Leadership in Literature

Alzar School | 13.11.15

In English B, students read What is the What by Dave Eggers. In this unit, they learned about and took responsibility for the cycle and roots of violence and prejudice in their own lives. They also learned how to critically read, analyze and discuss the text in a harkness format (similar to socratic seminar) connecting evidence from their own experience to the characters’ experiences in the novel. The final assessment and skill-building exercise of this unit was an analytical essay about the aspects of leadership in this book. In this introductory paragraph a student gives context to the reader and identifies leadership lessons it teaches.

The Lost Boys of Sudan is the name given to the groups of over 20,000 boys of the Nuer and Dinka ethnic groups who were displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005); about 2.5 million were killed and millions were displaced. In this book What is the What, by David Eggers he tells the story of a young boy named Achak Valentino Deng, growing up in the southern Sudan conflict and how he manages to survive. Achak overcomes his experiences and develops his character by applying aspects of leadership. While walking with the Lost Boys he fosters an inspiring vision and when in Kakuma he relies on good communication skills to become a leader of the drama group. He also utilizes the Dinka value of “guier” throughout the book, that means to improve unity, harmony, and prosperity within a group.~Neils, written in nonnative language

The students had to describe how these Lost Boys and Achak/Valentino Deng, in particular, used the aspects of leadership the students are currently learning at Alzar to overcome the challenges these refugees faced. The students extracted quotes from the book to provide evidence of the development and use of these leadership skills by Achak/Valentino Deng as exhibited in the following paragraph:

Even when Achak was struggling with hunger and fatigue, he continued to help the rest of the lost boys through community membership. Achak’s kind and helpful spirit allows him to show community membership through his daily tasks. Achak was given the job of burying the dead in a refugee camp which was one of the hardest jobs. He was also one of the youngest boys who was completing this job at hand so he had a great deal of initiative and humility to complete it. “I had gotten accustomed to the burials, and was helping to bury at least one body each day.” (Eggers, pg 267) In many instances, Achak showed his strong community membership through tasks his mentors and protectors had given him. Achak felt a certain sense of ownership in “paying back” the people who helped him in times of his struggle. “There is a man inside who has died, he said. -I want you to help carry him and then we’ll bury him. I could not object, I owed Dut my life.” (Eggers, pg 265) Achak also helped out around the communities with smaller daily tasks that benefited the group such as collecting water for the other boys. “I retrieved the water twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon, carrying the six-liter jerry can back to camp. The weight was significant for an insect like me, I had to rest every ten steps, small steps I hurried together.” (Eggers, pg 261) Achak was able to help the community better as a whole even when he was facing his own personal struggles and problems. ~Kelsey

In the conclusion, students reflected on their own experiences with leadership and how those experiences are informed by or support the story of the book. This reflection is represented in the following paragraph:

What is the What is an example of how using leadership ideals can help people through difficult situations in their life. For Valentino, his difficult time lasted the majority of his childhood, which is obliviously more intense than the hardships I experience, but he showed that no matter how challenging someone’s life can become, the basic concepts of leadership can always improve someone’s situation. Valentino’s entire journey was a challenging experience that lasted several years, and throughout his experience by using personal leadership, community membership, and the concept of Ceing, he was able to survive and find a better life outside of Africa. ~Parker

Studying leadership in this way creates an opportunity for students to apply leadership concepts the Alzar School covers in a more supported and “safe” environment to the real life experiences of others. The acquisition and practice of these skills helps us all to develop critical, collaborative-living skills that become our greatest resources when times get tough.