth man,” you can find the story, but you will find a link to the radio show’s version of The fourth man, entitled Escape (some of my former students found the radio script and enjoyed playing the part of the criminals). Today that remarkable and timely article could be banned (over the weekend NY Times columnist Michelle Goldberg offered excellent information on the motivation behind the current attempt to ban books) by members of school boards and others.

Spoiler alert – this story lives up to its title; about a century ago, The fourth man is a character study of four (very different) men, three of whom escape from prison in New Caledonia (an island close to New Zealand and even New Zealanders – whom I met in 2019 – think that New Caledonia is far away). The character called the fourth man or “native” –I consider the “native” to be the star of the story– is a member of an indigenous tribe. My former students enjoyed Google searching for images of this “native” islander and thinking about the striking similarities (both physical and intellectual) between these “native” and societal impressions of black men in the United States (and the parallels with the way Jews were treated by Hitler). If you are wondering, all of the students in the class were white.

Our class concluded that The fourth man was not a story of escape, but rather a story of our world caste system.

To give you a better understanding, a brief summary of the three villains:

The first, former inmate and the architect of the “flight” was one of the most privileged, a learned doctor, Doctor Dubosc; Doctor Dubosc was jailed for committing murder, authorities said.

The second, former inmate was convicted of forgery. I found the second character selfish and rather boring, spending much of his time petting Doctor Dubosc while waiting to be rescued.

The third, former inmate has been described as a genuine street fighter and known to be very pragmatic (unfortunately he goes after the “native” whom my former students and I found destructive, indecent and disturbing)!

On a central theme (as revealed in the plot), the third inmate hints that Doctor Dubosc’s foolproof plan may fail, asking:

“Suppose we have a storm. “

I’m just saying that even today there are plenty of storms brewing over speculative (rather ridiculous) outcomes, including the impact of exposure to certain content in the classroom. For my two cents, being scared of reading content in the classroom is remarkable, given uncontrolled exposure to social media. Also, don’t children live with their parents and talk to them (or at the very least, don’t parents observe what their children read? Aren’t parents (or guardians) the ultimate arbiter of what children can and cannot do?

Back to the story: the three former men have a lot of downtime on the raft and begin to discuss the characteristics of the so-called, barely human, definitely (for detainees / escapees at least) inferior, “native” . Once again, this “native” skillfully transported the three former prisoners to a meeting place (the first step in the return of the detainees / escapees to Paris, and they would have civilized the escapees become restless and hungry because their rescue vehicle, a schooner, is – for unknown reasons – delayed).

The Doctor begins his analysis of the “native”:

I see a Konauk [the so-called “native” on this raft with us]. He doesn’t join us. He’s not looking at us. He sits on his heels, native-style, his arms hugging his knees. He sits in the back, motionless, under the blazing sun. Contemplate in… in the void.

The forger or the second inmate / escapee asks himself:

What is happening in his [native’s] brain? What is he dreaming about there? He seems to hate us.

Dr Dubosc does his best to convince others that the “native” is a man, but not a “civilized” man:

He is a man, and an example of a very poor and miserable man. You won’t find any inferior type anywhere. Look at his cranial angle. Ears high. The heavy skeleton of his skull. Well he’s barely above a monkey.

What else do I remember from this story? Well, the vocabulary is intimidating, the heartbreaking indifference to others, and the brutal abuse, physical and verbal (yes, that story could be banned) is dehumanizing. If you have time, please read the story; it will stay with you, and if you are an open person it might change how you think about other people and about each other. This story changed the way some suburban kids thought of each other and made me so proud of how their ideas evolved.

A brief description of how this story seemed to change students’ thinking:

Around, 2005

A girl named Beth to a girl named Annie:

I think this story applies a bit to our life in the suburbs.

Another brief aside from me, the teacher: Research has shown that children can safely grapple with complex emotions and personal experiences through literary analysis; in the jargon of the gifted, this is called “bibliotherapy”.

Beth continues — and to give you a context, there are about 20 kids in this class. Desks are no longer in fashion, so these students sit together at tables and can easily chat about the story.

Beth says to Annie: for example, I would never have met you in the playground; we have different friends [today, it would be “friend groups.”].

Beth is an honest child — Beth adds:

I would never have even looked at you; you don’t care what you’re wearing, and you just like to play on the edge of the pavement; sometimes by yourself.

Now most of us in the classroom are looking at Annie. Annie is seated at a different table than Beth’s, but there are others at the table with Annie and they seem to be looking at Annie the hardest.

Was Annie stunned? I do not remember. We all became distracted as Beth continued:

And now, Annie, Beth, added sincerely, in this class I am interested in what you have to say. We met and we are Fridayeknots in this class and we would not have met without this class. “

I don’t know if Beth and Annie have ever played together in the playground; it wasn’t until a few years later, when I got fed up with gossiping in the teachers’ room (yes, some teachers denigrate their students) and took on the duty of recreating (also to help my principal) that I escaped and joined the children. And really, at that time, most of the students were enjoying recess; some of them even pulled baskets with me and others.

Key takeaways for teachers: Most children listen to themselves and playgrounds can be islands of hope, survival, positive learning experiences and perhaps even inclusion; haha, a few moments of the trip to New Caledonia.



A short story encourages thinking about relationships, caste and emotions!

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