The Third Wave began as an experiment in the classroom of first-year history teacher Ron Jones to simulate fascism in World War II and demonstrate to skeptical students how the Nazi Party rose to power. Over five days, the movement took on a life of its own as it spread from the 30 sophomores in Jones' homeroom class to more than 200 students from all three high schools in the Palo Alto school district eager to pledge allegiance to a social movement that promised acceptance and reward to those who obediently followed its rigid rules.
"It started out as a fun game with the most popular teacher at school," said Mark Hancock, one of the students in Jones' Contemporary World History homeroom class. "He told us, 'If you're an active participant, I'll give you an A; if you just go along with it, I'll give you a C; if you try a revolution, I'll give you an F, but if your revolution succeeds, I'll give you an A.'
"I was a mischievous 15-year-old, and I remember right away, I wanted to be one of those revolutionaries who got an A. ... But it went well beyond (grades) pretty quickly, and at the end, I was scared to death."
Jones posted student guards at the classroom door, ordered students to march into class and sit at attention with their hands clasped behind them. He taught them to salute each other with a curved hand similar to the salute used during the Nazi regime. To avoid rebellion, he made it illegal for any party members to congregate in groups larger than three outside of class — a rule that had to be followed 24/7. He used students as secret police and held public trials to banish "resistors" to the library with a reduced grade, according to an account by student reporter Bill Klink that appeared in the school newspaper, "The Catamount," on April 21, 1967.
At the time, no one realized the experiment would become a significant catalyst for much broader discussions about bullying, history, peer pressure, fascism and psychology or inspire multiple stage productions, a musical, movies and books. In more than 32 countries, study of the Third Wave has become part of the classroom curriculum, including in Israel and Germany, where the story is a high school reading requirement.
Palo Alto City Historian Steve Staiger said the Third Wave is among the most-asked-about topics, behind the Grateful Dead and developer Joseph Eichler's homes.
"It's become one of the more significant historic events in Palo Alto's past," Staiger said.
But back in 1967, the classroom experiment drew little attention. Local media didn't report on it, parents quickly dismissed it, and most of Jones' students seemed to drop the subject the following week when they moved on to a history lesson about Vietnam. Life went on with no one publicly talking about the experiment for an entire decade until Jones unexpectedly bumped into a former student on a street in Berkeley who immediately gave him the secret salute. That brief encounter inspired Jones to write a short article in a local magazine about his Third Wave experience, which captured the attention of Hollywood and beyond. The 1981 film "The Wave" and subsequent book of the same name are based on his article.
Hancock,too, eventually decided to speak out about those five days during his sophomore year that had gnawed at him for more than 40 years.
"'It had gotten to be such a big story — obviously something much bigger than all of us — that I knew the time was right to talk to the other students and give us a voice," said Hancock in telephone interview from his Seattle home last week.
At the same time, former classmate and Hollywood film editor Philip Neel ("Twin Peaks," "Boston Common") said he had decided to begin tracking down classmates to get their take on the experiment after discovering that his two daughters were learning about the Third Wave in their southern California school.
The duo ultimately teamed up and produced the 2010 award-winning documentary "Lesson Plan," which weaves together personal accounts from schoolmates, Jones, parents and former Principal Scott Thomson.
On March 22, the Palo Alto History Museum will show the film for the first time in Palo Alto during a special event at the school site where it all happened (now Cubberley Community Center) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Third Wave experiment. Hancock, Neel and Jones will be on hand to answer questions.
"It wasn't until we started doing the movie that I found out the depth of what had really happened. We were all blindsided by how everything unfolded at the time," said Neel over the telephone from his southern California home.
Jones had just graduated from Stanford University when he was hired at Cubberley during the 1966-'67 school year. At the time, Cubberley was a freewheeling school that prided itself on being experimental, and Jones, who liked to bring in guest speakers and conduct unorthodox lessons, quickly became a favorite teacher on campus, Hancock recalled.
"He was very charismatic and his classes were really fun. They were so good that if a particular speaker came to campus, other kids in other classes would sneak out and watch our class," Hancock said. "A lot of students wished they had him as their teacher, and we knew we were lucky."
No one had any reason to be alarmed that April when a student asked how could the Nazis have been so appealing to the general population that no one spoke up during the Holocaust, and Jones responded, "I don't know. Let's try an experiment. I will be the dictator, and you will be the movement," Hancock recalled.
The following Monday, Jones ordered the students to address him as Mr. Jones, instead of Ron. He lectured them on the benefits of discipline and ordered them to practice the proper way to sit and stand at perfect attention through repeated drills.
"It was really only meant to be a one-hour exercise," Jones said in an interview with the Weekly. "I definitely wanted the students to have some understanding of the Holocaust. I thought it would be a stepping stone into what it was like to be in a totalitarian state if they followed the directions of a teacher in a marshal-like way."
