From the journal of Carter Hamorton…

12/27/16

In its archaic sense, husbandry means to care for the house. At one time, I suppose that meant tacking down shingles and keeping raiding bands of marauders from pillaging the homestead, but it sure means something different today. We are a breed that has been domesticated to the point where social manipulation has removed every reason for our existence from being. It’s a wonder women keep us around at all. From what I hear, there is a lot of discussion by women about the ways husbands from all over the place fail to measure up to whatever standard there is for them. In fairness, there is probably and an equal amount of comradery built over a beer and venting of the idiosyncratic ways of wives. Maybe that is why we are so necessary to each other, but I do question if husbands are going the way of the arctic shelf.

Those are the thoughts that run through my head when I’m driving. I get behind the wheel and have some music playing too loudly and my mind starts passing the time. Perhaps driving has become so comfortable in my big rig that I’m not really too concerned with what’s going on around me. I don’t have to shift gears and there is some kind of buzzer or vibration that will remind me of danger, should it come my way. If only the car makers could invent something to keep the deer off the road. Such is driving…

Only this time my wandering mind was tripping during a basketball game. I was sitting in a crowd who was there to catch a holiday high school matinee that featured two evenly matched teams. I was there with my notebook and phone. The notebook, old school, is useful for jotting notes. Sometimes, I prefer to write instead of typing notes into the phone. My phone was there to let a friend know the score of the game because he is too proud to step into the lavish gymnasium where the game was being played. He is city and blue collar. The school is country and full of gentleman farmers, mostly horse people. Truth be told, most of the money probably isn’t with the farms, but more with the financial management types that have moved into the far reaches of the county.

Anyway, there I was at the game minding my own business and taking stock of the crowd. My hometown was represented to the left. To my right were the teams who were waiting to play the third game of the tournament. I was nestled into a peaceful plot of my own with no one to talk to. It was wonderful. The game was tight, but in the end, one team pulled away much like a Sixers game. Small mistakes piled up for the home team and in the end, the guys could not make up for what they had done wrong. A perfect life lesson…

As the end became less in doubt, the crowd began to change for the next game. A father, who was being dragged along by three elementary school aged children, corralled them into a small space several rows below me. He held their snacks and did his best to dole them out while his urchins jumped, stomped, pushed, and struggled to keep the Ring Pops from turning the bleachers purple. He looked tired in his “Life Is Good” t-shirt. His jeans had gone about as far as they could go and his facial hair was bordering on beard length. There was definitely too much growth for a razor. He would need clippers to trim that hedge down.

I thought how nice it was for him to take the kids to the game and let his wife have some quiet time. Modern day husbandry is more about not being around as much as it is to protect the family and the property. Good husbands know when to get out. I’m guessing this has been the idea for hundreds of years and the most concrete reason I can come up with for that is golf.

The frustration on the father’s face was growing. He became more insistent in his orders. He grabbed the dancing son and stuck him to a spot next to him. He threw the Ring Pop away. Father brought them to the game and they were going to watch the game. Little did I know that his frustration was not just about the kids. In came his wife with her friend. They were dolled up in suburban glam, knee high boots, tight jeans, bangs, and fancy bags. Their makeup was too much for a high school game, but enough to throw the scent off of whatever they were trying to hide.

He looked to his love with an expression pleading for help, because after all, he had asked her to go to the game with them before she got the bright idea to come with her friend. For the record, her friend’s husband wanted nothing to do with the game and since this December day was in the sixties, he went golfing. The husband with three organic anchors sitting next to him in the prime basketball watching seats near the floor, got the following response from the women he loves, “Oh dear, let’s go up here with Duerson family.”

I did a quick peek behind me to see more kids and a similarly QVC styled mom getting up to do the cheek to cheek kissing thing. I turned back to the husband just in time to see him mumble something about having something shoved into a nether region. I assumed this was not a pleasant thought for him, yet he rose and gathered all of the food and coats. He walked up the steps as if heading to the gallows or having been lambasted for something in the bathroom, be it hair, smell, or amount of time under the soothing waters really doesn’t matter. He looked my way and shook his head. I nodded back and gave the “I feel you brother” grimace.

