The Big Reboot: 14

Third period. Same routine, different names. Teaching involves a great deal of repetition, but with different variables of human interaction affecting the outcomes. The same lesson plan can be repeated four, five, six times a day, once a year or semester for many, many years, and still nobody can guarantee that everyone learns that lesson.

Absences, tardies, of course those can affect things. Kids in class drunk, or high, or just deprived of sleep from working all last night – there goes the attention span. Text messages, websites, breakups, hookups, emotional confusion – even before cell phones, the last three things were enough to distract many a mind.

The biggest killer of them all, however, was the perceived pointlessness of it all. “How do I use this in real life?”

A highly compelling argument, that one. Mr. Webb’s answer typically went, “If you don’t learn it, there’s no way you can use it in real life, should the need arise,” but did that cover all the bases? No, it did not. While Mr. Webb went out of his way to use what he had learned in real life, not everyone was as diligent or as dedicated to lifelong learning. Some folks just wanted to take a mental holiday.

Honestly, forcing people to learn things was analogous to to trying to teach a pig to dance: complete lack of success and it only annoys the pig and the teacher. Some people saw a value, any value, in completing high school economics – even if only to get a degree – and so, those people could be reasoned with to cooperate with the learning process, to participate in it and to not disrupt the flow of the class.

But then, there were those that never saw any value in what was being taught. Such was the case of Ali Gaber, Adam Robertson, and Efraim Zapata, three young men in Mr. Webb’s third period that sat together, towards the side and towards the back.

Mr. Webb was familiar with the Gaber name: the father owned a car dealership, and the family had plenty of cash, which the Gaber boys consumed conspicuously. There were four of them, and Ali was the youngest. Mr. Webb had taught two of them before, and they were completely useless in class. They were completely self-centered, and Ali didn’t seem to be any different.

He was fine, as were all the kids, filling out the yellow textbook forms and taking care of the administrative functions like that. But as soon as Mr. Webb asked, “So, what is scarcity?”, Ali groaned aloud and cursed.

“You’re seriously not giving us notes on the first day?”

“Yes, I am, and you’re not going to talk that way.”

“It’s the first day of school. Nobody’s getting written up, and the police won’t ticket you anymore for cussing out a teacher.” One had to commend young Ali for keeping up on current events, even if he had an aversion to developing his technical vocabulary.

“Coach Sheppard reads his emails.” Ali was on the varsity squad, a starter, and didn’t want to lose his place. The threat carried weight.

Ali was no pushover, though. “You would do me like that, on the very first day? You would punk me like that?”

Adam had to jump in, now. “Man, we got a punk for a teacher.” Ali’s motion was seconded.

“Damn. A punk.” Efraim carried the motion.

Mr. Webb quietly typed out an email. Then, he looked back at Ali. Mr. Webb’s voice ran cold. “You got your future in your hands, Ali. You apologize, even if it sounds sarcastic and without meaning, and I don’t punch the send button. You don’t apologize, and then we got us a war. For me, war does not end until one party or the other is completely disengaged or destroyed. You apologize, and then we can keep the negotiations open and I don’t have to complain about how you showed up drunk in my class.”

“Drunk? What the hell? I’m not drunk!” Ali’s face betrayed an angry panic.

Mr. Webb kept his sangfroid demeanor. He’d seen this dance, before. “You acted out, you cursed at me, you argued, you disrupted class. Classic signs. Counselors and student resource police officers always tell us to watch out for those signs of substance abuse in our students.”

“Smell my breath, I don’t have any liquor on it.”

“That can be masked. Your behavior doesn’t lie. That’s what I go by. You act drunk, I gotta call it the way I see it.”

“But I’m not drunk!”

At this point, Adam and Efraim were tapping Ali on his shoulders, trying to calm him down, whispering, “Just say you’re sorry, dude.”

Ali relented. “I’m sorry! Geez!”

Mr. Webb let a thin smile appear. “I accept your apology. And don’t forget to show up sober every day in here. It’s one of my pet peeves, kids showing up drunk or high or both.”

“Man, I’m an athlete. I don’t do any of that stuff.” Ali was already acting like he was cool again. Good. It meant he could be reasoned with, after a fashion.

For his part, Mr. Webb knew not to press too far. “I’m glad to hear that. I hope you set a fine example as a scholar-athlete.” Ali, Adam, and Efraim laughed at that one. So be it. Nobody looked surprised that those three acted the way they did.

Veronica Carranza raised her hand. Mr. Webb nodded at her. She said, “Scarcity is the foundation of economics. It is the problem of unlimited wants and limited resources. Scarcity refers to how there are insufficient productive resources to fulfill all wants and needs.”

“Nice reading, Veronica. What does that mean in your own words?”

Veronica grinned. “Ahh… ahh… I don’t know?”

Celina Castillo, who sat next to Veronica at a table with Maria Cardenas and Victor De Leon, raised her hand. “It means that there’s not enough to go around.”

Ali re-engaged with a self-promotion. “There’s plenty of me to go around.”

Mr. Webb responded, “So, you’re saying that you’re entirely up for grabs? Free to anyone that asks?”

“Hell no! You got to pay to take your turn!”

“Can such payments be regulated and enforced?”

“My boys got my back on this one.” Seconded and carried, Adam and Efraim.

“Ah, then there is a scarcity of you. If there’s the ability to control access to you via a price structure, then you are scarce. If everyone had an Ali-”

“Barf!” Veronica said what everyone else was thinking.”

“If everyone had an Ali, then there truly would be plenty of you to go around, and there’d be no money in charging to get to you.”

Adam was ready with a betrayal. “Ali removal services would clean up, though.”

“Indeed they would, Adam.”

“Hey!” Ali looked like he was about to go all Three Stooges on Adam for realizing a business opportunity of that nature.

Annie Zhao and Janice Fung looked very confused. Ester Bakhoum looked like she was having trouble whispering an explanation of what happened to them.

Mr. Webb clicked on that arrangement. ESOL. They moved in groups like that, helping each other out. From looking at how they were dressed, Mr. Webb figured that Annie and Janice were intermediate in their English speaking and Ester was more advanced. ESOL kids betrayed their familiarity with the language with their clothing, more often than not. Simple dress: basic skills. A few accessories and makeup: intermediate. A brand-name t-shirt and evidence of hair care products in play? Advanced, my good friends. Advanced.

And if they acted like Ali? 100% American. Mr. Webb was betting that Ali didn’t speak a word of Arabic. To make sure Ali didn’t disrupt things as Mr. Webb re-explained scarcity to the Cantonese girls, he looked at Ali and, changing his voice to speak from right to left, said,

“أنت مجنون.”
Ali didn’t get mad until after both Ester and Saiful Islam Zogby laughed. “Hey, what was that?”

Saiful kept laughing. “It was nothing. He just said you were crazy.” That got the others to laugh.

“Well, maybe I am a little crazy.”

With Ali feeling pleased in his craziness and not wanting to explore his Arabic deficiencies any further, Mr. Webb took on the task of working the ESOL angle. “Scarcity…” Then he got up, and held up a box of pens. He stood to one side, faced the middle of the room and said, “多少?” Then, taking the other side of the transaction, Mr. Webb pressed a few buttons on a calculator and held them up to where he used to stand.

Annie said, “Oh!”, then turned to Janice and said, “ga dou chin!”

Janice smiled and repeated, “ga dou chin!” Mr. Webb didn’t speak a word of Cantonese, so it was good to have Annie around to translate from Mandarin to Cantonese. True, they were supposed to learn in English, but Mr. Webb knew that if he tried to speak a little bit of their language, it went a long way.

Many years ago, in his second year of teaching, Mr. Webb had a student that came to his class in the fifth six weeks. The counselor said, “Tran here doesn’t speak any English at all. Try and do what you can with him.” For an entire week, Mr. Webb pointed at pages in the book and, for the same entire week, Tran blazed through those problems, nothing doing.

Obviously, Tran was not getting challenging work. Mr. Webb wanted to test his skills, so he went to a group of Vietnamese kids that were in the Algebra class. He asked, “Hey, do you guys know Vietnamese well?”

Sure, they all said they did. So Mr. Webb asked, “How do you say ‘solve this equation for x’ in Vietnamese?”

That was a stumper. “Mister, we don’t know how to teach math in Vietnamese.”

“Well, could you ask your moms and dads for me?”

The next day, they had an answer. They also said that, since there was no x in Vietnamese, that the statement should be about solving for y. Later that day, Mr. Webb handed a sheet of 20 introductory Algebra problems and said to Tran, “Làm mai bài đó để tìm hiểu ý.”