When Jones returned to class the next day, he discovered the students sitting in the same posture that he had left them in the previous day with "these zipper smiles on their faces," Jones said.
He thought, "Oh my gosh, what is this about?" and spontaneously, like improv, Jones went to the blackboard and wrote the slogans, "strength through discipline," and "strength through community." The class began to chant the words in unison, and a movement was born.
"There was this excitement about being part of a community," Jones said.
In class that day, he created the secret salute and gave the group the name, "The Third Wave" — surfer lingo used to describe the last and strongest wave in a series of swells.
"When the bell sounded ending the period, I asked the class for complete silence. With everyone sitting at attention I slowly raised my arm and with a cupped hand I saluted," Jones recalled in his article, "The Third Wave, 1967: an account." "It was a silent signal of recognition. They were something special. Without command the entire group of students returned the salute."
The next day, Jones issued membership cards to any student that wanted to continue in the Wave. Not a single student elected to leave the room, he said.
Then, he had the students put their heads down and secretly tapped three of them on the shoulder. Whoever received a tap was given the special assignment to report any students not complying to the Wave's rules.
"I remember not being tapped and thinking, 'I'm going to miss out on something here,'" Hancock said. "This is when it was still a fun little game. But then, he started rolling out the rules."
Anyone accused of not following the rules faced a public trial.
"In the morning, he would come in and stand at the front of the class with us sitting up straight," Hancock recalled. "Then, he would pull a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket, and he would say a name. That person would stand up, and he would say, 'My secret police have informed me that you have broken a rule. What do you have to say for yourself? ... If we are going to be a disciplined group and do great things, we can't have a rule breaker here.'"
He would then ask the students one by one, "Is this person guilty?" until he had everyone chanting "guilty, guilty, guilty," Hancock added. "It scared the hell out of me."
Once convicted, the student was exiled from the Wave and not allowed to come back to class.
"I had no idea it would go this far, but it grew exponentially," Jones said. "By the third day, other students were cutting class to be in the Wave, and by the fourth day, they were migrating from Paly and Gunn to be part of it."
Jones said the experiment reached its turning point for him on Day 3 when a student body guard accompanied him into the teachers' faculty room.
"There was an English teacher sitting there who said, 'Hey, students aren't allowed in here.' And this child said, 'I'm not a student, I'm a bodyguard.' I knew at that very moment that that young adult had crossed some invisible line, and this was no longer a game or classroom activity. It was something real to this person, and I was crossing the same line," Jones said. "I was beginning to like the order and the adulation. It was pretty intoxicating."
Jones kept waiting for someone to step in and stop the experiment — but no one ever did. The parents, the faculty, the students all trusted him without question.
"By now, I'm deep into it and I'm thinking, 'How is this going to end?' I was hoping some faculty member would come into the room and challenge it ... but that teacher never arrived."
Even the principal, Jones said, liked the fact that students seemed more ordered and weren't roaming the halls.
At the end of the week, Jones dropped a bombshell on the students: He entered the class and pulled the curtain across the windows to darken the room. He was no longer smiling.
He lowered his voice and told the students he had an important announcement: "The Third Wave isn't just an experiment. ... It's real," Hancock recalled.
The students had been chosen to be part of a new third political party that was going to revolutionize American politics. He told them their national political leader would unveil himself during a televised speech at a rally that afternoon.
"That was the turning point for me. I had this horrible sense of being trapped," Hancock said.
That afternoon, students piled into the auditorium carrying posters, chanting and believing the large number of "reporters" and "cameramen" documenting the event were from real outlets, not part of Jones' experiment.
When Jones turned on the television, however, only white snow appeared on the screen.
Everyone silently sat in position waiting and waiting for their leader to appear. Several minutes passed and nothing happened.
Moments later, video of the Nuremberg Rally started on a giant screen against the wall, displaying Hitler and the Third Reich.
"Listen closely, I have something important to tell you," Jones recounted in his article. "Sit down. There is no leader. There is no such thing as a national youth movement called the Third Wave. You have been used. Manipulated. Shoved by your own desires into the place you now find yourself. You are no better or worse than the German Nazis we have been studying."
Jones said there was a wide range of reactions.
Hancock said he remembers some students cried, while others said they knew it was a joke all along. Others, like him, had run out of the rally in fear before Jones made his final announcement.
Jones said silence was the common experience shared by all. No one publicly spoke about that rally for 10 years.
"That was really the genesis of that student question, 'How could the Germans behave that way after the war?'" Jones said. "Silence is what happens when you feel shame."
Neel said when it was over, his initial reaction was, "Wow. That was an amazing experience, and boy did I learn a lesson."
He said there are some who see the documentary and say Jones should have never conducted the experiment in the first place and are upset that his students still endorse him today.