About that time I heard, “Excuse me.” To my right stood another pair of boots and jeans, but this time, no bangs. This hair was straightened to the very edge of it’s potential and if there is a thing called country gothic, this woman had it. She was horse elite and Vampira all in one. She kept walking and instinctively I looked to my right, away from her, to see who was with her. Not surprisingly, I saw a gentleman who was older than me with the beginnings of a combover dressed in a suit that was vintage Miami Vice. His threads were not old, quite the contrary. He had the loafers, no socks, and the thin jacket. The difference was that he also had a fancy scarf. I felt underdressed in his presence. My jeans, running shoes, and an unused golf shirt don’t reflect much of a fashion style, only a need to be comfortable.

“I don’t know where my wife’s going,” he said. He was breathing hard and seemed noticeably older than his wife.

I looked back to her direction and she was already in the other section of the bleachers and taking off her coat. Their age difference was not as great as my initial observation as it became obvious of the additions and subtractions that the doctors had provided her. Of course, there was the possibility that she was a vampire and had been around for eternity. Perhaps this is why her husband was short of breath. Maybe she had been draining him of blood.

I replied, “She didn’t make it easy for you.”

He said, “She never effing does.”

With that, he puffed along in his loafers. Once there, he sat next to his wife, pulled out a comb, straightened the thinness above, and committed himself to staying awake as long as possible. He was at that age when an afternoon nap has the same power that the mythical cool breeze had in his youth. Only this time, his head bows down in sleep instead of standing at attention.

I couldn’t help but think these two guys were perfect examples of the dwindling importance of men. They were dogs to be commanded, oxen to carry heavy loads, or horses to never be ridden. They were husbands and like most of the husbands I know, devoid of anything masculine, resigned to life on the farm, surrendered to the almighty power of our wives. Face it, any guy who tells you he is in charge is either wrong or abusive. We are beholden to our wives and as society evolves those things that were once the dominion of men reach extinction, we better figure out how to make a change lest we go the way of Dodo birds, dinosaurs, and the ABA.

With my head numb from the combination of basketball and sociology, I got back into my truck. A Duran Duran song came on and I didn’t even have the testosterone to change it. The school is close to my home, so I made it there before the song was over. I got out of the truck thinking about the first time I heard D&D on MTV and how I swore I would never choose them over my classic rock gods from back in the day. They are, however, one of my wife’s favorite bands and I rarely change the station, even when I’m alone. She has that kind of influence over me…

I turned the knob on the door and was greeted by an adoring dog and a “Hello” from my wife somewhere in the house. The television was on and it looked like I was in for the effing movie with Mr. Darcy again.

I thought, “I need to get my clubs out.”

Allen looked at Frank with a skeptical eye. “Who’s watching?”

Frank answered carefully, “At the retreat Ralph Hanby asked me to keep an eye on things. He wanted to know stuff about the high school.”

“Ralph Hanby? The same Ralph Hanby who…” started Allen.

“Who what, Allen?”

Sometimes our mouths get ahead of our judgment. Allen’s mouth had rushed far ahead of his thinking. He nearly said that Ralph Hanby had been the board member who forced Allen to send Frank to counseling. Because of his position on the school board, Hanby had access and authority to get what he wanted from the school district. Most board members respect their position, but Hanby recognized opportunity and felt emboldened by his power.

Allen decided to tell Frank. “It was Hanby who complained about you to Dr. Russell. He wanted you to be fired, but Dr. Russell stuck by your side.”

“Stuck by my side? Right. A girl makes up a story and I end up going to counseling. It was humiliating.”

“Better than getting fired,” joked Allen.

“Allen, I swear to you, I never asked her about her birth control. She offered up that she was using it so that she could miss class. I let her go to study hall and then I asked her guidance counselor what was going on. Her guidance counselor was the one who called the parents. Not me. I did nothing wrong.”

“I believe you, Frank, but Hanby was putting the clamps on Dr. Russell because his daughter who is a friend with the girl said you asked her if she was taking birth control. Dr. Russell had to do something to get Hanby to back down.”

Frank shook his head. For all the talk of the school district being a community and family, Frank’s experience had been that of a disowned child. The experience felt like a chunky rock being dropped on his foot. The pain radiated, but eventually went away. The memory, however, was recorded deeply in his ability to believe anything that was said about how the teachers, administration, and community were all in this education thing together. Hanby was a roadblock to Frank feeling trust in school again.

