Laurie Saunders is the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper, The Gordon Grapevine. It is a beautiful day outside and her staff would rather hang around outside than work on the latest issue, which is supposed to come out next week. Although she is frustrated by the staff’s laziness, Laurie eventually gives up and leaves the publications office a few minutes early.
She spots her friend Amy, who is in a dull French class. Laurie makes funny faces at Amy outside the classroom window. The French teacher, Mr. Gabondi, catches Laurie but doesn’t have time to scold her before the bell rings, releasing the class.
Meanwhile, history teacher Ben Ross is struggling with the film projector in his classroom. Because of his youth and enthusiasm, he is very popular among his students and has earned an excellent reputation despite only teaching at the school for two years. As he prepares for his next class, he reflects on how things have changed since he was in high school. He thinks that today’s students are much worse at doing homework and coming to class on time than he ever was.
As the class files in, Mr. Ross lectures his students about their sloppy homework. Only two students—Laurie and Amy—received A’s on the latest assignment, and many of the students turned in homework with mistakes or doodles in the margins. He turns on a documentary for the students about the Nazi concentration camps.
The movie shows graphic images of people suffering and dying in the extermination camps. As it plays, Mr. Ross shares some background facts about Hitler’s rise to power. The students are stunned, and many ask why no one tried to stop the Holocaust. Mr. Ross suggests several reasons—for example that, the Nazis were highly organized—but explains that ultimately, no one knows.
When the bell rings, Laurie’s boyfriend David Collins rushes off to lunch. Although he was disturbed by the film, he is very hungry and wants to avoid standing at the end of the lunch line. Laurie stays after class for a few minutes to discuss the film with Mr. Ross.
After Laurie leaves, Mr. Ross confronts Robert Billings, ‘the class loser,’ about falling asleep during the film. Robert never participates in class and is on track to fail. Mr. Ross believes this is because he is afraid of failing to live up to the legacy of his overachieving brother, Jeff.
In the first chapters of The Wave, Strasser introduces the theme of organization. Mr. Ross complains that his students turn in sloppy work and show up late to class. Laurie has similar feelings when she gets upset that her classmates won’t help her work on the school newspaper. We can tell that Robert is a “loser” (6) because his clothes are disheveled and his manner sloppy.
When Mr. Ross shows the movie about the Nazis, he explains that the Nazis were able to take control of the government partially because they were organized and the rest of the German population was not. Mr. Ross’s explanation foreshadows the role that organization will take in the rest of the book. The students embrace the Wave because it helps them to be disciplined and organized, and this introduces positive changes in their lives.
These chapters introduce the novel’s three protagonists—that is, characters that readers can relate to and root for. These are Mr. Ross, Laurie, and Laurie’s boyfriend David. These characters are the most upset by the Nazi movie. They are also the only characters whose thoughts we have access to. We must draw conclusions about Robert, Brad, and the other students from their words and their actions, but Strasser lets readers know what Laurie, David, and Mr. Ross are thinking. This is an early indicator that they will be important later in the story.
Mr. Ross’s teaching methods—which include role-playing—are fairly common today. However, these methods would have been unusual and even controversial when The Wave was written in 1981. They would have been even more controversial in 1969, when the real events happened that the novel is based upon. It was also more common then for teachers to wear suits and ties and for high-school students to smoke.
It is important to keep these historical details in mind when reading The Wave. For example, if Laurie were a high school student today, her smoking might suggest that she is a rebellious character. However, this is not necessarily true because the story is set long ago.