"My feeling is the opposite," Neel said. "It was a given that was he was doing was ethically wrong, but the lesson he taught far outweighed (that)."
Neel called the experience a wake-up call that has had lifelong impact.
"I think I process things differently now," said Neel, who remains leery about joining any kind of group and questions everything her hears and reads.
Jones launched the Wave just two months before the Summer of Love got into full swing. It was a time of unwanted war, protests and racial integration taking place for the first time.
"With the unrest that all of that brought, there was a sense that maybe we could change these things," Jones said. That made the Wave appealing, especially to the boys who were facing the draft in two years.
Hancock said he remembered thinking, "I don't want to get drafted. Maybe this is a good thing even though I don't like how this feels."
There also were grades to think about and the peer pressure of being part of an elite group.
"Jones pulled it off so well because we could identify so easily with him," Neel said. "He was young, he spoke our language, and we felt very comfortable with him."
He didn't make the experiment racist or anti-Semitic, Hancock added.
"If he had crossed that line and asked us to turn against each other, it might have been a different outcome," he said.
The biggest appeal was the way Jones conducted the experiment, Hancock said.
"What people don't understand is the way that Jones rolled out the Wave. We got sucked into it because it was gradual," Hancock said. "By the time you felt trapped, there wasn't much you could do. The reality is that it was your social studies class, and you really couldn't go anyplace else. The only thing you could have done is take the game to a new level and be a revolutionary or try to get out through the administration, but that didn't seem like a possible avenue because everyone was part of the Wave as far as you knew."
Hancock, who now travels the globe to speak to students about the Wave, said the experiment was an emotional milestone in their lives.
"Most of us have very strong memories of it," he said. "But the reality is not everyone had the same experience. Each one of us had to make the decision during that time whether we were going to be for it, resist it or just try to stay out of the way and get an A and move on."
For Hancock, he wanted to be a revolutionary but never found a way to resist.
"I wish I had done more and could say I was a major resistor," he said. "I had good intentions, but it was like a totalitarian state, so if you said the wrong thing, you would disappear. I made up my mind to try to figure it out from inside the system, but everyday everything kept changing. I kept thinking, 'The clouds will part and I'll know what to do,' but that never happened, and I didn't act."
Neel said he opted to stay out of the way — a decision he regrets.
"I was in the middle, which is probably the worst place to be," he said. "I was just going along with the flow and going along with everybody else and not challenging it, but not entirely endorsing it. ... I stayed too long. Some people ran out of the rally, but I was there until the bitter end."
Out of all the students, only two actively resisted — sophomores Alyssa Hess and Sherry Tousley. On the final day, Hess stood up in class and urged her classmates not to attend the rally. Tousley resisted from the start. Tousley was one of Jones' top students who had been banished from class early on for questioning the movement's purpose. She anonymously launched an anti-Wave resistance group, "The Breakers." In the documentary "Lesson Plan," she said her father drove her to Cubberley before school hours so she could hang anti-Wave posters up high in the halls so students couldn't tear them down. Until the making of the documentary 40 years later, not a single person — except her father — knew Tousley was the sole person behind the resistance group.
"I remember thinking,'Who was this resistance group that I could go find and join?'" Hancock said. "(Tousley and Hess) put themselves in considerable personal risk."
Can it happen again?
"People often say it wouldn't work today because there would be parent involvement, but take a look at our own national election," Jones said.
Many of the questions those students faced 50 years ago, he said, are the same ones we are facing today:"How do we change things? Do we work within the system, or risk arrest? Do we accept civil disobedience?"
For Jones, who now spends his time in the theater and writing, the Wave represents a period in his life that he prefers not to talk about. The experiment ultimately brought an end to his teaching career in the public school system two years later when he was denied tenure despite support from hundreds of students and parents who petitioned to have him stay.
"It makes me quite pleased that this has become a catalyst for people to talk about history. That's very rewarding, but I'm not proud of the Wave, and I don't want to see it repeated," said Jones, who has turned down inquiries about how to re-enact the Wave from everyone from cult leader Jim Jones to a British television company wanting to turn the experiment into a reality show.
Jones said he was particularly surprised how the students in the middle — those who weren't the athletes, cheerleaders or part of the "in" crowd — responded to the Wave.
"Sometimes as a teacher, you miss the middle group, those who just want to be successful at something for once in life," he said. "What was interesting during the Wave was that the very bright kids were excluded and martialed out of the classroom by guards early on. That left the middle group, who then felt empowered. That's probably what's happening today in the United States. People who felt left out suddenly are in control, and it feels good.
"Can it happen again? I say, 'It's happening.'"
The March 22 free event is full but the documentary is available on Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, and other materials are posted at lessonplanmovie.com and thewavehome.com.