Polly Pencil Always Drowns in the Pacific Ocean

April 8, 2012

I created a conversation / debate activity for my Korean students called “The Lifeboat Game.” Here’s the scenario: the students in the class are passengers on a sinking ship. Luckily, there’s a lifeboat. Unluckily, the lifeboat can only hold six people. Since my debate classes have 14 students, this means that eight of my adorable pupils will meet a watery end in the cold arms of the Pacific Ocean. So it goes.

As chance would have it, there is a deserted island within rowing distance of the sinking ship. Those who are lucky enough to secure a spot in the lifeboat will float to the island and begin a new life there. Each student is randomly assigned a character to play, and the goal of the game is for the students to convince the rest of the class to vote them onto the lifeboat. As we all know, there are six criteria for a successful island utopia: food, shelter, peace, health, entertainment, and babies. Students should base their votes primarily on who they think can best provide these six elements, but arguments from other perspectives are also encouraged.

Here are some examples of the characters in the game:

Nurse Nancy is a 24-year-old nurse who is friendly and flirtatious. She won’t go on the lifeboat without her boyfriend, Steve Sloth, an arrogant, indolent (and possibly lecherous) buffoon.

Connie Carter is 31-year-old escaped prisoner. She was in jail for vehicular manslaughter after one foolish decision to drink and drive changed her life forever. She’s very kind-hearted and has a lovely singing voice.

Chris Carpenter, 35, is an expert builder. His specialty is hut design in areas with limited resources. He is gracious and jovial. He weighs 375 pounds and takes up two spaces on the lifeboat.

I’ve played the Lifeboat Game with three different classes. The students have made some great and surprising arguments for why they should be voted onto the lifeboat. Almost every character has made the cut, including all of the characters above. (In one game, Steve Sloth made such a good pitch that he ended up with more votes than Nurse Nancy.) However, one character has never made it on the boat. This poor misunderstood soul who is doomed to always drown in the Pacific Ocean is the writer Polly Pencil.

Trained in both poetry and prose and published in several well-respected literary journals, Polly Pencil was working on the Great American Novel when misfortune brought her to the high seas in search of a remedy for writer’s block. She’s described in the game as 29 years old, usually fun and friendly, although occasionally she will cry all day and refuse to work or talk to anyone. A typical writer, basically. As the only passenger with the skills to properly chronicle the survivors’ story, as well as being able to provide entertaining tales of adventure around the campfire, I thought she had as good a chance as anyone else. But she’s been shark food every time, never getting more than two or three votes.

Why the hard luck for Miss Pencil? Probably because it’s more difficult to justify bringing a writer on the lifeboat than, say, a sushi chef (Kate Cook), or a roofer (Rufus Randolph), and the “entertainment” element is usually satisfied by someone with musical or sports talents. Besides, Frank Fisher (a belligerent fisherman) can probably be a writer too – how hard can it be? Also, the young students have a hard time articulating the importance of writers to society. They lack the vocabulary to describe the ways literature can make our lives richer and fuller, more meaningful.

So I’m never that surprised when Polly doesn’t make the cut. Still, it’s always hard for me to leave her behind. I imagine her waving sadly to the lifeboat as the prow of the ship slips below the surface and she’s left treading water and thinking about her family and her unfinished novel and the seven other souls around her also preparing to leave this mortal coil.

On the lifeboat, Steve Sloth tells everyone he’s looking forward to working on his tan.

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