I hope people come,
I hope they sweat buckets,
I hope don’t eff something up,
I hope the music works,
I hope for a lot.
I hope people come,
I hope people come,
I hope they sweat buckets,
I hope don’t eff something up,
I hope the music works,
I hope for a lot.
It was like I had never been in a classroom before. They looked at me like I was some kind of freak speaking a language they had never heard. In less than two weeks, either I had forgotten how to teach or they had no clue what I had taught them over the last four months. This was no dream. This was first period after the holiday recess. I scrambled for the right things to say recognizing that time has a way of bringing things back. Somewhere in a story about my high school teacher, they came back to life.
Giving a quiz
Peace and quiet fills my soul
Boxed in, nowhere to go,
Stuck in a state of nerdiness
Where all that interests me
Is what I’m doing right now
As I write, it’s obviously writing,
My ultimate form of puzzle making,
Puzzle solving, or just plain working out
The puzzling nature of life.
Earlier today it was running,
My body begging to stay in bed,
To back down from the cold,
My soul refusing to give in.
So there at mile three or so
I had a choice, stick with half the pack
And dash home for four, or brave the dark
Denying my urge and run with the other half for seven.
I became a runner nerd,
Sucking up every bit of available oxygen,
Soaking through three layers,
And living interested in the example of my running partners.
It’s the day gig tripping me up,
My interest is like the moon, waxing
With ideas about the hope of learning and
Waning in the realities of how uncool it is to be nerdy.
Perhaps I should just preach to the choir
Finding an audience in those who understand
School doesn’t have to be painful,
That learning can happen when people talk and invest.
No financially, but
Mentally, physically, and socially.
Instead, that idea is boxed out,
Pushed aside by perceptions of relevance,
The dopamine delivery system that phones have become,
And the apathy that many display when faced with challenges.
My lunar-like learning cycle will run its course,
It will be pitch black and I’ll be running through a lesson
With the choice to be bored or invested,
Hopefully, I’m still interested enough to write about it.
“Comedy is, for the most part, just an obsession with injustice.” Whitney Cummings
He came to school hungry
She never satiated on breakfast.
He acted out,
She sent him to the office.
Later they learned about nutrition
He taking advantage of the program
She realizing Pop-Tarts aren’t that great
The food allowed them to survive.
He was working and shopping for produce
She was retired and doing the same.
His basket ran into her little cart.
They recognized each other
His maturity not masking the child
Her wrinkles not scratching out his memories
Of their year together in fifth grade.
They never realized the food bond between them
They never put it together that “hangry” is real
They only knew that giving each other a chance
Created a flood of memories right there in the safe part of the store.
Thank you to my students who make life interesting. They bring their baggage to school and make me stretch to figure out how I’m going to motivate them to be attentive to the lessons I’m trying to teach them. They have their personalities that rise and fall with the sun and moon and give teenage moods keeping me from being stagnant. They challenge me with questions gathered from lives on the internet and talk from whatever social media they follow. I love their dynamic ways of being because it keeps me thinking young. Thank you to all of my students.
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.
“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.”
Allen Marina was an average man. He had risen to the ranks of building principal by having a diverse resume that promised leadership, but hid his lack of substance. His business experience was as a financial manager which taught him the gift of gab and left him worn out with the uncertain work hours. He was a mediocre salesman and he realized that he would never be able to play on the same level of those who were above his means. He transitioned into education with all the promise of an upstart Wall Street trader who wows with a few lucky trades. A market correction would happen when Allen’s personality would expose his inability to see beyond his ambition and his failure to understand that leaders stand for something beyond themselves. In education, leaders who only stand for test scores or do not follow through on discipline issues quickly develop reputations as frauds. They then are nothing more than managers who put out orders and make appearances at events. Allen was more doorman than educational leader and despite his ability to finagle relationships for his gain, he was losing the building due to a lack of credibility. PIOUS was the latest anchor to bring him down.
The thing about power to those who covet it as they would a valuable possession is that they know enough to get it and then fear what happens when they lose it. Allen was there. He wanted nothing more than to ascend to the next level, a superintendent, but his lack of understanding of what it was like to be a teacher was a massive obstacle to his fuzzy chances of ever being the top educator for a school district. Allen knew that and feared that being a building principal, which he likened to being an announcer at a circus, was something he would do for the rest of eternity.
His observation of Mr. Mehlman’s class had been an eye opener. Mehlman talked to the students in a language that they understood. He adapted on the fly so that each student was getting independent lessons. He set clear boundaries and seemed to have little need for the latest, greatest instructional method to hit the educational ATM that schools often are. Mehlman was doing a good job with a tough group of students. Allen had a hard time understanding how Mehlman did it and he was conflicted about his knew knowledge because it went against everything his boss, Dr. Betty Russell, who just happened to be the number one PIOUS supporter in the district. For the first time in his working life Allen was faced with professional dissonance and he was wrestling with the first covenant of his ambition laden life, “Thou shalt never not think like the boss.” He needed counseling and Allen decided to turn to the one person in the school who would give him an honest answer, Frank.