Tran blazed through the problems, handed in his worksheet, and said, in perfect California-accented English, “Here ya go, mister. They were easy.”

Everyone, Mr. Webb included, could not believe their ears. Tran spoke English, and plenty of it!

A few days later, Tran was in an Algebra class and making great grades.

Mr. Webb had two theories to explain Tran’s sudden revelation of his English skills. The first was that, by going out of his way to speak a little Vietnamese, Tran would meet him half-way and speak a little English. By speaking a little Vietnamese, Mr. Webb would have shown Tran to not be afraid of testing out his knowledge.

The second theory was that Mr. Webb’s Vietnamese was so bad, there was no way that Tran’s English would sound worse by comparison and that, in order to not have his ears bleed from overmuch linguistic slaughter of his native tongue, Tran would resort to as much English as possible to keep Mr. Webb from subjecting Vietnamese to any further tortures.

In weighing the theories, Mr. Webb gave more precedence to the latter one. It would always be easier for a student to try and speak English than for Mr. Webb to try and learn a student’s native language, and that’s how things went.

Truth be told, though, there was some comfort in hearing familiar-ish tones, even if they weren’t perfectly put. And for a big white guy to be making an effort with their language instead of yelling at them to learn English, well, such gestures were welcome, indeed. Teller High was a multicultural place, and every welcome gesture counted.

Back to the scarcity issue, Mr. Webb explained, “If you have to pay for something, it is scarce. If there is no cost for it, it is not scarce. Do you understand?”

They all nodded, even kids that spoke good English, but who were just a little slow. Victor De Leon asked, “Can you say those every time, mister? Your definitions are better than the ones in the book. They’re shorter.”

“Well, ideally, they’ll be what you’re able to say. I have never liked copying definitions out of a book except as a form of torture. I want you to learn, so I want you to take the words from the book and translate them into words of your own, words that you can use and understand.”

Victor nodded like he was pretending to understand. Then he looked at Celina’s notes to see what she put down.

Nigel Jackson, who sat in a low, comfortable chair in the front, raised his hand. “Say, do we have to copy down all these notes?”

Mr. Webb said, “Only if you want to. I give a certain amount of class participation points for having notes. If you think you know them well enough to make useful comments in class, then I give you points for the good comments, and you won’t need to show me notes, if that’s how you want to roll.”

“Good.” Nigel shut his book and capped his pen. “I’d rather answer questions than write notes.”

“Just make sure your comments are appropriate for class. When you make an inappropriate comment or cause a disruption, I take away points.”

Ali piped up. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. When does this start?”

“Already has. I suppose I should tell Coach Sheppard that you’re already failing my class with a negative five.”

“Mister, I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t know. Give me another chance.” The desperation in Ali’s voice was hilarious to all who heard it.

“Ha. You did know, you were just banking on the general lax enforcement of rules here in the first two weeks to get away with as much as you could, Ali. You’ll get your chance when you earn it. What’s a shortage, Ali? And don’t read it to me from the book. Your own words.”

“Mister, how about I just do my notes and show you at the end of class?”

“I do notebook checks on Friday, not before. Your only way out of the hole you dug with your mouth is with that same tool. What’s a shortage?”

“Umm… the opposite of surplus. How do I make that shorter?”

“Start by explaining what a surplus is.”

“Umm… uhh… It’s, ahh…” Ali read the definition to himself. “It’s, ahh… when there’s more stuff than what people need.”

“And the opposite?”

“When there’s not enough stuff.”

“Right. And now you’re not failing.”

“Can you tell Coach Sheppard now?”

“I didn’t tell him anything yet, and no news is good news to him. But back to a shortage. It’s when there’s not enough of something to satisfy everyone’s needs. It’s when the price goes up very quickly, because there’s not enough of it.”

Nigel had a connection. “Like in an auction, when there’s something really rare.”

“Right. Bidding goes up on that.”

Ali found a way to earn points and glorify himself at the same time. “So since there’s only one of me, there’s not plenty to go around. There’s a shortage of me, right? So let the bidding commence.”

“That’s only if more than one person is willing to bid on you.”

Ali made an appeal to the ladies of the class. “Well? Any takers? I promise the best homecoming, ever.”

Silence.

Mr. Webb brought it back to the topic at hand. “So it would seem there’s a surplus of you at this time.”

“Wait until they get to know me.”

“We shall see.”

They talked a little more about Economics, but time ran out for the period, so Mr. Webb put on some Jay Chou, causing Annie and Janice to start laughing excitedly. Ester joined in the fan reaction: obviously, she shared more than just an ESOL class with her friends. Then Mr. Webb put on “Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio” by Flaco Jimenez and all the Mexican kids fell over, laughing.

Efraim said, “Mister, that’s old people music. You got anything, like, from this century?”

Olga Tañón’s “Me Cambio Por Ella” was Mr. Webb’s musical response. Efraim smirked, not happy with the song’s utter lack of gangsta rap, but Maria, Veronica, and Celina were singing along as Victor danced an expert merengue with an imaginary partner.

But Mr. Webb won everyone over when he fired up War’s “Low Rider”. Efraim gave him a fist bump on the way out and everyone was smiling.

So far, so good. Mr. Webb added Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” to the playlist and went back out into the hallway to guide in his fourth period.

The Big Reboot: 13

“Scarcity is a condition where the wants for something are greater than its availability. If something is scarce, there’s a price for it. Not scarce, no price. Consider air.” Mr. Webb began to hyperventilate. “I do that, and nobody’s panicking that I’m taking all the air. Nobody’s thinking that I’m getting more than my fair share. But if we all chip in for a pizza and I take half the slices…”

Meron objected. “Hey! Not cool!”

“Exactly. Not cool. There’s a scarcity of pizza, so we consider its price when we figure out who gets what, and how much. Let’s not confuse scarcity with shortage. A shortage means there’s not enough of something, at all, so its price goes through the roof. Like bottled water right before a hurricane. If you don’t get it fast enough, you won’t get it, no matter how much money you may have. That’s a shortage. Scarcity means that you can get what you want, but you’re gonna have to pay for it.”

“So the more scarce something is, the higher the price?” Salina was sharp.

“That is correct. Or at least, the more scarce something is made to appear, the higher the price.”

“Huh?” Meron and Sakura had the same expression.

“Consider diamonds. Their price is artificially kept high. There are enough gem-grade diamonds in the world for everyone to have a cup of them. That’s seven billion people, each with a cup of diamonds. Synthetic processes can make even more of them.”

“That’s like everyone having a cup of dirt.” Sakura looked puzzled, wondering why anyone would want to walk around with a cup of dirt.

“It is. Diamonds are only so much carbon, smooshed together. But if the guys making the diamonds can promote them like a rare commodity, then they can make that cup of dirt very profitable for themselves. Before the 1940s, diamonds were like any other sparkly rock. Then the DeBeers company said, ‘A Diamond Is Forever’ and suggested that men spend three months’ salary on one of their sparkly rocks.”

Edgar admired the chutzpah of DeBeers’ campaign. “Daaaaaaaaamn. That’s straight-up gangsta. And people believed that?”

Mr. Webb shrugged. “You see jewelery stores everywhere, making big profits on those rocks.”

Pamela had a question. “So, wait, those blood diamonds? The ones that little children are being enslaved to dig out? Wouldn’t releasing all the diamonds make those worthless? Wouldn’t that end that problem?”

“And then it would create another. The guys making the blood diamonds to fund their civil wars or whatever aren’t misguided angels. They’ll do anything that makes money. That’s why places where drugs are legalized see a big spike in child abduction and exploitation. If drugs don’t make money, then the local thugs get into businesses that will make money. In fact, that also happens wherever the UN goes in to try to resolve a conflict: the UN officers on the scene get involved in human trafficking, big time. There’s one UN general that is notorious for creating child prostitution rings, but because he’s way up in the UN and is protected by powerful people, he just gets transferred from one UN peacekeeping operation to the next one.”

To head off possible cries of BS, Mr. Webb Googled up “UN officer prostitution” and let everyone take notice of the 3,310,000 results. “Scarcity. There’s a price for satisfying that want. I believe that there’s enough stuff in the world to take care of everyone’s needs, but when we allow our wants to be unlimited, we see stuff like this. The textbook would have you think that unlimited wants is a normal situation and that markets can resolve all the issues of unlimited wants, but I see something like this, and I have to say that it’s up to us to find ways to put limits on our wants, so that we don’t create situations where someone is enslaved or otherwise exploited in order to satisfy our wants.”