“Well, it would seem to me that if he didn’t get me fired and that’s what he really wanted, revenge might be on his mind. You and Dr. Russell let him down. Since he probably thinks I would rat you guys out, he came to me for dirt to use against you. I’d say his is doing more than watching.”

Allen was used to being the conniving one. Being on the defensive was something knew for him. He liked to think that he was the offensive person in most social situations, something Frank would have agreed to, but in this case he was caught off guard. There had been rumblings that the board was dissatisfied with the achievement gap between the lower socioeconomic groups and the upper crust kids. There was also a growing frustration in the community about the lack of success with the sports teams. He wondered if these could be reasons for Hanby to approach Frank. He also wondered if it was worth engaging Hanby at all.

“So what are you going to do, Allen,” asked Frank.

“Probably, nothing.”

“Are you going to say something to your girlfriend?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend?”

Frank chuckled, “I mean, Dr. Russell.”

“Do you think Hanby would go after her? Should I say something to her?”

“Allen, you do what you want, but I think Hanby is only thinking about Hanby. He wants to present himself as a community minded person. He has shown that he only thinks for the things that benefit his kids or his close friends. You need to make sure you account for every invoice, keep all of the chrome polished, and figure out how to make this PIOUS thing seem like a true innovation.”

“Or what?” asked Allen.

“Looks like counseling for you, son. I know a place with great rates.”

“Yes you do,” said Allen. “Will you keep me in the loop if Hanby gets back to you?”

“Sure, but I’m playing both sides. I may even talk to the union just in case. I don’t feel good about this.”

Allen extended his hand to Frank, “Deal and I agree with you. Something isn’t right.”

Frank shook Allen’s hand and said, “I wish I could just teach.”

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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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?”

“Yes, sir.”

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?”

“Really?”

“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.”

“Why?”

“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.

The first few weeks of school are like the early rounds of a boxing match. The fighters circle each other and throw a few scout punches to see how the opponent will react. If the pugilistic espionage is met with an offensive move, then the fighter can understand how to defend and later attack his enemy. The start of a school year is similar in that the teacher and students must get to know each other. The dynamics of the relationship of everyone in the classroom is more important than the skills of the teacher or the acumen of the students.

Jack knew this and liked to take his time getting to know his students. He would throw ideas at them just to get a reaction. With the younger students getting that reaction was easy. He could push their buttons just by mentioning anything that went against the culture that had been shoved into their heads for their previous eight years in school. He would ask them why rules were stupid? They would nearly get out their seats to explain how unjust life was in the eyes of a teenager.

On this day, Jack decided to push a button. As he started to explain the focus of the class and how it would relate to the students’ lives, he stopped, looked at them with a pained face, and asked, “What do y’all think of PIOUS?”

The groaning started right away. Jack felt the angst rising and all he had to do was wait for the frustration to supersede their fear of answering in the way they figured he would want to hear. The fighters stalked each other and stared, neither wanting to throw another punch.

Finally, Bob said, “Why are all the teachers doing this? I hate listening to how this is going to effect my life.”

“Yeah,” said Millie. “Can’t we just take some notes and then the test. My mom says none of this will matter when I go to college anyway.”

Jack stepped around the desk, “Why do you think she says that?”

“I don’t know. She just says that we will probably forget what we learned in high school and then we’ll learn new stuff in college.”

Jack leaned towards Millie and lowered his voice to a loud whisper, “Your mom is wise. Go home and thank her.”

The class looked stunned as if a straight right had hit them right in the nose. They were trying to figure out if a teacher had just told them that school was a waste of time. This went against everything they had ever been told. Sensing their confusion, Jack knew this was the time to reconnect the circuits in their discombobulated minds.

“PIOUS is a strategy to help students make sense of what they are learning. It’s a scripted program that attempts to make connections between what you are learning and how it might be used in real life.”

Rodney asked, “Dr. Rice, when will I ever have an egg carton in my pocket to help me count change.”

Everyone laughed. It seemed that a math teacher had made a big deal of teaching money using egg cartons when this group was in elementary school. The lesson was not her most popular, but Jack saw a chance to go “gotcha” on his class.

