I’ve been doing two things regularly during my unexpected snow days: re-watching old episodes of Lost and reading Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. In light of the new year, I’ve been using those mediums to think a lot about the attitude surrounding education reform and the role that we all play as educators within that system.
In my favorite episode of Lost, “Tricia Tanaka is Dead,” the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are in their bleakest times. The group’s leaders have been captured by the “Others,” leaving the rest of the group to fend for themselves on the beach. At this point, Hurley, an unlikely leader, begins to make his mark. He is not the outspoken, impulsive, or aggressive type that imposes power, nor is he charismatic and confident like those who typically have power placed in their hands. He is empathetic, genuine, and hopeful, and his influence stems from the strong friendships he builds in one-on-one conversations. With great insight into the other survivors’ flaws and virtues, he is able to help them realize their latent heroism as well as form a community in the most trying of circumstances.
Hurley is what Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a Connector – one of the three types of people essential to systemic change. According to Gladwell, Connectors “know everyone;” they have “a truly extraordinary knack of making friends and acquaintances” (41). In Hurley’s case, I believe that ability is a result of his empathy. He understands people, and he acknowledges that he can relate to even their worst personality traits. In doing so, he also shows his fellow survivors that it’s possible to overcome those flaws, whether he knows he’s modeling that or not. He also extends friendship when it might not be convenient or easy for him. Proximity and language barriers don’t stand in his way. As Gladwell says, Connectors “see possibility, and while most of us are busily choosing whom we would like to know, and rejecting the people who don’t look right, or who live out near the airport, or whom we haven’t seen in sixty-five years, [Connectors] like them all” (53). So, Hurley befriends the con artist and the Iraqi torturer and the Korean man who doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t dismiss them as flawed or inconvenient. He embraces all of them – good and bad – and he helps them focus on their goodness and their strengths.
Gladwell also argues that through those acquaintances and friendships, Connectors “manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches” (48). What’s most important for Hurley and to the mentality of all Connectors, according to Gladwell, is that those worlds aren’t disjointed: “By having a foot in so many different worlds, they have the effect of bringing them all together” (51), and the ties they create are powerful because “we rely on them to give us access to opportunities and worlds to which we don’t belong” (54). For the survivors, this happens in one afternoon when Hurley brings together Sawyer, Jin, and Charlie to help him fix a VW Bus that he finds in the jungle. He estimates it has been there “since before Rocky III, maybe even II,” but with the help of these three who were at odds up until this point, he gets it running. The result – a joyride around the Valley for all four. They laugh and celebrate their victory together.
My favorite part of the episode comes beyond Hurley’s immediate influence, however. After their drive, we see the three men return to the beach without Hurley, but they spread that feeling of hope and friendship. Jin makes amends with his wife, who he had fought with earlier in the day, Charlie forgets that his days are numbered and enjoys the evening with his girlfriend, and the once stubborn Sawyer looks to apologize to a friend he wronged the day before. As an audience member, I can’t help but smile and celebrate with the survivors. In the words of Hurley, they had “look[ed] death in the face and [said] ‘whatever, man.’” And, like the the survivors he affects, I can’t help but try to apply that optimism to my own situation.
I see Connectors like Hurley playing a tremendous role in education right now. There are many stakeholders to consider – students, teachers, administrators, support staff, parents, community members – and the more that policymakers and politicians can keep those groups separated, the less likely it will be that we make reform in the best interest of all of us. If our allegiance to likeminded people becomes too strong, it can make it difficult to see how we can all interweave. So, how can we overcome seeming separation and join forces?
Who are the Connectors at your school or within your community who can bring together all of the stakeholders? How can we encourage communication to align individuals and groups? How can we ensure that the goodness and strength of each group is maintained and fostered within that interweaving? And, most importantly, once there is a connection, how can we spread that unity to people in other districts, counties, and states? Perhaps, if we can identify our Connectors and figure out how to mesh, our impact will reach policymakers and politicians. Perhaps, we can be victorious. Perhaps, like Hurley, we can “make our own luck.”