Pamela blinked slowly. Sakura looked like she was either about to cry, or had begun a slight flow of tears. Time to step back from the edge. “I believe that if we’re aware of evil, we can try to keep it out of our lives, that we can try to keep from being evil, ourselves. I believe that there’s a higher power that we answer to and that we’re accountable for what we do in our lives.”

“Is what you’re saying against the law?” Michael Wilkins, a young African-American skater, looked concerned – he didn’t want Mr. Webb to go to jail.

“No, I can talk about belief. I just can’t promote any belief. I can’t force anyone to agree or disagree with a particular set of beliefs as a condition for passing this course. I think it’s important for us to realize that we’re allowed to believe whatever we want to believe, but that we should also be willing to consider our beliefs in light of facts that we discover. I don’t think that we should suddenly reject everything we’ve ever known just after seeing one or two things that are shocking, but that we need to carry on a reasoned inspection of our own beliefs throughout our lives.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes, I do. And I have friends that are atheists. If I don’t pester them by saying they’re going to go to hell, they won’t bother me by trying to convince me that there isn’t any heaven that I’ll be going to.”

Some laughter.

“But we all agree that there’s a reason to live. It may be one reason for one person and another for another person, or it may be a whole group of reasons… but there’s a reason to live. No matter how awful things may seem to be in the world around you, there’s a reason to keep going, to keep striving. It may seem so easy to extinguish the light within and become part of the darkness that surrounds you, but there’s a reason to keep that light shining.”

Michael asked, “What’s your reason to live?”

“Like I said, I have many.” Mr. Webb Googled up images of “carne al pastor.”

Sakura said what everyone else was thinking. “Those tacos look delicious!”

“They are. And if you’re dead, you can’t eat them.” Many nods acknowledged the wisdom in that sentiment.

Mr. Webb noted the time. The bell was about to ring, so he fired up Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” and said, “That’s all for today. We’ll get more into chapter one and how I do grades in my class tomorrow.”

As the guitar solo began, the bell rang and the class filed out past Mr. Webb’s desk. He took the “you’re an awesome teacher” and “this is already my favorite class” comments in stride, accepting them with grace. He wasn’t going to be everyone’s favorite teacher, but it was always nice to know that what he said resonated with a pretty big cross-section of his classes.

After everyone left, he queued up Blues Traveler’s “Run Around”, followed by his song. The playlist ready, he went back to the hall to keep the traffic moving where it needed to go. He smiled when he noticed that nobody had torn down his sign by the bathroom. It augured well for this year’s students.

The Big Reboot: 12

“OK, the books… I’m not a fan of them, and I’ll let you know that up front. However, I know that some of you like to do things by the book, and you can certainly get full credit for an A in this class, if you go that route. If you don’t like the book, that’s fine, too. I’ll still use the book as a basis for our discussions in class, and if you do a lot of discussing, that will be equal in my mind to what others may be doing with definitions and chapter questions. Everyone will need to be familiar with the definitions in the chapter and everyone will need to participate in class. You decide how you want to earn your grade in here. But we all get a book, so everyone come up here and get a book and a yellow form.”

And so, everyone from Preston Agee down to Paulina Vasquez came up and got a book and a yellow form.

“Make sure you fill out your yellow form completely and then bring it up here to me, with your book. I’ll check them off and you’ll be good to go.”

Calvin asked, “Do we get a grade for this?”

“No. I only take grades for things that have to do with Economics. You’re going to be financially responsible for this book if you lose it, so you got money riding on this, even if you don’t have GPA invested.”

Rashawn Turner said, “Wait, we don’t get bonus points for bringing in tissue paper? That’s how I passed Mr. Byer’s class last year.” DJ and Calvin laughed.

“You’re free to bring in tissue paper to share with everyone. I myself have a stash that I provide to everyone in my classes, along with fridge and microwave access during lunch. But if you want extra credit, you have to do Economics. Which reminds me of a story… there was a teacher here at Teller, before I got here, a really big guy… he had a schedule of various baked goods and how many points they’d earn. There were kids that baked their way to an A in his class.”

Cristina Orozco smacked her teeth and said, “Daaaaaang. I bet he was real fat.”

“I said he was a big guy. The man had a price and let it be known. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to bake, it’ll be to share with the class. You’re free to eat and drink in here, provided that you don’t leave stinky trash in my can, don’t leave any trash where you sit, and your eating isn’t a distraction. If I say it’s a distraction, it’s a distraction. To give you an example, there was this one kid that I had that brought an entire loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter every day to class. In class, he would make peanut butter sandwiches of the entire loaf and eat them. Made the whole class smell like white bread. Worse, he smacked his food.”

Cristina smacked her teeth and said, “Stoooopid!”

Mr. Webb smacked his teeth and said, “Stooooopid, indeed. We made him stop.”

Cristina and the other Mexicans laughed. “Man, you’re trippin.”

“I taught at Sunflare for two years. I picked a few things up there.”

Edgar Rocha said, “Man, that place is straight up ghetto. How many times did you get killed there?”

“About once a month.”

Smacks. “Stooooopid,” in four-part harmony.

“Yeah, I learned the ways of the cholo there. Good times. The kids were all right there, but the administration… those guys you had to watch out for.”

Back to the task at hand, though… one by one, Mr. Webb called up the students. He made sure they had the correct book number on their forms and that they had their names in their books. He entered the book numbers in his grade book and collected the yellow forms. And he waited for the inevitable question…

DJ asked it. “Can we keep our books in here?”

“Sure. Provided…” Mr. Webb pointed at the freezer part of his fridge. “You keep them in there.”

“The freezer?”

“Yes. A nicely chilled book is a pleasure on a summer’s day.”

“Seriously?”

“Leaving them on the shelves, they get picked up by other people there and find their way to other classes. You’re on the hook for the loss, and that’s no good. Sometimes, I can track down the wandering books, but I found that they’re less likely to grow legs if they’re in my freezer.”

DJ shrugged and put his book in the freezer. “I got football first period. Might be nice.”

As he stood up, he revealed that his pants were sagging. Badly. Mr. Webb had to comment. “And, while you’re up, DJ, you need to hike up the pants. I can’t stand the sag.”

“Aw, mister, the ladies like the fashion.”

“Not me!” Sakura was adamant.

“It’s so tacky.” Salina offered her cold opinion.

“Yeah, tacky.” Meron spoke her words with passion.

Mr. Webb took a survey. “Do any of the women here think that sagging is a good look?” None of the twelve women raised their hands or spoke in the affirmative.

“Well, I’m not trying to go out with any of the chicks here.” DJ backpedaled.

“Good.” Salina didn’t let up.

Mr. Webb tried to offer a reasonable argument. “Part of school’s mission is to prepare you for the workplace. You really can’t sag anywhere where it’s decent to work. Might as well get used to it. Pull ’em up.”

DJ had a ready response. “Dude. I’m gonna be a rapper. I gotta sag if I’m gonna rap.”

Mr. Webb wasn’t impressed. “A rapper, eh? So, let me check Monster.com to see if there are any rap shortages anywhere in the USA…” He pretended to type and click on his laptop. “Oh, here’s an opening. They need a rapper in Lincoln, Nebraska. They’re offering $8.50 an hour.”

“Really?” DJ looked hopeful.

“Seriously?” Mr. Webb shattered those hopes.
“Man, don’t hate.”

“I’m not hatin, just letting you know… making it in the arts can be very difficult. Chances are, you’re going to need a day job until you get enough interest to be able to make a living on the road. I did stand-up comedy a few years ago, during the summer. I saw a lot of great comics that were just looking for that one break. Some of them were actually able to work the club circuit, but they were always on the road. No family life for those guys. It was a hard life. The rest of the comedians worked during the day. It wasn’t because they weren’t good. They were hilarious. They just didn’t have the same luck that the others had.”

DJ didn’t seem to be moved by reason.

“Also, I’ll email Coach Sheppard that you’re sagging.”

DJ pulled his pants up. Although everyone knew that the office wouldn’t take referrals for tardies or dress code violations during the first two weeks, Coach Sheppard, the athletic director, held his athletes to a higher standard. Falling short of that standard meant not playing or running extra laps. As long as DJ was a starting fullback, he had a reason to keep his pants up. If he played basketball, they’d stay up through the end of the semester.

“As long as the belt loops are above your butt muffin, I’m cool.” Sakura and Meron nearly choked with laughter at “butt muffin.” Mr. Webb continued, “I don’t want to bust your chops, either, but this is a rule I do feel strongly about. That and no pickles.”

