I’m blessed,” says Ron Jones. “I’m smitten by the angels of innocence I work with, people who grab you by the hand, talk nonsense by the hour, eat with protruding tongues and have bowel movements at the wrong time.” Adds wife Deanna: “What better job could he have? He gets to play all day.”
Jones’ current playground is San Francisco’s widely acclaimed Recreation Center for the Handicapped, where he has been physical education director since 1978. His charges are 1,200 impaired children and adults, and he has had remarkable success with them. Yet, rewarding as his work with the handicapped is, Jones’ 20 years of teaching have presented him on occasion with problems far more pernicious than physical disability—and virtues greater than health.
This Sunday night (Oct. 4) ABC presents The Wave, a docudrama which depicts how Jones confronted one such problem 14 years ago in his history class at Cubberley High School in nearby Palo Alto. The real classroom drama began in the middle of a lecture he was giving on Hitler’s Germany to a group of 30 sophomores. “How could the German populace claim ignorance of the slaughter of the Jewish people?” a student asked. “How could they claim they knew nothing about the concentration camps?” Jones had to admit he didn’t know. But the following Monday, his pupils noticed a marked change in his behavior. “Ron was a relatively loose teacher,” recalls a former student, Steve Coniglio. “But that morning he ordered us to address him as ‘Mr. Jones.’ He lectured us on discipline and the proper way to sit and stand. We all thought it was just a game.”
The game, however, quickly became something more. Next day Jones chalked slogans on the blackboard such as “Strength Through Community” and “Strength Through Discipline.” He also gave the group a name, “the Third Wave”—which folklore suggests is the strongest in a series of ocean swells. He then handed out ID cards and encouraged his students to recruit their friends to the movement. Group discipline included demands that some of the students report infractions of others to him. Word of the class activities began to worry some parents, and one night the father of a student broke into the classroom and ransacked it. The man had been a former Air Force colonel and a POW in Germany. When he heard of the experiment, Jones says, “the father simply lost control. I knew then that the experiment had to end.”
Jones told the class that the Third Wave was actually a national student movement, and that he would hold a rally the next day to hear a U.S. presidential candidate announce on TV the formation of a Third Wave party. But when the time came, Jones showed the highly charged students only a blank TV screen. “There is no leader,” he told them, many of whom were wearing “Third Wave” armbands. “You’re no better or worse than the Nazis we’ve been studying.” Then he showed films of Hitler rallies, cattle cars and concentration camps filled with doomed Jews. When it was over, many of the youngsters were in tears. “If your enactment of the fascist mentality is complete,” Jones told them, “not one of you will ever admit to being at this meeting. Like the Germans, you will have trouble admitting to yourselves that you came this far. You won’t admit to participating in this madness. You will keep this a secret. It’s a secret I shall share with you.”
Cubberley High was Jones’ first teaching job after graduating from San Francisco State College and completing his master’s in education at Stanford. It was not an auspicious start and led to a string of dismissals. Following the Nazi episode he says he was fired for, among other things, inviting debate on the war in Vietnam and recruiting black “exchange students” from another school for Cubberley’s all-white basketball team. In 1973 he lost his job as director of Stanford’s Student Center for Innovation in Research and Education because, he says, his “program was too successful. The university got scared there was too much student control.” A third job teaching in the psychiatric ward of San Francisco’s Mount Zion Hospital ended after he wrote an unfavorable critique of the faculty. Fortunately he was offered his current job on the very day he was fired.
That Christmas, Deanna, Jones’ wife of 18 years, gave him a blank copybook and told him, “It’s time to write.” The stories that resulted were mostly about his experiences as a teacher, and his account of the Hitler experiment eventually caught the eye of Norman Lear, who produced the TV version. Last March NBC aired The Acorn People, an adaptation of a Jones story about two weeks he spent one summer in a camp for severely disabled kids.
Lear offered Jones a handsome sum to sign on as a screenwriter, but he has decided to stick to teaching, calling the lures of wealth “the ultimate American illusion.” He lives in a modest Haight-Ashbury home with Deanna and their daughter, Hilary, 9. “My writing is like raising flowers instead of vegetables,” he explains. “There is no practical purpose for growing flowers except they look nice and smell good.”