Mr. Mehlman had been teaching for forty years. He survived a year of Vietnam and after returning with a new perspective on what was important, he got a teaching certificate and hunkered down in a classroom. The jungle war had toughened Mehlman to the point where he was assigned the roughest students in school. Long before there were certificates for special education, Mr. Mehlman was helping students with behavior issues that were often camouflage for learning difficulties.
Mehlman’s strategy was simple, teach them what they would need to survive and always be brutally honest. Because his classroom was in a back hallway and far from the daily foot traffic of administrators, few knew what was going on in Mehlman’s class. When they found out, they likened what they heard to war. Profanity was a part of the class. Some would consider their language Trumpian, but the comfort with which everyone spoke to each other was more honest than most classes. Students sat wherever they wanted including the floor or on top of desks. Mr. Mehlman only had one rule. Everyone had to get 100% on the tests. Until that happened, everyone in the class kept practicing the skills until the goal was reached.
“Something in here stinks,” said Mr. Mehlman. “Who smells?”
Everyone looked down. Nobody wanted Mr. Mehlman to make eye contact out of fear that he would start ragging on them. For the first time in many weeks the class was quiet. They were like soldiers hiding in the bush waiting for the enemy to go by. Mehlman walked a slow march around the room taking deep breaths to locate the source of the odor.
“Louis, is that you?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Mehlman.”
“I think it is.” Mehlman took a deep breath. “Yes… Louis, are those the same clothes that you wore yesterday?”
“Louis, you can’t wear the same clothes everyday. You have to change them because you will either make everyone uncomfortable with the smell or have stuff growing on you. You’ve got to wear different clothes tomorrow. All of your clothes, including your socks. Understand?”
The thing about Mehlman’s class was that the students loved him. Outsiders thought his methods crude and they wondered what the kids were learning. The academics were basic. He taught them math in the context of money and measurement. His rationale for keeping things so narrow was that most people only really need to know the basic math functions and measuring was an important skill for people in many blue collar jobs. The college prep brigade of teachers never understood this. However, they also didn’t agree with his approach to teaching reading. He let the students read whatever they wanted. If a student wanted Beowulf, that’s what she read. If she preferred to read a newspaper or Twitter, he let them do that. In either case, the students were required to explain what was important in their reading and how it related to something that was going on in current events.
He made learning personal and the students left school with skills that they could use right away. Most of his students went straight to the working world and never continued onto college. They were happy with that. Only the college prep brigade and the narrow minded vision setters disagreed with what Mr. Mehlman had been doing for the last forty years. He was the perfect model for PIOUS and the administration was about to find out why.
Allen decided he would check in on Mr. Mehlman to see if there was something he could do to get rid of him. Allen did not like the Mr. Mehlman. The feeling was mutual. Since Allen stood for nothing, Mehlman wrote him off as a no factor.
“Mr. Mehlman, can I go to the bathroom to finish my reading?” asked Louis.
“A magazine, in the bathroom? You know that’s why they call it the library?”
“No, hurry up.”
Louis grabbed his magazine and exited the door just as Allen walked in. Normally, Allen would have told the teacher he was coming, but he was hoping to ambush Mr. Mehlman. After about ten minutes he realized that Louis had not returned and since there was nothing wrong with the lesson, Allen went on a scouting mission to find the AWOL student. He walked into the bathroom and found Louis with his shoes off and his socks in the sink.
“What are you doing, Louis?”
“I’m washing my socks.”
“Because I wore them for two days and they smelled. Mr. Mehlman said I should wash them, but I forgot and just remembered. I’m doing it now so I don’t disappoint him.”
There are times when what we hear is not what we think. Allen thought he heard Louis say that he didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Mehlman. His washing socks in the bathroom was strange, but not wanting to disappoint Mehlman was something Allen could not comprehend. His brain had been outflanked by an enemy he was not prepared for; good things were happening in Mehlman’s room.
“How will you dry them?”
“I don’t know. It’s hot in Mehl’s room, maybe he’ll let me put them in front of the fan.”
“Go back to class.”
Louis put on his shoes and grabbed his socks. Allen followed a few steps behind. He was going to stand outside of the door and listen to how Mehlman handled the situation. Louis walked into the room.
“Where have you been?”
“Mr. Mehlman, I forgot to wash my socks, so that’s what I was doing. I didn’t want to stink up the room again. I was squeezing them out when Dr. Marina came in and told me to come back to class.”
“That kind of squeezing is also called wringing. Put your socks in front of the fan, get a computer, and see what you can learn about wringing water out of laundry. Can Dr. Marina confirm your story?”
“Yeah, he’s out side the door.”
“Oh. Come on in Dr. Marina.”
Allen looked around the corner. He was embarrassed and shocked at the same time. He was embarrassed to be called into the room like a traitor being brought to trial. He was shocked at how well Mehlman had made dirty socks into a mini vocabulary lesson.
“It’s just as he said. Nice job, Mehlman.”
For Allen, PIOUS began to take a different meaning.