“No pickles?” Sakura had to ask.

“I cannot stand the smell of pickles. At all. Do not bring any into my class, not even as a test. I will smell them and I will lose my mind and I will come up with some kind of punishment that you will not like. I don’t know what it will be, but I am a creative man and I will think of something that you will not like.” A look around the room confirmed that, yes, Mr. Webb had creativity, even if he didn’t have the best taste in décor.

“I could bring a durian, for example.”

Quynh Nguyen gagged. “God, no.”

Sakura looked confused. “What’s… durian?”

“The worst-smelling thing in the world, with a hint of onion, right, Quynh?”

Quynh nodded. “I hate it whenever my grandma brings it over. She loves the stuff. They have to eat it outside, though, or I’ll die.”

Sakura looked terrified. “You’ll diiiiiiie?” Meron also looked terrified. Salina looked moderately concerned.

Mr. Webb said, “It’s against the law in Singapore and Malaysia to bring durian into public transportation or hotels. It’s a massive, spiked fruit whose smell can draw elephants from two miles away. It’s absolutely horrid. It’s a weapon of mass destruction. And I love the way it tastes.”
Quynh couldn’t believe what he just heard. “You… like… it?”

“Love it. Two out of every three people in the world find that, after tasting it, it’s not so bad. Half of those people absolutely love it, in spite of the way it first smells. Eating it makes it change how it smells. It’s amazing.”

“Not for me, mister.”

“Well, you’re in the one out of every three humans that find that it tastes as bad as it smells. Sorry.” Mr. Webb addressed the rest of the class. “But now you all know that it’s not an idle threat. No pickles, and I’m serious as a heart attack about that rule.”

With the books and basic rules out of the way, Mr. Webb saw fit to commence the Economics lesson: “OK, kids… scarcity… that’s the foundation of Economics. Scarcity. What is it?”

Dead air. Time to fill the void with information.

The Big Reboot: 11

“Oh my gosh, you actually have your own theme song!” The young lady in the front was obviously impressed.

“You just heard it.” Mr. Webb was glad to be impressive. It helped to let everyone know that this was his room and that things ran his way in here. Not someone else’s way. His way. It was a nice way of letting them know, and Mr. Webb was all about using soft power to keep the peace.

“How much did you pay to have that done?” The young lady was starting to go beyond impressed.

“Nothing. I did it myself.”

“Wowwww, that’s like Harry Potter amazing.”

OK, it wasn’t that amazing. “Not really. Just a simple sound editing program.” Some of the other students were concurring. A few simple operations were all that were necessary to produce a track like that.

The young lady was undeterred in her adulation. “Oh my gosh, that’s so way over my head. I don’t understand computers at all. I wish I did, but, like even Word freaks me out when I try to use it. My big sister tells me to just calm down and type, but, like, I’m not typing, I’m like trying to change a font or put a picture in, and it’s so frustrating and am I the only one talking, OK… that just got… awkwarrrrrrd… I’m sorry… I’ll shut up now. You probably want to call roll or something. OK… still awkwarrrrrrd… oh my gosh… why can’t I stop.”

“Please stop.” Mr. Webb spoke his gentlest words.

“Thank you.” The young lady seemed eternally grateful for Mr. Webb’s assistance in avoiding any further awkwarrrrrdness.

“And, yes, I do need to call roll.” Mr. Webb addressed the class. Calling roll was one of his classic bits. “If I get your name wrong, please correct me on the pronunciation or if you go by a different name, just let me know, and I’ll make note of it.”

And he began: “Preston Agee.” Except he didn’t pronounce it “Preston Agee.” It came out more like “Pre-stone Ag-eh-eh”. Nobody responded. Mr. Webb repeated, “Pre-stone Ag-eh-eh.”

Preston got the clue, the bright lad. “Uh, that’s Preston Agee.”

Mr. Webb sounded pleasantly surprised. “Thank you. Preston Agee. That’s a beautiful name. Where is it from.”

“Uh, I don’t know… my dad’s from Ohio…”

Mr. Webb smiled, counted him present, and then went to the next name. “Marr-ee-line Boo-tleh-yarrr?”

After some thought, Marilyn Butler said, “here.”

“Did I get that name right?”

“Close enough.”

“Well, OK… Kahlveen Dahh-vissss?”

Calvin Davis laughed, “Yo.”

Mr. Webb smiled and continued. “Meron Defar?”

Meron looked shocked to her core.

“Did I get your name right?”

“You totally nailed it. I thought you were going to mess it up like the others!”

“I usually say it the way it’s spelled. Works just fine, usually.”

“All my other teachers mangled it. You’re the first one, ever, to get it right.”

Mr. Webb kept his smile. “It’s all hit or miss, really. Melanie Escobar?”

Melanie raised her hand and nodded.

“Salina Gebreselassie?”

Meron flipped her lid, again. She pointed to Salina and said, “She’s here! Oh my gosh, do you speak Amharic, or what?”

Salina got a little cross. “Oh hush, Meron. You’re making a scene.”

Meron made a “oh no you didn’t” face and then said, “Oh no you didn’t!”

Salina was as cool as cats. “Yes I did.”

Meron kept her face and looked at Mr. Webb for some kind of support.

None was forthcoming. “Salina, would you like me to move her?”

Salina smiled. “Oh, no, we’re totally besties. She’s just a little immature, every now and then.”

Meron’s jaw about hit the floor.

Salina looked at her. “Well, it’s true.”

Meron’s face went to normal. She nodded and shrugged.

The young, excitable lady sat on the other side of Meron. “Oh my gosh, that’s even more drama than what I caused at the start.” Suddenly realizing that everyone was now looking at her, the young lady said, “Oh my gosh, awkwarrrrd… shutting up…”

A few people, including Mr. Webb, couldn’t help but laugh. The young lady tried to shrink into her chair as she said, “Even more awkwarrrrrd… please call the roll again, or I’m going to cry.”

Not wanting tears on the first day, Mr. Webb asked, “Pah-mee-lay Kharr-ice?”

Pamela Harris had the worst confusion, ever, on her face. “I’m pretty sure I’m next on the roll, but that’s not my name at all.”

“I’m so sorry. How is it pronounced?”

“Pamela Harris.”

“Pamelah Kharris?”

She laughed. “No, Pamela Harris. Ease up on the H sound.”

“Pamelah Harriss?”

“Good enough.” Pamela sure was a good sport.

“Xochitl Izaguirre?”

A very surprised Xochitl Izaguirre said, “here.”

“Xochitl is the Nahuatl word for flower.”

“What’s Nahuatl?”

“It’s an indigenous language from Central Mexico. The Aztecs spoke it.”

Xochitl had just learned something new about herself.

“Have you ever been to Mexico City?”

Xochitl nodded.

“Ever been to the Xochimilco Gardens?”

“Oh wowwww.”

“Right, there’s flowers there. Xochi-, flowers. Milco, place of.”

This was news to Xochitl, and made a connection. “Kids learn something every day in here if I do my job right. Dah-vide Hoh-nez?”

David Jones raised his hand. “I go by DJ.”

“OK, DJ Hoh-nez?”

“You got it.” He laughed at the Spanish version of his last name.

The excitable young lady was excited again. “Oh my gosh, I totally get it!”

“Get what?”

“You’re messing up the easy names on purpose and you’re getting all the hard ones right! It’s like, the opposite of what normally happens. You must be the opposite of, like, a normal teacher. Like, you have tables and chairs and no desks and you have a theme song, and I’ve never ever had a teacher with just tables and desks and never ever EVER had a teacher with a theme song so it stands to reason that you’d also do that trick with the roll and oh my gosh people are looking at me again, awkwarrrrrd…” She shrank into her chair.

Meron raised her hand. “Can you please move her?”

Salina smacked Meron on her shoulder, causing her to make a dramatic “Ow!” face.

“She’s no more distracting than you when you get wound up.”

“Ah! That’s so not true!”

The young lady leaned towards Meron. “It’s true. You can get as bad as me. Shutting up before it’s awkward.”

This was going to be a great class. Mr. Webb finished the roll, according to the pattern that the excitable young lady had discovered. After finishing, he realized that he hadn’t called the name of the excitable young lady. Was she actually in the right classroom? “OK, I didn’t get your name. Are you supposed to be here?”

“Oh my gosh, am I? I have a schedule, here.” She produced her schedule. It said, “ECONOMICS… WEBB… A121”

“And I know this is the right classroom because I saw the sign on the boy’s bathroom after I walked in there and saw all the guys in it and it was really awkward and I almost cried but then I saw Meron and Salina walking by and they helped me out when they pointed at the sign and they’re like my best friends, ever, and if I’m not in the same class as them, I’m gonna cry.”