“That was a pretty Disney trick, but it’s a teaching strategy that has some good qualities.”

“Like what?” asked Rodney.

“First, it helped to teach you about different values of money. The egg carton was just a way to help you sort the money so that you could see the amounts of change. Second, and I think this more important, it created a memory about school that each of you can share.”

“Memories aren’t tested, Doc,” said Bob.

“True, but memories are the basis for learning. Look, if you can remember the ridiculousness of that lesson and remember the reason that your teacher was using that trick, then you have committed your brain to making a connection. That is learning.”

Had they been in a ring, the students’ knees would have been buckling. They were ready for the knockout punch.

“PIOUS is just another trick. The key is you. What will you choose to remember? Will you see everything as stupid? Will you seek to make those connections so the content finds a connection to you. You will make those connections for no other reason other than because you have made it important. Then again, you may decide that some things are not important and the connections won’t be made.”

“Like my mom,” said Millie.

“Maybe, she may have just forgotten most of the stuff. She is getting old, you know. Oops, did I say that out loud. Each of you knows about forgetting in school. It’s like what happens when the bell rings and I don’t see you again for a couple of days. Many of you forget what we talked about in just that short time. What’s important is that you start finding the memories and asking yourself why you remember them. The connections will happen, then you won’t ever have to worry about egg cartons or PIOUS again.”

Several days passed and Jack received an email from Allen. The message was short and the tone was aggressive.

“SEE ME!”

Monday morning Jack got into his truck and cranked up Handel’s, Messiah for Jack knew this was going to be a rough day. All weekend long his phone had be blowing up with texts from his colleagues about how the retreat went. Jack was unsure of the rules for discussing the particulars of the retreat, but he was sure nothing would be taboo when it came to the interrogation he would receive at school. While he was no prophet, Jack felt enlightened by the music and calm once he got to school.

On normal days he would be the first of the bunch to arrive. It was obvious that today was not normal as the other three PE teachers were already in the parking lot. Jack called them “George C. Scott,” because of their names, George, Carol, and Scott. They were all about the same age, had passed their primes as athletes, and had been around long enough to see educational innovation come full circle. Standards, objectives, humanism, accountability, writing, math…they had been through it all and PIOUS was just another form of innovation acting new when in fact it was just a repackaged initiative with a healthy dose of researcher flimflam and excellent marketing.

“Well, he arrives later than usual, he must be sore from his weekend retreat,” said George. “Come on, Custer, let us hear the salacious details.”

“There’s not much to say. I gave my little speech about how great PIOUS is and that was it.”

Carol said, “Stop it. There’s more. Who did everyone talk to?”

“Hmmm, everyone was kind of mingling. I couldn’t say anyone was talking to anyone.”

Scott was about to say something, but George jumped in, “You mean to tell me there is nothing of significance you can tell us about this retreat. No robes? No oils? These are you’re new friends. We want to know.”

Jack had known George forever. There was a time when the two of them did not get along. Mostly that was because Jack took a route in teaching that sought to make physical education a “respected” subject. George went a different route where PE was more like recess than school. While neither approach was wrong, the two opposites defended their opinions without much care for the other. Somewhere both realized that they were teaching the same stuff, just with different ways. Jack softened his philosophy on being a gym teacher and it became obvious to both of them that they were similar.

“Nope, there was none of that slippery stuff, but I do feel a little dirty after being around all of those visionaries.”

“Why?” asked Scott.

“Well, I was asked by a board member to keep an eye on things and that they would be in touch to ask me questions about PIOUS.”

“Which one?” asked Carol.

“I’d rather not say.”

George said, “So let me see if I’m understanding. You went to the retreat one of us. Got there and spoke like one of them only to be asked to be a rat?”

“I prefer spy.”

“Either way,” said George. “Who would be in the best position to back you into a corner? Ralph Hanby.”

Jack only smiled, but it was the kind of smile that is more confession than “I just won the lottery.”

“Priceless,” said Carol.

“No, it comes with a price,” said Scott.

George said, “Oh, you’re Mr. Blackmail expert now?”

“Think about it, that whole thing went down a couple of years ago and Hanby feels like he has something over Jack. Now he brings him favor as a sign of “it’s all good.” What are you going to do, Jack?”

