She walked into the coffee shop a full facade of anything real. There was a perfect tan all over except her hands, feet, and swaddle of skin under her neck. There was the big jewelry, the costume of it all put together at a Macy’s counter. The earrings, necklaces, and bracelets all playing second fiddle to her two carat diamond wedding ring. Her mid-level heels pushed her retirement aged curves beyond the point of where they had been twenty years earlier when teachers her age thought she was the hottest thing going. Now she survived on the  guise of confidence and the miracle of foundation that hid her deep set lines of age.

She was pushing sixty-two, but but she led a social life that took advantage of every moment. Today she was meeting a man her age, but he carried himself in a different way. Where she sported a mini-skirt and low cut blouse, he wore Dockers and an Oxford shirt. His hair was cut like his clothes, conservative and business casual. He was holding onto an old man look in a most relaxed way, no wrinkles, no paunch, and no formerly buffed muscles. He looked good and had no idea why because he just went about life in a direct way.

Their mid-morning meeting had the feel of a first date. There was a bit of awkwardness when they said hello. There was also a bit of familiarity as he grabbed the back of her arm as she balanced against him for a kiss on her cheek. They ordered coffee and leaned in over their cups taking stock of their public situation. Perhaps this was a coming out party. Was it possible that they had been carrying on secretly and this was their first time alone in public?

“I’ve been playing a lot of golf,” she said.

“Really. How is that?” he said.

“It’s great, different from tennis. I can play a round with anyone and don’t have to be matched with someone.”

“I never thought of it that way.”

“I’m better on the course now, too.”

“How so?”

“I don’t throw my clubs anymore. I used to get so mad. One time I dumped all of my clubs right there on the golf cart.”

“Probably not the best place for that kind of display.”

“No and learning to control my passion has made me a better player.”

She felt the need to talk. He listened.

“Tennis, though, that’s how I stay in shape,” she said.

“And it works very well for you.”

She smiled, “Thank you.” She was a little embarrassed for with all of the work that she put into looking the part of a sexy lady, her true feelings were anything but confident. She knew her arms were sagging and her hair was only salon bottle dark. She knew her time was passing, so she covered for her lack of confidence with a self-centered focus on the accomplishments of everything she had done, was doing, or wanted to do. She went on with a stream of her nervous talk. He listened patiently projecting interest while masking whatever it was he was thinking about behind his poker face and timed nods of affirmation.

“I love going to the movies. I just saw Dory at the dinner theater place.”

“I’m not sure about this election. I used to take my students to Richmond. We would meet the most important politicians.”

“Broadway is the greatest, don’t you think. My daughters and I just saw Hamilton. Did you and your wife go?” This was her not so subtle check on his marriage in an effort to gain insight into his intentions.

“Yes,” he said.

She kept going, “My father was in the military. We moved around a lot. It meant keeping friends hard. I think that’s why I do so much. When we settled in Williamsburg, I knew this would be the place for me.”

“Us, too.”

“I’m not a big fan of the climate. I prefer Arizona, but this is home.”

“Did you ever live in Arizona?” he asked.

“No, but we went with my daughters and grandkids last Christmas. It was perfect.” She was making sure he understood she was still married. He knew this was a weak proclamation.

“You hardly look like you could be a grandmother.”

“It’s the tennis, I guess,” she said.

“Or the new golf attitude.”

They sat looking towards each other with less first date nervousness and more of a “now what” agenda. As the coffee cooled, so did her energy to keep things moving. She leaned back and took in all that he was. He was handsome and professional. He was also married to a former colleague of hers. While she had been friends with the other teacher, she always had more interest in him than she did for his wife. She was nice enough, but she could never put her attraction to him in a place that would allow her to be close friends with his wife.

“Why are we here?” she asked.

“Can you to come over Friday night?”

“I’m not sure what to say. I’m flattered and I would love to, but what about your wife?”

“She’ll be there.”