“Hold on.” Mr. Webb refreshed his online roll card. Another name popped up on the screen in the refresh. “Sakura Berry?”

The excitable young lady raised her hand. “Me! And you got my name right because it’s half Japanese!”

“Actually, I got it right because I wasn’t trying to mess it up. It says here, you’re African-American.”

Sakura took a deep breath. “My mom’s Japanese, and my dad’s black and I guess that makes me Tiger Woods except I don’t play golf or anything and I don’t always feel black because I’m part Asian even though my grades aren’t what anyone would call Asian but at least I pass my classes and I try really hard and my name translated into English would be Cherry Berry, which always messes me up because cherries are a fruit but because of my name I think they’re berries but they’re actually,” and she paused here, “fleshy drupes.”

That made everyone in the room laugh. Sakura blushed. “I know that sounds like something nasty, but that’s what cherries are!”

“Actually, Sakura means “cherry blossom.” Not the cherry.”

“I know, but I like to eat cherries, so that’s what my name means to me.” Sakura smiled proudly. “So why did you mess up the names, anyway?”

“When I was a kid, teachers always messed up my name. My first name is actually Lowell.”

Sakura had to repeat it. With emphasis. “Lowell.”

“Yes, just like that. Except, growing up here, teachers always said Loyal or Lau-ell or, one day, one said, Larry. It was a sub in my 6th grade class. I popped off on her. I mean, seriously, where’s the a, r or y in my name?”

Sakura thought a little. “They’re not in your name!” Meron rolled her eyes and Salina smacked Meron for rolling her eyes, which caused Meron to act like she was about to hit back, triggering Salina’s reaction to point a finger of doom at Meron, causing, in turn, Meron to de-escalate the situation by turning her move into part of a chair dance.

“Anyway, I started to go by my middle name. Dean. That’s easy for a Texan to pronounce.”

Sakura dropped into her deepest East Texas drawl. “Deeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeean. Hey, it came out OK!”

“Indeed it did. And does. So when I started teaching, I thought I’d like to give some relief to the kids that got their names messed up and some of what I went through to the kids that don’t get their names messed up.”

Pamela raised her hand. “You’re not going to do that every day, are you?”

“No. Just for the roll.”

“Good. Because that would get annoying.”

“Yes it would, and I’m annoying enough, as is.” Mr. Webb clicked submit on the online roll. “And now, let’s talk about the useless books we’re going to use this year.”

Sakura raised her hand. She had a sad, confused look on her face. Meron said, “Wait. I know what’s bugging you. How can a useless book be used?”

Sakura nodded. “It’s totally contradictory!”

Meron nodded back. “I know. It’s my question, too.” Thereupon, both turned to face Mr. Webb, with their hands raised defiantly. Salina facepalmed.

“You sure you don’t want me to move you or them?”

Salina kept her face in her palm. “I’m seriously considering your offer.”

The Big Reboot: 10

First period duty on the first day of school involves lots of directing panicked freshmen and other new kids and a fair amount of playing goalie with parents that had wandered past the lecture hall, where they were supposed to register their students. Truth be told, the parents were supposed to have registered their kids before school started, but you know how confused and addled parents that age can be.

Most of them had smaller kids with them. A fraction of those kids had no intention of behaving, so when their parents popped them on the head and then yelled at them to quit crying, it gave the school a down home feeling, not unlike a Walmart at 5 PM. Hustle, bustle, and awkward moments like nowhere else in the world.

And when those parents had enrolled their students, they were the ones most likely to act like unsupervised teenagers running amok at a Walmart. They made it horrible for everyone when they showed up, and everyone rejoiced when they were absent.

“Hey Mr. Webb, Dontavius isn’t here today!”

“Don’t play with me, Shenequa! You ain’t lying?”

“Straight up, he ain’t here. We’re gonna learn today!”

“Well, let’s not waste any time! But first, let’s enjoy this moment.”

Mr. Webb would then ask everyone to be quiet. In seconds, the room was at peace. “That’s the sound of no Dontavius. Enjoy.” And enjoy they did.

Sometimes, though, Dontavius was just late. As in, he woke up in time to be fifteen minutes late to third period. Mr. Webb tried to keep the other students from moaning in disappointment, but wasn’t always successful. Dontavius constantly made disruptions, constantly stole time from the entire class, so they wanted to punish him. There were kids as disruptive as Dontavius that couldn’t help it: nobody wanted to see them suffer, except maybe Dontavius, which helps to explain why others figured he had coming whatever he had coming. If he was high and passed out in class, everyone let him sleep.

They let him sleep, but Mr. Webb wouldn’t let them get totally quiet. Total quiet tended to wake up sleepers. If there was a constant level of noise, there was a chance that Dontavius would sleep well into the start of the next class. Was that mean? Mr. Webb thought of it as tough love. Dontavius had to be responsible for his own alertness during the day.

Besides, it made up only somewhat of the surly pleasures Dontavius could unload on the days when he was coming down from his high. Pot made a guy really mellow on the way up, but pretty harsh on the descent to reality. “How do you know about Africa? You ain’t never been there!” Ah, it seems Dontavius decided to show his butt…

“I’ve talked to people from Africa. I’m repeating what they told me.” Sure, Mr. Webb hadn’t been witness to the horrors of the civil war in Liberia, but two of the girls in second period had lived through it. Their eyewitness accounts only added to the deep pain of the historical accounts of that paroxysm of violence.

“So you’re just gossiping, huh?” Dontavius, obviously, was not moved with compassion.

“No, Dontavius, I’m teaching. I’m explaining about the horrible civil war in Liberia. Or do you not care at all for anyone but yourself? No, wait, you don’t.” Risky, but Dontavius tended to contradict Mr. Webb when he was sobering up, so better to have him argue that he was a good person and not a bad one.

“No, I care.” Score! “But why are you talking about stupid Africa? I thought this was economics class?”

“It is economics. Here’s the payoff. During Liberia’s civil war, it went into default on its debts. Just before it came out of civil war, some bankers bought up Liberia’s debt, sued Liberia in court, and since Liberia couldn’t sent a representative to court, they won the case and got triple damages. They settled with Liberia for 3% of its national budget, down from 5%. The nation was trying to rebuild, and these guys, vulture fund guys, swept in without any concern at all for the harm they were causing.”

“Dang.” Dang was right. It also put Dontavius’ churlishness into perspective. Jerk though he was, he wasn’t the kind of guy to pull bread out of the mouth of a baby to buy himself another yacht.

“And these guys make donations to both parties, so they make sure Congress won’t pass any laws to stop them from doing what they do.”

“How come I never heard about this before now? You making this up?”

“A reporter, Greg Palast, did a story about this for the BBC. It aired over in England and the next day, Parliament passed a law against vulture funds. The next day. The news in the USA is controlled by people that don’t want that story on the news. So, it never aired here.”

“I’m bored, mister. Why can’t I just copy definitions?”

That usually broke the patience of the rest of the class, who would shout out for Dontavius to shut the hell up. He’d respond, “You shut up!” and Mr. Webb would have to intervene to stop the shouting match.

A jangly, familiar guitar riff got everyone moving and ready to join in with “Rollercoaster… of love!” as the Ohio Players started cooking up a hot stew of funkalicious. There were only five minutes left in class, so Mr. Webb kept people happy with a game of “Name That Tune.” Big hits and current faves were easy pickings. If he reached back far enough, though, he could find one that would make everyone go, “Man! I know this one!” and go out of their minds trying to guess it.

Then some kid that had no familiarity with the genre would use his phone to find out, and everyone would yell at him for cheating. But everyone would be back to being brothers and sisters again as they left to the sounds of the O’Jays singing “Love Train.” On his way out, Dontavius would offer to fist bump Mr. Webb.

“Sorry I was arguing with you earlier.”

Mr. Webb offered up his bump. He smiled as he made peace. “It’s alright. Just show up sober next time.”

Dontavius would laugh. “Alright, mister.” Maybe he would, maybe he wouldn’t. But he wasn’t all that bad, really.

Mr. Webb showed the mom of a future Dontavius the way to the lecture hall as he noticed there were only five minutes before the bell rang to end first period. After school got underway, duty first period would have a different, calmer rhythm. Today, it was all crazy. Thankfully, he had enough time to hustle back to his room and get ready for the passing period between first and second.