“I’m going to teach my classes. If they ask me questions, I guess I’ll answer them as I see it, but I won’t be the hatchet for anyone.”

“I wonder what they want,” said Carol.

“They are after someone,” said George.

Carol turned and headed into the girl’s locker room leaving the guys in the hallway. The school was quiet as the students had not yet begun to arrive. George’s mind was racing. He loved conspiracies and intrigue.

“Hanby, he doesn’t do anything without some motive. Be careful, Jack.”

“I will, but I bet it has something to do with Dr. Betty’s Mercedes.”

“She doesn’t have one,” said Scott.

“No? She drives one that looks just like Allen’s.”

There are moments when conversations go from wasting time to full-fledged productivity in the arena of gossip. Jack had just dropped enough information to take what was a bit of friendly verbal sparring to the brink of rumor shadowboxing.

Scott asked for guidance, “Are you saying that the superintendent and principal drive the same kind of car?”

Jack saw that he now had the upper hand and that dragging these two around all day would be the best measure of his productivity. He would treat them like ferns and let them wilt without any information and then he would announce that indeed the superintendent had a car just like the principal’s. In fact, it was the very same car. She drove him around.

He said, “I have made my debut as the observer of all that is education. As PIOUS is implemented, I will share more with the world.”

“You’ve lost it,” said George.

“Maybe, but it’s time we had some fun `round here.”

The inner sanctum turned out to be the last of the original houses on the Chickahominy River from the 1970s construction boom out on the Haven. The house was a simple ranch with a wobbling deck that extended into the river. Jack had gotten to the retreat a little early so he could scout out the scene. He was not prepared for what he would see.

First was the arrival of Betty and Allen. She drove and he got out of his car and hustled around his champagne colored Mercedes to open her door. She thanked him and touched him on the shoulder as she got out of the car. Allen played off her touch well by not acknowledging what had just happened and then shut the car door with a gentle push. “He must have been a valet,” thought Jack.

Jack also thought there must be something going on. He could not be sure, but it looked like Betty and Allen might be having a little something-something. The thought of the two of them together made perfect sense. He did whatever she said. She bossed him around in an overly dramatic way. It was all a ruse. This retreat house was a perfect metaphor for their relationship. They were shacking up.

“This is going to be something-something else,” thought Jack.

The other administrators and board members began arriving and the mingling began. As people introduced themselves to Jack, he pulled his classic move of acting like he was interested in meeting them. The truth was they were doing the same to him, no one cared what a gym teacher had to say about the district’s new instructional program. Finally, it was time for the retreat to begin.

Betty started, “I welcome you all to the retreat for the Willet School District. We are here to discuss the long range goals for the district, which includes the implementation of the PIOUS program. We think that this is the most appropriate solution for resolving the discrepancies of achievement between the various sub-groups of our diverse student population. Let’s start with PIOUS as we have Dr. Jack Rice, who is a teacher at our high school and has been invited to the retreat to share his views on PIOUS. We are fortunate to have him and are looking forward to hearing what he has to say.”

Jack heard a clear message from Betty. She made it clear that she was trusting Jack to do the right thing as she saw it. Jack was ready to play her game without going all Trump on the friendly audience that was sitting in a house decorated in the style of Dicker and Dicker of Beverly Hills. Sometimes it takes awhile for things in education to catch up.

“Thank you, Betty. And thank you to all of you for your kind greetings and the opportunity to share with you my excitement about PIOUS. As you are well aware, this is a program that helps teachers identify the most practical implications for the content being taught. By doing so, teachers can design lessons that will prepare students for the rigors of the world after their schooling ends.”

“The real world,” said Allen.

“No, Allen, I don’t think that is correct. By saying that you are implying the school is fake. If it’s fake, then why should the students take any interest in what they are doing now? School is their “real world” and we need to treat it as such.”

(Trump-1 and Jack-0.)

Allen looked at Betty and smiled. He kept the smile even as he turned and squinted at Jack. If looks could kill…

Jack continued, “This program has potential. Hopefully, you guys will have the patience to include it in the long range planning for the district. There will be problems. Students will tire of the routine of PIOUS and teachers will resist the idea that a canned program built on shaky research will know more about teaching than they do. But, if the district remains firm and allows the teachers to have an honest say in how PIOUS is implemented, it will benefit the students. That’s all I have.”