Photo Credit: via Pexels

There is a fine line between prison and school. Prisoners are given cells. Students are given desks. Prisoners get recreation time. Students have physical education classes and recess. Prisoners do time. Students meet hours. Both are told when to speak, how to act, and when they can go to the bathroom. Guards roam the cell blocks and halls to protect the sanctity of both environments to protect the individual missions. Prisoners are supposed to learn from their mistakes and take advantage of their sentences so that they may be reformed, thereby becoming productive members of society. Theoretically, students are allowed to learn from their mistakes in an effort to prepare them for the rigors of living as adults. Minus the bars and guns, prisoners and students have similar existences, although, the student experience is more lockdown than it was when Jack Allen was a student.

Jack grew up in an historic town just after court orders forced the school system to desegregate. His public school experience had been one that rode the energy of punk, disco, and classic rock music. He took away an appreciation for people and social justice instead of the book based lessons that seemed too limiting for his education. Thirty years after his graduation from high school and nearly ten years after getting a doctorate in education, Jack sat with the rest of his school’s colleagues in folding chairs that erased every bit of suppleness from their hips. They had been herded into the frigid gymnasium so they could taught the school district’s latest initiative, PIOUS, Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System. The training began three hours earlier with batches of teachers talking about batches of students. Librarians were paired with English teachers, math teachers were grouped with foreign language teachers, and all of them talked about the relationship between poverty and language readiness as predictors of school success.

PIOUS was simple enough. The premise was that students learn better when the complexity of a concept is deconstructed into its essential parts. Jack found the discussion fascinating and sad. He was sad because he had become the old teacher that he swore he would never turn into. He remembered his first year of teaching when the initiative was to build academic vocabulary so that students would understand the key words in the directions of tests. Back in those brown haired days, Jack thought this to be enlightening, but nearly twenty-five years later, and under a full head of gray hair, he only wanted to push a button and go home to walk his dog. The PIOUS model promised to raise student achievement with a multitude of strategies that were gathered from lists of best practices and slickly packaged under an empirically tested model. Jack found that piece of marketing to be fascinating as the studies supporting PIOUS had been conducted by the same hucksters who were putting out the latest, greatest model of instruction and had been conducted under questionable research methods. Evidently, validity, reliability, and random sampling had no real place in educational research.

An administrator from the district office said, “Jack, what do you think about the relationship of the PIOUS framework to student success.”

Jack thought for a moment. On one hand, he knew that the correct answer was that PIOUS was the answer to helping close everything from achievement gaps to the problems of politicians who control public education funding diverting those funds to charter schools that are run by the very politicians setting educational policy. On the other hand, Jack, knew that the most important player in the educational process was being ignored by policy makers and educational opportunists everywhere. PIOUS removed all of the responsibility for learning from the students. The program while opportunistic removed the focus of education from the students to the teachers, thereby making learning an extrinsic proposition.

“If I might quote, Seneca, ‘You may, then, boldly declare that the highest good is singleness of mind: for where agreement and unity are; there must virtues be: it is the vices that are at war with another.’ I think PIOUS could be good if it promotes a singleness of mind.”

The administrator looked confused. “I don’t understand.”

Jack said, “The purpose of PIOUS is to strip the content down to the essential components of a lesson. In theory, this will allow students to develop a single minded view of what they are learning. Hopefully, they will be able to filter out all that noise that exists in childhood and see the importance of what they are learning. In that way, I think PIOUS is a tool to help students learn.”

“I hear a ‘but’ in your voice.”

Jack smiled because he knew that his answer would be received with the same appreciation as a rake being dragged over sunburnt skin, “The excerpt from Seneca suggests that vices compete with each other to interfere with finding virtue. If we are able to remember anything about our schooling, I bet we each had vices in the classroom. Maybe we didn’t like the teacher. Maybe the subject matter was boring or irrelevant to us at the time. Whatever they were, those vices competed with our ability to focus on what we were learning. It wasn’t until we were mature enough to give learning its due that we could allow school to become virtuous. We had to deal with our vices to find success in school.”

The administrator asked, “Are you suggesting that we bag PIOUS?”

“Not at all. I am suggesting that education, like prison, is not about what we do to them, it’s about what they come to realize while they are going to school. Prisoners who accept the opportunity of reform are able to survive outside of the walls. Students who become virtuous in an educational sense make the most of their school years. PIOUS is one tool that might be appropriate for a student. However, no matter how sincere we are in our belief that this is the best way to teach students, PIOUS is unlikely to fulfill its promise if the students don’t buy into the program.”