He unlocked his computer and got his music program started. He built up a playlist for the first day hall music. Classic rock was a good way to start things off. First in the queue was Tom Petty’s “American Girl”. That would get people to move along briskly. Next was “Shambala” from Three Dog Night. That would put everyone in a groovy mood as they entered the room.

Mr. Webb then lined up his theme song so that he could make a big entrance. It was a fun saxophone solo, “Telefone” from Bossacucanova. Mr. Webb mixed his voice on top:

“Good morning or afternoon as appropriate, and welcome to Mr. Webb’s class! Broadcasting at you -live- from beautiful Garson, Texas, in the heart of Teller High School, room A119B. Got a great class for you today, so get your stuff out and get rrready to learn! We’re going to have a -wonderful- time, and here he is now, the one, the only, Mr. We-eeeeeeebb!”

Then, on top of the solo finishing up, came the applause track. Mr. Webb burst into the room, and the class joined the crowd in applauding while Mr. Webb pointed at people in turn, saying “Thank you! Thank you!”

The Big Reboot: 9

It was hard to fall asleep, but Mr. Webb managed to get six solid hours of sleep before the big first day. There wasn’t anything special to wear or anything special to eat: what made the day special was getting to school in time to get a decent parking space. The faculty lot was on the side of the building opposite Mr. Webb’s room. That was a huge schlep, so Mr. Webb parked in the student lot that was practically outside his door. If he got there early enough, he could get a pull-through spot in the first row.

Lucky day! Mr. Webb got the spot he wanted. He got out of his car and waved at the other teachers and the students he knew as they wended their way into the building. As soon as Mr. Webb got inside, hapless freshmen asked him about where their fist classrooms were located. It seemed to be a rule to have the freshmen schedules set up so that they would criss-cross the building from period to period. Passing periods were six minutes, so they could get from one end to the other in that time, but there would be no time for getting to the bathroom. Kids weren’t supposed to be allowed to use the bathroom for the first fifteen or the last fifteen minutes of a 50-minute class, so that really limited their opportunities to feel comfortable in the educational environment.

Mr. Webb saw a senior that he knew was in one of his classes. “Say, Oscar, can I see your schedule?”

Oscar smiled as he pulled out his schedule. “Sure. You have a good summer?”

“Yes, I did, thanks. And you?” Mr. Webb looked to see what room the schedule said he was in.

“I had a good one. Went back to Manila to see my grandma. What do you need my schedule for, anyway?”

Mr. Webb pointed at his room assignment. “That.”

“Yeah, I’m in your class. I’m stoked.”

“No, you don’t get it. Look at the number.”

“It says A121.”

“OK, now look at the number on the men’s room here.”

“A121 – oh snap!”

Mr. Webb’s room was actually A119B. The ISS room was A119A. Every now and again, not only would the scheduling program put Mr. Webb’s AP classes against other sections that were more in demand, the scheduling program would also decide that it couldn’t handle an A or a B after a room number and would assign Mr. Webb to the next available room number, A121. A120 was a computer classroom, so that wasn’t available.

While people that had been to Teller before were pretty familiar with where Mr. Webb’s room was by the time they were seniors, students new to Teller were going to try and find Economics in a men’s room, which was an uncomfortable prospect, at best. Mr. Webb went to his room to make a sign to put up next to the bathroom so that the kids would know where to find the real classroom.

Waiting for Mr. Webb were the kids that knew the score. Three students stood outside, waiting to put their lunches into Mr. Webb’s fridge. “Hey, Mr. Webb! Do you know what lunch you have?”

“Nope. They don’t announce lunch assignments until third period.”

“What the hell, Webb?”

“They’ve been doing that for the last few years. It used to be that the Social Studies department classes always got B lunch. Some people complained how other departments would grab up the A and C lunches, so now Mr. Hradzin makes the assignments himself.”

“So did you get, like A lunch?”

“No, I keep getting B lunch. But now I have to wait two more days to get it.”

“At least it’s not C lunch. The cafeteria always runs out of the good stuff by C lunch. All they have left is the plate lunches. It’s nasty.”

“That’s why I eat my own lunches.”

The kids put their lunches in the fridge. “What if we don’t have the same lunch as you do?”

“Just heat it up in the microwave and don’t disrupt my class, that’s all.”

“Cool. OK. Can we wait in here until the bell rings?” Nobody liked those cafeteria seats.

“Sure. Make yourselves comfortable.”

A few other kids walked in to sit in Mr. Webb’s room instead of the cafeteria. Mr. Webb started his computer so he could get some music going. “What do you guys want to hear?”

“Something mellow.”

“OK.” Mr. Webb put on some nice bossa brava. That made for a cool vibe.

“Are you gonna show movies during lunch again this year?”

“Planning to. I’m going to start with ‘Dhoom’. Get some cool action.” Mr. Webb pointed at the poster for “Dhoom” on the wall. The students nodded approvingly.

“It’s got motorcycles in it, right?”

“Yeah. Lots of ridiculous chase action. Great way to kick off the year.”

“Say, did you hear about Coach Guffman?” That was the coach that was recently fired for his sexual indiscretions.

“Yes, and we’re not supposed to discuss that with students.”

“Not discuss with students? What if we’re emotionally distraught and stuff?”

“You talk to the counselor. Any of you emotionally distraught?” They all shook their heads. “Well then, that’s a non-starter. We have a replacement for Guffman, so school keeps going.”

“Does the new guy know how he got the job?” A little giggle went through the students.

“Heh.” Mr. Webb had to laugh a little, too. “I don’t know. Be kind of a bad shock to find out after you got the job. Kind of like buying a house without knowing it’s built on an Indian burial ground.”

“Dude, that would suck.”

“Indeed it would. That’s why I don’t plan to ever move. The house I got now isn’t built on any kind of grave or what-not, so I don’t want to press my luck by buying another house.”

“You know who I wish they would fire? Mr. Benton.”

“Who’s he?”

“He’s an assistant band director.” That explained why Mr. Webb didn’t know him. “Total jerk.”

“If you don’t like him, why don’t you quit band?” Year in, year out, Mr. Webb asked this question.

“This is my fourth year, I want to see it through.” And that was the answer every year.

“Well, do you like band?”

“I like concert season. I hate marching.” It seemed like the only people that liked marching were the clarinets.

“You could always start your own band if you want to play concerts. You don’t have to merge your personality with a nameless mass in pseudo-fascist performances reminiscent of Hitler’s Nuremberg Rallies.”

“Wow, way to make it sound creepy, Mr. Webb.”

“It’s what it is. Aldous Huxley wrote about them in his book ‘Brave New World Revisited.’ When you march around at night, your sense of reason is diminished. When everyone else is wearing a uniform, you lose your personality. You become the mass of marchers, you merge with them. If they wanted you to become Nazis, that would be the time to do it. You should quit before they do that.”

“But I’d miss the trip to Corpus this year.”

“You know, you’re allowed to go to Corpus whenever you want to. Does band pay for the trip?”

“No, we do.”

“Well, you don’t miss anything if you bump the trip up to the summer and do a road trip on your own.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

“You could probably get a better hotel, too.”

“Yeah, we could.”

“So why stay in band?”

“It’s my fourth year. I’ve made it this far, I might as well see it through.”

“Or you decide that having only three years of something you don’t want is better than having four, and you enjoy the difference.”

“But if anyone tries to quit, Mr. Mastiff really lays on a guilt trip.”

“So you go to the counselor, drop the class, and tell them that you feel uncomfortable about talking about this with Mr. Mastiff.”

“But then he’d tell my parents, and my mom would kill me! She did four years of band and she’s secretary in the band booster organization.”

The bell rang. End of that conversation. The kids said bye and everyone filed out. Mr. Webb locked his door and went to his first period duty station, the tardy station by Mr. Powell’s room. Mr. Walker did duty there, too, but he’d be there in a few minutes, since he had to wrap up his zero-hour class. For the first week, most of what they’d do would be to tell people where to go. For the second week, it would be giving warnings about dress code and tardies. Starting in the third week, it would be time to enforce the rules.

The rationale behind that was that kids needed an adjustment period to get back into school mode. Mr. Webb doubted that wisdom. It’s not like the kids weren’t in a school the year before, where the exact same rules applied. So the result of the two-week grace period was that kids that wanted to make trouble, made trouble, and got away with it.

Mr. Webb wondered how many names he was going to learn this year for all the wrong reasons.

The Big Reboot: 8

Heat pervaded the innards of the copy machine. There was no way to avoid it, so Mr. Webb aimed his arm for the center of it. His arm went in sideways and he could not see where it went. Carefully, deliberately, he let his fingers stroke the air ahead of them for a tiny brushing against that substance most familiar to teachers: paper.