(More Clintonian this time…)

None of the other members of the retreat had any questions. Betty thanked Jack for his words and optimism. She let him know that she would be in touch and told Jack he was free to go. On his way out the door someone grabbed Jack’s arm from behind. It was a confrontational board member, Ralph Hanby who had once gone after Jack.

“Jack, do you have a moment.”

“Anything, for you, Mr. Hanby.”

“Ralph.”

(I feel like I could…)

“Jack, we’ve had our differences.”

“We have?”

“Ha, always the jokester. Honestly, my kids that you were a real ass.”

“That’s a compliment compared to what you have said about me.”

“Now, Jack, we are over that. Let’s talk about PIOUS. You don’t really believe that it is going to help kids do you?”

“I think it has a chance, Mr. Hanby.”

“Ralph. We have our concerns. Since you have put yourself out there, we on the Board, would like your input about how things are going with PIOUS and the general mood at the high school.”

Jack could see there was more than PIOUS involved in Mr. Ralph Hanby’s mission. “As long as you keep things professional, I would be glad to help you.”

“Good. We will be in touch.”

As Jack walked through a cloud of Chickahominay gnats he said, “I’m sure you will.”

The radar is a difficult place to be on. When a boss sets the authoritative sights on a pleb, there is not much that can be done to escape the inevitable destruction. Jack walked towards The Commanders office with a sinking feeling that he had done something wrong. In all of his years, Jack had never been summoned to the principal’s office for anything good. In fact, in all of his years of being in school he remembered nothing but negativity associated with any principal’s office. He trudged through the maze of the open concept school thinking what he might like for his last supper.

“Maybe I’ll have a cocktail or smoothie made from arugula,” he thought. “I hope they use a flat paddle and not a round piece of bamboo for my flogging.” Negative thoughts were swirling as he stepped into the office suite.

Sitting at her desk was the matronly secretary to the principal, Mrs. Bell. She had been at her post through the tenure’s of four principals and there was a ritual to gaining access to the boss. She saw the door to her superior’s office as a gate to be protected at all costs and each visitor was corralled in a row of vintage office chairs that deigned to mimic mid-century modern furniture. She ran her homestead with absolute authority and any violation of the routine was cause for a time out and restriction of prompt access to the real boss.

“Hello, Mrs. Bell,” said Jack.

She continued checking boxes on some form and never looked up. Jack noticed sprouts of gray sneaking into her mysteriously black hair. Just as he was about to forgo appropriate convention and ask this very old women if her hair was “starting” to gray, Mrs. Bell pointed to the empty chairs and said, “He’ll be with you in a moment.”

After about ten minutes the door clicked and opened. The Commander had installed an electronic door opener so he could let people in without greeting them at the door. The Commander was a master at schmoozing his bosses and parents, but he was even better at keeping a distance between those he should have been serving, the teachers and students. Jack expected The Commander to be sitting behind his average desk with the props of man who had risen to the mean of his profession hanging on the wall behind him. Instead, he was greeted by The Commandress.

“Jack, welcome. We were just talking about you,” she said with all of the transparency of a woman running for President of the United States.

“Well, I hope some of it was good. Should I have representation with me?”

The Commander and Commandress looked at each other and laughed like they were actors in a sit-com.

“Of course not, we would have advised you as to the need for such had we thought it necessary,” said The Commander.

“No, Jack,” started The Commandress, “We were impressed by your message to the students. You understand exactly what we are hoping to achieve with PIOUS and we have a proposition for you.”

The years of battle for Jack had taught him to be wary of good things coming from above. He was more surprised to be offered something that sounded positive by these two than he would have been if either of them had come out as a transvestite. As a student of The Godfather, Jack knew that favors and proposals come with traps and he knew that if he did not listen to their offer he would be on the wrong radar. Jack was ready to be off that screen.

“Let’s hear it.”

“First, Jack, we were talking and both noticed that you never use names with us. Perhaps the time has come to remove the formalities from our relationship. I would be happy if you called me by my first name, Betty.”

“Boop,” thought Jack. “Alright, Betty it is.”

