Friday, April 10, 2015

About Mystery: Getting "Lost" in the Classroom

Lost was my very favorite television show. When it began in the fall of 2004, I had no idea how wrapped up I would become in the puzzles, the characters, the mysteries that were all part of that show.

Lost had a great team of writers, a fantastic cast of actors, and all sorts of crazy connections to history, mathematics, religion, science, geography, literature, music, philosophy, and pop culture.

It was science fiction...but not really.

It was fantasy...but not really.

It was great stories about intriguing people who were stuck together in a bizarre location that only got stranger as you learned more about it, and yet it began to make more and more sense as well.

I recently started re-watching the series on Netflix while I'm on the treadmill in the morning. I was again riveted by the pilot episode...


A cold open on a man's eye filling the screen...we zoom out to see his confused face...and when we zoom out further we find our friend is wearing a suit, has a cut face, and we are in...a jungle. Why is this man wearing a suit? How did he get here? Why is he injured?

And then...a golden retriever wanders by. Our friend follows him.

He stumbles out onto the beach and we have our first answer: a plane has crashed onto an island. Our friend is one of the lucky ones who survived. He surveys the chaos on the beach and runs into the madness and to begin providing triage to the wounded.

He is a doctor.

He grabs other people to help out and move people away from the crashed fuselage. Eventually the craziness begins to subside and he realizes he is wounded and bleeding. He tries to sew himself up, but can't quite reach the bleeding gash on his back. Just at that moment, a woman from the plane steps out of the jungle rubbing her if she has just gotten out of a pair of handcuffs. He asks her to help, and she reluctantly agrees.

Back on the beach, a semblance of order is beginning to take shape. We find out our friend is named Jack, and his new female friend is Kate. We soon meet Charlie, Sayid, Sawyer, Shannon, Boone, Hurley, Claire, Sun and Jin, Michael and Walt, and that mysterious Mr. Locke. Quite the group of misfits. Most seem to have a story...but we just don't know the details yet.

Flashbacks to events on the plane help us understand a bit more about our friends on the island and what was happening just before the crash. Through future episodes, it becomes clear that these characters DO each have a story, and we are just beginning to see the string unspool.

There are strange things happening on this island.

The first night, strange noises rattle the jungle near the beach. The survivors are worried. They should be it a monster?

Jack, Kate and Charlie go into the jungle in search of a radio from the plane's cockpit and have an encounter with...something...that seems to have killed the pilot in a most gruesome fashion.

Some survivors encounter a polar bear in the jungle. (This tropical island is inhabited by polar bears!?!)

A band of the survivors discovers a strange radio transmission coming from the island: a distress call, a woman speaking French: "They are all dead. It killed them all. Please someone come!" There is a counter on the message--it has been looping and broadcasting since it was recorded. They calculate that it has been playing for sixteen years.

At the end of the episode, after all these things have unfolded, Charlie looks around with a mingled expression of curiosity, suspicion, and fear, and wonders aloud:

Charlie: "Guys...where are we?"
"Guys...where are we?"

Smash cut to black. The word LOST appears center screen.


Fantastic storytelling, and visually compelling.

Charlie's question in the last moment is the one we are all wondering--where is this place? What is this tropical island populated with polar bears and monsters that make mysterious clanking growls? What should we make of the French woman's distress call...and the fact that there must be some power supply on this island to be broadcasting it? And what should we make of it that it has been broadcasting for so long...with no one answering?

And then this variety of people--a doctor, a fugitive, a con man, a rock star, a socialite, and all the rest--what got them onto this plane from Australia to the U.S.?

What is the story with Jin and Sun--why is he so harsh with his wife, and why does she look like she hates her husband so much?

Michael and Walt clearly have a strained relationship; Walt is so defiant toward his father--what's going on there?

What exactly is the nature of Boone and Shannon's relationship?

Is Sayid telling the truth when he says he was in the Iraqi Republican Guard?

Hurley seems like the nicest guy in the world. But what is he hiding?

And what is the deal with Mr. Locke, who is the only one who looks perfectly happy to be on this island?


The mystery of this show--both its setting and its characters--is what made it so very appealing for me. There are very few television shows I would arrange my life around to ensure I could watch it. Lost was one of those shows. I found myself reading fan theories online after an episode would air; a whole online community arose looking for every little clue that might be significant and have meaning several episodes down the line. (And the writers were famous for doing things like that; a seemingly strange visual clue, or an offhand line one character makes, or something happening in the background of a flashback might become a central element to an episode later on in the series.

It was a mixture of Gilligan's Island, Lord of the Flies, and The Twilight Zone, with a dash of Survivor and a generous sprinkle of Crash. Lost was clever, dramatic, funny without being silly (usually), thrilling, and occasionally a little over the top.

And it was a mystery, of course. Actually, it was a whole series of mysteries--a whole mythology underlying the storytelling.

The mysteries drew me in, made me want to know more, drove my curiosity and wonder.

That's an interesting thought for me as a teacher.

What if we need a little mystery to be engaged? To spark a desire to learn more? To be curious? To wonder?

What if my teaching was less didactic and a little more mysterious?

The writers on Lost did this so well: they would share something absolutely essential, unfold the corner of the map a little further so we could get a new sense of understanding of what was going on with that mysterious island, the monster inhabiting it, the array of survivors and their stories. But at the same time, those new revelations almost always prompted new questions as well! (There's a sailing ship from the 1800's on this island? There's a mysterious hatch on this island? What's inside? Who built it? Who else is on this island???)

Unfolding the map, bit by bit...isn't that what the best teachers do? In the process of helping you understand a new aspect or idea or element, they pull you deeper in by inciting more curiosity, more wonder?

Maybe we need a little more curiosity and wonder in our classrooms? Maybe we can capture our students--our cast of characters, each with a story of his or her own--by infusing a little more mystery into our teaching?


A few episodes in, that mysterious Mr. Locke saves Jack's life, pulling him to safety as he dangles over the edge of a cliff. As they are catching their breath, they have a conversation about what brought them all to this mysterious place. Mr. Locke expresses his belief that there is something mystical about the island, but Jack isn't so sure. Mr. Locke gives him an appraising look, and says:

"This place is different. It's special... What if everything that happened  here, happened for a reason?"
"This place is different. It's special...
What if everything that happened
here, happened for a reason?"

Wouldn't that be the best description you could hope for in your classroom?

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