Ever so gently, he discovered the demon corner of paper, the devil in the details. Blindly, but with precision granted by his heightened sense of touch – well, to be honest, there were times when he was an absolute butterfingers, but he had to believe in himself in times like these if he was to have any hope of clearing the entire jam. So, back to that heightened sense of touch, he used it wisely, cautiously, delicately, to pinch the paper corner between his forefinger and long finger and then tug it out of the press where it was pinched.

He pulled it out, but that was not the whole of the battle. Now, it had to come back out. If it fell out from between his fingers, it was all over for the copier, that grand, magnificent beast.

Seconds felt like centuries.

But success was Mr. Webb’s, as he completed his operation without any loss.

Right about then, Mr. Friendly got his job going on the other copier. “Wouldn’t you know, the thing was just out of paper and nobody cared to look at the error on the screen. Tsk, tsk, tsk!”

Seriously? That was all that it took to get the other copier going? And that was the good one, the one that didn’t overheat as easily. Well, at least it was going, and that meant Mr. Webb wouldn’t get crucified for printing a 36-page packet, 20 times over. With front and back printing, that was 360 pages, which, at even the top speed of 60 pages per minute, was a 6-minute job. When it was already after 4PM on the day before school started, nobody wanted to wait 6 minutes plus time to clear jams before doing their job, let alone if others were ahead of them. Mr. Friendly’s timely loading of paper meant that the line would move faster, the frustration would recede, and everything was going to be all right.

15 minutes later, Mr. Webb was finished with his printing. Thankfully, all the other jams didn’t involve any paper tearing. Still, that copier had a serious attitude problem. If it was a kid, Mr. Webb would refer it to the anger management counselor.

The anger management counselor was a really nice touch at Teller High. Mr. Gil Gutierrez was a real ace in the hole, when it came to the poker game of student discipline. Say some kid was really acting out, really having a bad day… say this kid was having a bad day, nearly every day. He’d have his altercation all scripted out:

“Ricardo, you need to settle down right this instant!”

“Yeah? And what? You’re gonna send me to the office?”

“You bet I will!”

“Well then, get busy with that referral, ’cause I ain’t stopping.”

At which point, the teacher would write up the referral and Ricardo would get an hour-long vacation from school as he cooled his jets in the assistant principal’s office. Mr. Webb knew that strategy and had a counter for it. His discussion went like this:

“OK, Ricardo, that’s about enough.”

“You gonna write me up?”

Mr. Webb reached for his paperwork. “Already on it. You are leaving the room.”

Ricardo would almost nod, satisfied his work was done so quickly.

“There, get on out of here. Come back when you’re ready.”

Ricardo would grab the paper, but it wasn’t an office referral. Noting the unusual weight and lack of triplicate, Ricardo would look down. Confused, he’d ask, “Who’s Mr. Gutierrez?”

“He’s the anger management counselor. His office is across from the cafeteria, by the courtyard.”

“I thought I was going to the office?”

Mr. Webb made his best surprised face. “Why would I send you to the office?”

“Because of the way I was acting and stuff.”

“Well, did you want to go to the office, or did you want to go somewhere where you could do better than the office?”

“Uh…”

Mr. Webb smiled. “You don’t need the office. You need Mr. Gutierrez.”

Ricardo would then walk down to Gutierrez’ office. He’d come back, half an hour later, apologize, and then, with regular sessions with Mr. Gutierrez, he’d get to where he wouldn’t act out so often or to such an extreme. Mr. Webb would meet with Mr. Gutierrez and learn what was pushing Ricardo’s buttons so that he could do something different in his class. It didn’t work every time, but 90% of the time, it really helped. Maybe five of the 200-odd teachers at Teller actually referred kids to Mr. Gutierrez, but it made all the difference for those kids that went to see him.

And who should come around the corner, but Mr. Gutierrez? He feigned surprise. “Mr. Webb! I thought you were in jail!”

Mr. Webb feigned equal surprise. “And I thought you were dead!”

Both responded, “Well, things got better!” Their greeting ritual really got good laughs from students, but they enjoyed it just as much on their own.

“So, Dean, are you all ready for tomorrow?”

“Helluva question to ask me at 4:30 in the afternoon, Gil. Good thing that I got my copies. So, yes, I’m all ready. I think.” Mr. Webb grinned.

“Hey, belief is everything. If you believe you’re ready, then you’re ready.”

“How about you?”

“Got my act together. Say, is it hot in your room?”

“No, it’s freezing. It’s always like that when they kick on the AC for the start of the year.”

“Man, it’s boiling in my office. I’d put in a window unit, if I could open my windows.”

“Come and see how cold it is in my room. It was tolerable around lunch, but now we can hang meat in there.”

Mr. Webb led Mr. Gutierrez to his room. “Touch the handle.”

Mr. Gutierrez grabbed the metal door handle. “Wow! It’s like ice! If I lick it, my tongue’s gonna stick!”

Mr. Webb opened the door and the arctic blast poured into the hallway. Although it was August in Texas, Mr. Webb pointed to a small supply of blankets in one of his closets. “Oh yeah, I’m ready. I’m on the same register as the cafeteria and the lecture hall, so if those places are warm, I get to freeze. Every year, this happens, and every year, the custodian adjusts my vents just so after two weeks, then it’s fine until we kick over to heat.”

“Why is it two weeks?”

“That’s how long the request takes to work through the system. He could do it today, but he doesn’t have a work order, so it’s unauthorized work and he could get fired for it. Isn’t that crazy? Naw, I got blankets. I can survive.”

Bad phyiscal plant, goofy kids, inservices, book room drama, copy room trauma… yes, Mr. Webb could survive. So long as the central administration didn’t go completely insane like EDCISD’s did, Mr. Webb could survive. That’s why he chose to work in Garson ISD: their administration had had a long history of not being completely insane.

Mr. Gutierrez left and Mr. Webb straightened up a few things, putting his finishing touches on his room layout, with benches, tables, and chairs organized to allow for good traffic flow and orientation towards his projection screen that hung just over his left shoulder. Copies went on the cart next to the book cart, along with textbook checkout forms. Everything was ready to go. Mr. Webb turned off the light and locked his door.

In the hallway, the cheerleaders were hanging “Welcome back Titans!” banners in the hallway. They’d finally gotten to this part of the building, so they were almost ready to go home. Some of them could be full of themselves, but for the most part, they were some of the nicest people Mr. Webb had ever met. They showed up to every game, even the sports that didn’t draw big crowds, and they really did support the athletes on the field or on the court. They worked hard at what they did, and not everyone realized just how much service they gave to their school.

Bravest was the mascot. She had to wear an outfit that retained moisture the way a hoarder socks away back issues of National Geographic. And what moisture did the Titan costume foam retain? Best not to think too much of the sweat of generations that languished within its odorous interior. And that odor – its source? Suffice to say it was a germophobe’s nightmare.

The cheerleaders arrived early and stayed late. They walked quickly in the hallways. It was almost like they were teachers, themselves. That’s why Mr. Webb liked to talk with them when he passed by. He’d go on about their posters like they were fine art hanging in a museum: “I love how the black outline around the red T here illustrates the inner conflict of humanity in the balance of the 20th century! And here, in the way you dotted the i with a heart, this speaks to the hope that we can overcome man’s inhumanity to man!”

They’d laugh and he’d wish them good luck and thank them for all they did. Showing gratitude was easy to do, went a long way, and made everyone feel better about life. Best of all, it was free. As an Economics teacher, Mr. Webb knew that there wasn’t such a thing as a free lunch, but that man does not live by lunch alone.

Besides, teachers and students at Teller only had 28 minutes from bell to bell in the lunch period. If they lived by lunch alone, they would surely perish.

As Mr. Webb drove home, the ennui and depression of the staff development uselessness lifted from him and a true excitement about tomorrow welled up in his heart. He had but one problem between now and tomorrow morning. Would he get enough sleep before the big day?

The Big Reboot: 7

Too late. The copy line was insane. Mr. Webb groaned as he took his place. Ms. Killian turned. “It’s worse than that. Only one copier is working.” Mr. Webb slouched in desperation and groaned louder.

Mr. Friendly had just got in line behind Mr. Webb. “What’s wrong, Webb?”

“Only one copier.”

“And you expected better than that the day before school started? No wonder you’re miserable.”

“Let me guess, you were expecting they were all out of action.”

“Yep. With only one working, I’m ecstatic.”

“Really?”