The Commander followed her lead with the drool coming from his mouth like a dog waiting for a treat. He added to the conversation, “We have had an unfortunate history, but I have always respected your abilities as a teacher…”

“Bull,” thought Jack.

“…I’d like it if we could start over, so please feel free to call me by my first name as well.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I know it,” said Jack as he ran through the Rolodex of nicknames the faculty had for The Commander.

“It’s Allen.” The Commander looked over to Betty and said, “What a great sense of humor he has.” She gave him a courtesy laugh.

Betty said, “Jack, we would like you to come to my house out on the Chickahominy River this weekend. The administration and board are having a retreat to discuss major changes to the district’s five-year plan. We think that you would have a great deal to offer the discussion. Will you come?”

Bam! Betty sprung a trap that left Jack no place in the district to hide. He could go rogue and say, “No,” but that would leave him in a pool of muck no matter where the rest of his career would take him.

“I’d be honored,” he said.

Betty gave him the address and the each exchanged pleasant good-byes. As Jack left the office thoughts of doom were churning in his head. He felt like a beetle just before the “Tims” come down a smashing. He went up the ramp and back to the PE office where the other teachers were eating lunch.

“What’s wrong with you? You look like you got punched in the solar plexus,” said Oliver.

“I just got a butt flossing with alpaca fibers,” said Jack.

“What do you mean?” asked Oliver.

“It’s too much for me to explain right now. I’m not sure what is happening, but I’ve been invited into the sanctum. I’ll be a river rat this weekend.”

“Oh, no. That’s not good for you my friend.”

The first days of school have a lyrical quality. The students arrive with varying degrees of energy. There are those who are serious about school and have learned to play the game. There are others who have given up on the game and only come because they are compelled to attend. Still, there are others who think they are the game and do everything they can to make a mockery of what is happening. The first days are on homage to the frenetic pace with which learning must take place and a tribute to the every style of spoken word from socially conscious rap stylings to the laid back ballads of a country crooner.

Jack found that the best way to deal with the first few days was in embracing the energy and letting it take him wherever it went. He had learned that having an unassuming manner allowed the kids to find their place in his classes and gain the confidence they needed to fit into high school. All the while, though, he was a spy who was hacking their social status code and preparing to take them to places they probably did not want to go. Jack would go about his random storytelling creating the impression that his was a class that had little to do with actual learning. Just when the students would start to have a look of “where is this guy going,” Jack would drop a serious question on them that would require the students to relate the non-sense story to a concept that they had talked about in a lecture. The impact was predictable. The students would make faces and say that there was no connection, then Jack would lead them through a series of “What about” questions that guided students towards the realization that the story had a purpose.

The first few days of storytelling and questioning were often slow and combative. The students, who were not in school shape yet, had a hard time making connections to the stories. They would complain that the class did not matter or that they weren’t learning anything. Then, like every good song or poem, there would be a moment of insight. They would understand that the stories did relate to something. They would start to think about what they were hearing beyond the entertainment value and start looking for the messages of the stories. Before the end of the first marking period they would start asking for stories instead of PowerPoint lectures and canned educational instructional materials.

The beginning of the school year was no time for jamming the students with the prison like expectations of law and order learning. Jack had learned his lesson there. He had given up on the “my way” method of teaching and taken his classroom control to a different level of coercion. Instead of demanding that the students be the way he wanted, he taught them how the skills they were learning in class would help them be successful in all areas of their lives. He integrated the course expectations with course content so that the students could see the relevancy of his madness. He praised their successes and retaught whatever was necessary to help them understand that his class was about learning how to be successful and all the Health stuff was just a tool for their achieving success. There was no rush for all of this to happen because as Jack saw the calendar year, there was ample time for this methodical kind of learning.

Unfortunately, this year, Jack would not be afforded the freedom to teach as he had found was best for him. He was being given a program, PIOUS, that was marketed as a non-scripted design framework to improve student success. Fortunately, Jack was done resisting and trying to figure out what educational researchers and school power brokers were trying to do. He had become like the students who just come to school and get through it. His goal was to stay as true to himself as he could without ignoring the wants of the people who were developing the vision for the school district. The Commander was one of those people. His role as the principal seemed to be survival. He did that well, submissive to his superiors and aggressively dishonest to his subordinates. Perhaps the one thing that truly allowed him to stand out was his Trump-styled hair.