The meeting ended at its mutually agreed contractual time. As usual, little attention was given to the greater philosophical implications of why the current initiative was being chosen. There is a blind spot in education that is as vacuous as a cesspool. The assumption is that if a message is delivered with recommendations and data, it must be the best way. In the coming months, the virtues and vices of PIOUS would play out with Jack being the dutiful implementer and open-minded seeker of the capacities and abilities of this new program.

This is how it went…

I was looking for some late night hype and came out of the 7-11 with a king sized Snickers and a Big Gulp Dr. Pepper. Joe went with the nachos with chili and cheese and Bobby was craving bean burrito with a dip of Skoal for desert. We stuffed ourselves into his Ford Ranger and dug in. The Merrimac Trail “Sleven” was a little out of the way, but it was usually cleaner than the other five hundred or so convenience stores in Williamsburg.

While we were cramming the food into our faces three dudes pulled up on motorcycles and started talking crap about us.

“Look, three homos sitting in a girly truck…”

“Hey ladies, come here often?”

In a Costanzian moment of stupidity, I yelled, “Big motorcycles and no women must mean little packages.” Bobby and Joe looked at me like I was crazy.

“What did you say?”

“You heard him,” said Joe, “don’t be stupid and have a little package, too.” Bobby and I looked at Joe like he was crazy.

“Get out of the truck!”

To get of the truck was to risk a beat down. Despite our two attempts to equate their masculinity to a smallish size, my guess was that they were really big members of the man’s phallic club. The tattoos, beards, and chains that were attached to their wallets gave them an authority that our high school image consciousness could not pull off. I sat in the passenger seat rocking a red polo shirt, jeans and untied high tops. Joe was in the middle with cut off sweats, a sleeveless T-shirt, and Nikes with no strings. Bobby at least looked the part of a truck owner with a flannel shirt, super faded Levis, and Timberlands back when they were exclusively for hunters.


“No you come over here and get some of this,” said Bobby. Joe and I looked at him like he was crazy.

The three of them looked at each other and chuckled. With a nod the one doing all of the yelling started walking our way. The other two followed along. I contemplated the potential that my last meal might be a Snickers which was a little funny. After a last drink of soda, I opened the door, stepped out and tried to remember everything my father taught me about self-defense.

It was the school of make believe that I went to that would be my way out of this situation because nothing my father taught me ever suggested that I pretend I had a gun. I stood by the front of the truck with one hand in my pants like I was holding a gun. Bobby must have gone to the same school because he acted like he was getting something from under the seat.

Then he said, “Move your legs so I can get it out.”

Joe played it cool and kept eating his nachos, “Shoot ‘em if they come closer.”

The motorcycle dudes stopped short. They were right in front of the doors and after giving us all the finger decided it was better to go in for whatever than to find out if we really had the muscle we really didn’t have. I got back in the truck and Bobby did a slow drive out as those guys watched us drive away. When he got to Penniman Road, Bobby took a hard right and floored it all the way to Chris’s house where we laughed about our acting skills for hours.

Somewhere around one in the morning we were hungry again. It was either another 7-11 or Frank’s Truck Stop. An omelette was sounding good so we decided that Frank’s was it. We walked in full of the hubris that teens have when they are out past curfew. A quick scan of the room showed that only one table was being used. The three motorcycle dudes were hungry too.

We looked at each other and for an instant thought about getting out of there early, but youth can be stupid. I walked over to the table and sat down. The bikers looked confused.

“Sorry about making fun of you earlier,” I said.

“You’ve got some balls sitting here.”

“I’m not too bright, I’m hungry, this is the only place open, and I’m betting you guys probably are too tired to whoop my butt.”

“Pull up a table…”

So we did. Bobby, Joe, me, and the bikers eating breakfast at 1am. Several hours earlier we had been ready to kill each other and now we were offering to pick up the tabs. So it is in the world of guys…

At least that’s how I remember it.