Keeping Promise Trumps Ratting Out

You don’t rat out your bank-robber accomplice—even if you obtain a prize by doing so.

“Winning” in this case meant scoring extra ice cream from a supply that teacher Jesse Walsh had on hand.

Loyalty still trumps ratting, her philosophy students concluded—because when your accomplice gets out of jail, he may try to kill.

That by turns fun and deadly serious discussion—of when to break or not to break promises—emerged at the last session of the Philosophy Club, an after-school philosophy discussion group at the St. Martin de Porres Academy, a tuition-free independent Catholic middle school in the Hill.

Monday’s session was the last for Jesse Walsh, the school’s former math and science teacher. For four years she has brought in-depth chat and games on the nature of promises and consequences, the meaning of time, and when a cake is fully a cake to kids in the Hill neighborhood.

“You probably wouldn’t get that kind of a result in a suburban middle school,” said Walsh, now a graduate student at Boston University, who has rented a car every Monday to drive to New Haven since moving out of town to keep her beloved club running.

Click here for a previous story on the origins of the club and Walsh’s approach to philosophy games that both entertain the kids and provoke deep discussion in class.

“All right, let’s get started,” Walsh said Monday as she told the five young philosophers good news and bad.

The bad: Due to personal circumstances of being in Boston and graduate school, she no longer can continue to lead the club.

A nervous ripple went through the room as the kids, who had chosen philosophy over sports or arts and crafts or music, expressed their concern.

“We knew it!” said Monet Wray, a member of the club for two years.

The good news came next: “Quinnipiac University has agreed to run the club” and keep it going. Walsh has arranged for undergraduates studying philosophy at the Hamden-based school to carry on the St. Martin de Porres club. “I’ll come the first time in September, and then I’ll pass the torch. If you send me an invitation, I’ll come to your graduation.”

Bank Robbery Dilemma


Then it was full steam ahead with the combination of physical activity—the club follows compulsory study hall at the extended-day parochial school—and games that lead to deep thought, and then ice cream.

Monday’s game was called “The Philsopher’s Dilemma.” Walsh divided the kids—Monet Wray, Sapphire Moore, Maleek Wray, and Joseph Silba—into two teams. The boys and girls had to imagine themselves accomplices in a bank robbery. Before the deed they promised each other to say nothing to the police if caught.

Of course, they’re caught.

“You’re in prison now,” Walsh told the kids. You’re in two different rooms and now you have choices: If you squeal—and break your promise—you have no time in prison, and score big points. If you don’t tell, you do six months in prison but score fewer points. She reiterated that the goal of the game is to score the most points. The prize: ice cream.

Allan Appel PhotoAt the end of the rounds, the score was tied; all the kids voted each time in each round not to squeal.

“Everybody likes to keep their promises,” said Sapphire.

“But wasn’t the goal of the game to score as many points? Is there any situation in which you shouldn’t keep a promise?” Walsh asked Socratically.

“Yes, if you promise you’ll kill somebody,” said Sapphire.

“If I promise both people [running for class president] that I’ll vote for them [because he doesn’t want to hurt their feelings],” then Maleek said he’d have to break one of the promises.

Walsh drilled down deeper: “Even if it means escaping jail time, you still keep your promise?”

“Some promises are too serious to break. Like if it’s about jail and you break it, and they’ll kill you,” said Monet Wray.

The room grew silent. Walsh said that some teachers are uncomfortable with such silences, but she likes them. They’re a sign that thinking’s going on. The silence grew deeper.

Maleek Wray gave another example of promise-breaking that was no good, and it got personal: “If a dad and mom live in different houses and the dad doesn’t come [for a prescribed visitation], that’s a serious promise” broken, said Maleek.

“Because feelings are involved, does that define a ‘serious’ promise?” Walsh asked.

More silence. Then the silliness of kids tired from a day in school prevailed. It was time for ice cream for all.

The silences impressed Walsh. “I’m here for 75 minutes. I don’t expect them to be doing philosophy the whole time,” she said. “If each of them has just a moment or two [of deep thought or re-evaluation], then they can take that home.”

Walsh was more than pleased with her run at St. Martin.

“Maleek knows more philosophy at this time than most philosophy students,” she said. “If I could give him a B.A., I would.”

Then the loudspeaker came on; students were called down to the office for pick up. It was five o’clock, and philosophy club was over for the semester, but not forever. After all, what makes five o’clock five o’clock? What is time?.

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