The Commander only answered to The Commandress. She was a longtime school administrator with a short time of teaching experience. Her background was in budgets, mostly spending the budget on canned programs with little relevancy to what students needed to learn. One year she spent thousands on math manipulatives so students could learn to do math in egg cartons. Another year she spent money on technology that did not have the ability to upgrade. There were few who questioned her judgement, though. She ruled with an iron will that was exercised through her principals and bevy of central office administrators. This year they were pushing PIOUS as the latest and greatest thing to hit education since real estate taxes.

The PIOUS model was a joke to many of the teachers at Wilnetsburg High School. They saw the program as dumbing down, an easing of standards, and a script that took away their professional judgment in the classroom. Jack listened to The Commander’s raggedy speech about demographics and achievement with the same survival instinct he could tell was being used to deliver the speech. He submitted to the will of The Commandress and a strange thing happened to Jack. He became happy and on the first days of school he felt no frustration as he spoke about the practical reasons for the students learning what they were. After all, PIOUS was no different than what he had been doing for nearly a quarter of a century. District policy was finally going to let Jack be Jack.

As usual, the students wrestled with the stories. They also complained that most of their teachers were practically teaching the same way and that school was really boring. Jack thought about how he would respond to his students’ concerns. As he was about to answer, The Commandress and her minion, The Commander, walked in for an informal observation.

“Ella, I’m not sure what the best way to answer your question is,” said Jack. He looked at his two bosses and continued, “Learning is a process. Let’s look at it this way, there are many ways to Richmond. Once you decide to go there, you have to figure out what you think is the best way. Hopefully, you’ll get there safely. The way were are teaching this year is one way to help you get wherever it is you want to go. However, you define success your success, whether it be AP tests, trade school, the military, or entering the workforce. That’s up to you. There are lots of ways to get there and we hope that this way will help you figure out where you are going. Your job is to take what we do and figure out how to make it make sense for you because without your acceptance, this program will not help you at all. But…there are many ways to Richmond, so don’t give up on learning because it takes many forms and is going to be important for wherever you decide to go.”

Jack looked at his bosses who had the expressionless look of administrators who walked into a class expecting to see one teacher and got someone totally different. He smiled with confidence and a puffy chested attitude that was true to himself, student centered, and educationally reasoned. The stone faced duo left and Jack continued with his class. Ten minutes later his computer dinged and let him know that he had a new email. It was from The Commander and all it said was, “Stop by my office after class.”

“Damn, back on the radar,” thought Jack.

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From the journal of Carter Hamorton…

10/27/84

Curfew came too quickly in high school. The rule is that wherever we are staying, we have to be there by midnight. Last night, we were hustling home after hanging out on the Parkway and having a little to much of the brewery’s finest. We were late and walked into Red’s trailer as Second City TV was about to start. Red’s parents were asleep, but being the cool peeps that they are, they left fried chicken on the kitchen counter. Since we didn’t have time to hit a “sleven” on the way home, the chicken became the focus of our survival instincts. We tore into that fried bird like it was out first meal in hours. It was.

With full stomachs, we each took a couch and started watching SCTV. I couldn’t get comfortable and kept switching my legs.

“What’s going on, Carter?” Red asked.

“My right leg won’t let my left leg be on top,” I answered.

The conversation ended there. Both of us were okay with the reason for my fidgeting and a skit with Count Floyd was coming on. Trying to explain the Count in this journal is hard, but he was one of those “creature feature” characters and given my legs’ indecision, the warmth of the cold chicken, the infused confusion of the local product, and the early lateness of the hour, I thought Count Floyd hyping Dr. Tongue’s Evil House of Pancakes was the greatest thing ever. I nearly broke a rib trying not wake anyone up with my laughing. “Ooo, kids, that was scary….”

I wonder if we’ll be laughing at this when we are 50? Will my kids pull the same stunts? What would they say if they read this? I’m pretty sure I’ll still be laughing about this years from now and I know my kids will do their share of stupid stuff. I’m not sure how I’ll answer them if they ask about my shenanigans, but honestly is probably best.

Photo Credit: Google Images