Allen found Frank in his PE office working the mini-crossword from the New York Times. Frank was struggling and Allen did not know the rules of crossword watching. It’s rude to yell out the answers.
“Four across, against is “contra,” said Allen.
Frank looked back with annoyance and said, “If you weren’t my boss I would go off for that.”
“You would be beseeching me.”
“Allen, you don’t have to talk like you’re some kind of wordsmith. Why are you here?”
“I’ve got questions about PIOUS and you’re the only person who can help me.”
Frank sensed a set up. He and Allen had never agreed on much, so Allen asking him for help did not seem right. Frank was also still trying to figure out why a Board member had asked him to keep an eye on the school.
“Okay, hold on, I’ve got to rinse with some mouthwash.Taking care of the enamel you know.” Frank didn’t really need to rinse, but he knew if his mouth was full he would not be able to say something that might get him into trouble. He took a swig from the bottle and nodded for Allen to ask away.
“Well, Frank, I understand the mnemonics of PIOUS, but I am beginning to wonder if it is going to do all of the things that Betty…I mean, Dr. Russell says it will do.”
Frank swished. The alcohol was starting to burn his gums. The mnemonic comment added to the sting.
Allen continued, “I just left Mehlman’s room and there was an energy there that was like nothing I ever see in other classrooms. He didn’t have any posters up, the TV with the daily scroll was off, and there were none of the PIOUS objectives anywhere to be seen. But the kids were learning. Is the mnemonic wrong?”
Frank rushed back to his sink unable to take it anymore. He spit out the mouthwash, which had ceased stinging, and blurted out, “Acronym. It’s an acronym. Each letter stands for something, but they don’t help you to remember anything.” He lifted his thumb and said, “Practical Instruction Offered Uniquely System.” With each word he lifted another finger.
Allen stared at him for a second. His brain was trying to understand the difference between a mnemonic device and an acronym. Finding no need to recognize the difference he said, “Same thing, right?”
“Why are you here, Allen?”
“I need to understand why we are doing PIOUS. You’re a straight shooter. Can you help me out?”
“Are you sure you want me to explain to you why I think we are using this program that is being forced upon us?”
Allen nodded his head.
“Alright, but you’re not going to like everything I say. I’ve got to trust that you’re not going to send me to that place again.”
“You know that wasn’t me. That was Betty’s, I mean, Dr. Russell’s ideas. I had no choice.”
“No choice because she is your boss or because you guys are seeing each other?”
Allen paused before answering, “I had no choice.”
“Okay, have a seat. Let’s have a bit of an educational history lesson for a moment. Back in the 60s the United States began to adopt a philosophy that minimized intelligence testing and gave greater credence to environmental factors like poverty and family on a child’s ability to learn. At the same time the Russians, who believed that every person could learn whatever if given the proper instruction, were switching to a philosophy that was based on different levels of intelligence for people.”
Allen was in no mood to think, “So?”
“So? At least as far back as the 1960s people had no clue what makes some kids learn and other not. I’m guessing Adam and Eve were having battles about the best way to teach their kids. I don’t think we know which way is best. I think we’re about training more than learning, though.”
“What do you mean?” asked Allen.
“We put forth routines and rewards in a way that gets kids to learn stuff most of them don’t ever want to know and will probably have no use for. In an academic sense, we train them to memorize stuff and when they tell us what we told them, we call that achievement.”
“What does that have to do with PIOUS?”
“Everything. PIOUS is both sides of a sword. One edge is the academic side where we are trying to close the achievement gap for all students. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble goal, but just like the Americans and Soviets back in the 1960s we don’t know how to manage all of the factors that affect learning. So for us to think that PIOUS is the magic potion that will cure all of the learning issues that impact student achievement is wrong. The other side of the sword is what you saw with Mehlman, practical education. His students are doing things that don’t happen in classes with kids of higher academic ability because Mehlman has made education a fluff free zone. He recognizes what is important for the students based on his knowledge of their goals and tailors the instruction to their needs.PIOUS wants to be that, but it’s lost in academia.”
Allen interrupted, “But they seem like they like his class.”
“What’s not to like? They get personalized instruction. They get to stand up and move around. They get to express themselves. He’s a master teacher. He just doesn’t follow trends, although he could very well be the Source on PIOUS.”
Allen was struggling. He thought Mehlman was the worst teacher ever and that PIOUS was a can’t miss program, but now he recognized that using canned programs without understanding their advantages and pitfalls only seeks to promote 1960s era indecision. He would need more time to process this.
“I’m sorry for what happened. You got a raw deal. I would have handled things differently if I could have.”
“Look, Allen, you did it the way you did because that is who you are. I know you got squeezed by your girlfriend. You could have done something different, but that’s not who you are. Let it go. I have.”
“Thanks. What do you think will happen with PIOUS?”
“Honestly, Allen, in my career I’ve been through more initiatives than I can count. Any of the things that we have done would have produced a small bump in our scores, but we change them before they have time to become part of the culture. There are some good parts to this program. There are also some parts that are hokey. Teachers recognize that, but worse, so do the kids. Whatever you do, give it time to grow.”
“And Allen, keep an eye out. People are watching.”
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.