“No. But at least I’m not as miserable as you.” Mr. Friendly grinned proudly.

“At least it’s not an inservice.” Everyone that heard that nodded and grunted approval. Saying that made Mr. Webb think about the H.L. Mencken quote:

“Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” During those staff development sessions, Mr. Webb indeed was sorely tempted to do those very things. Quiet, patient endurance certainly didn’t make anything better. The inservice days just kept getting more useless and mind-crushingly boring. That made Mr. Webb consider the Frank Zappa quote:

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read.”

Mr. Webb read that in a biography of Frank Zappa, “No Commercial Potential”, which was in his junior high library. Ever since 8th grade, Mr. Webb took those words to heart. To Mr. Webb, teaching wasn’t a matter of stuffing facts into heads as it was a matter of making people aware of their surroundings, causing them to learn as much as they could so that they wouldn’t get taken down like some punk. That last bit came from another inspirational quote from some random caller on the Tom Joyner morning show:

“If I could only have one thing on a desert island? It would be an assault rifle with plenty of ammo. I’m not going down like no punk.”

That guy had his head screwed on right, all right. One of Mr. Webb’s proudest moments when teaching a World History class would be whenever he showed “The Battle of Algiers” at the end of the year. He’d pause at the start of the film when French paratroopers fired into a door. “Why did they do that?” Mr. Webb would ask.

The kids that hadn’t paid attention said stuff about locks being shot off. The smart kids would say, “To take down any hostiles on the other side.” Bingo. Mr. Webb would pause again on a scene that had Ali LaPointe wearing a trenchcoat, walking through the Casbah.

“OK, what’s going on here?”

The sluggards would shrug and comment that maybe he was going to do some shopping. The clever youths would laugh at such pedestrian ideas. “He’s got a gun under that coat. See how his right arm isn’t in a sleeve?”

“Very good. He’s got a gun, all right. What kind of gun does he have?”

This led to a discussion over the best ar 15 optics. The students would reason that it had to be bigger than a pistol, otherwise why keep the right arm out of sight? Some students suggested a rifle, but others said that that wouldn’t be appropriate for close quarters, such as in the urban environment. A shotgun, perhaps? Yes, good for close range, but low rate of fire. Assault rifle? Yes, that must be it. “Is it an assault rifle, Mr. Webb?”

“Very close. I’ll give it to you. It’s actually a submachine gun, but the idea is the same. Put as many bullets in the air as possible, so as to injure or incapacitate your opponents.”

And so it would go through the movie. Mr. Webb was so proud of his classes in moments like these, because it meant that they had a shot at surviving. They knew how to think critically, really critically, in times when rapid reactions were important. They liked to say that, “You know you’ve been in Mr. Webb’s class when you have a plan for what to do when you see a live grenade drop in front of you.” Or something like that. Mr. Webb’s kids weren’t going to go down like no punk.

He refused to let there be an environment of fear in his room. There was always hope in Mr. Webb’s room! When the district started to require lockdown drills, as in “there is a shooter on the campus, so go into lockdown” drills, Mr. Webb hated them. They were as useless as nuclear defense duck and cover drills. All they did was instill a sense of fear and helplessness. The drill was simply this: turn off the lights, then lock the door and move away from it.

There were so many problems with that drill. First of all, if the kids didn’t clear all their stuff, then it would be obvious to anyone looking for targets that there were some in that room. Next problem was that the hall-facing walls in most rooms were drywall. Some of the older rooms had cinder block construction, but not the hall Mr. Webb was in. Therefore, having students standing on the other side of a drywall was not much better than having them stand in the hall itself. The biggest problem was what to do if the shooter or shooters decided to break into the room because they were after someone in that room.

Mr. Webb freely acknowledged that, if anyone was going to be deliberately targeted, he had a pretty good chance of being that target. Hiding on the other side of drywall in a dark room was not how anyone wanted to go down. So, when it came time to get ready for the lockdown drill, Mr. Webb went the extra mile.

“OK, lockdowns… We clear our desks completely and then move to the back of the room, and get totally under the tables. Move things so that they block your view of the window in the door. You don’t want anyone seeing you.” That took care of the stuff in view problem and the drywall problem. Putting some wood and metal between you and a crazed gunman was always preferable to just drywall.

Then there was the matter of defense. Mr. Webb identified the people with the best upper-body strength and asked them if they would be willing to volunteer. Of course they would. “OK, you ever hear of a shield rush?” If they had, it made explaining what to do with the smaller, square tables near the door much easier. “If someone tries to break in, he’s probably coming for me first and foremost, but he’ll likely as not want to off any witnesses. When he breaks the perimeter-” It should be noted that Mr. Webb had instructions to shove the sofa in front of the door and to wedge the book cart between the sofa and a wall-anchored bookcase. “- you should have this table perpendicular to the ground so that you can hold the central support and use it like a battering ram. If someone comes through that door, someone’s going to die, and I’d rather it not be any of us.”

Everyone liked that. They saw collective hope in teamwork. Mr. Webb had dowel rods that could be used for mayhem. Gymnasts and martial arts students would volunteer to go to the top of the wall-anchored bookshelf so that they could “go ninja” on anyone breaking in. Everyone practiced total silence, down to keeping their phones off so that it wouldn’t accidentally light up or make sound. They didn’t have a lockdown drill. They had an ambush drill, and they felt the power they now had over their situation. A little imagination could turn helpless sheep into a flock of wolf-killers. Mr. Webb himself would stay towards the front of the room, because he knew full well that soldiers followed a commander that shared their risk and hardships with great loyalty. He wasn’t going to ask them to make any kind of sacrifice that he himself wouldn’t make.

Mr. Webb admitted freely to himself and anyone that questioned him that his plans were more than a little freaky and intense. But did anyone actually object to them? No, they did not. They liked having a plan. They liked that there was always hope in Mr. Webb’s room.

They also liked how he’d tell things straight to them and that he’d done his homework. Invariably, some kid would say, “Man, this stuff is boring! Why don’t we talk about something interesting, like dope?”

Mr. Webb was ready. “You got it. Marijuana was first cultivated as a food in South and Central Asia, about 6000 years ago.”

“Yeah, dope, wait, what? It’s a food?”

“The seeds are highly nutritional. The fibers were also pounded out, to make cloth.”

“It’s clothes, too?”

“Yep. Highly versatile, the hemp plant. The first written evidence we have of it being smoked was in a Chinese medicinal text from 1000 BCE, in which it was mentioned as a cure for headaches and anxiety, but that it should not be smoked too much, or ‘demons would enter the body of the smoker.’ So, obviously, they knew of its potential for hallucinatory and paranoid effects on the mind.”

“Hehe. Demons. Cool. Hey, do you think it should be legalized?”

“No. I think it should be decriminalized, but not legalized.”

“Dude, if it was legalized, the government could tax it and solve the national debt!”

“And then you’d have a situation like in China during the 30s, when the government there legalized opium. Eventually, opium could only be purchased at government dispensaries, independent dealers were executed by the state, and when the government needed more cash, it pushed the drug harder and tried to get more citizens addicted to it. Not a good model for revenue generation. By extension of this model, take a look at what happened in The Netherlands when they allowed cities to create zones for legalized prostitution. First to open up were massive Wal-Mart sized buildings that packed in as many prostitutes as possible and held them to very strict schedules and timetables. Their owners and shareholders stood to make even more money if they hired illegal aliens and paid them less than the legal rate.”

“What? A Wal-Mart full of hookers?”

“Yes. Welcome to Amsterdam. Now, there were other towns that didn’t like that arrangement, so they decided to have the city run the brothels. There were better conditions for the prostitutes at first, but then they began to copy the Wal-Mart style brothels when they wanted to increase revenue. Like the Chinese Nationalist government, they began to push their vice all the more when there was an economic downturn.”

The stoner that had started the whole conversation usually had an expression of severe disappointment by this time. That, or confusion. “Wait, how did we get to prostitution?”

“It’s the general idea of legalizing things that people become addicted to. I see it as a form of slavery or as murder to get gain.”

“Murder?”

“Murder. If I kill you with a bullet all at once, it’s a crime. But if I sell you a substance that kills you slowly, over time, and you can’t quit using this substance, the law does not see that as a murder. But I do.”

“Dope is safer than smoking or drinking though.” Other stoners would “yeah” at that comment.

“I disagree. Inhaling smoke is bad for you, no matter what the smoke is. Turns out, marijuana smoke has as much junk in it as does tobacco smoke. That will tar up your lungs and mess up your cardiovascular system, just like tobacco. I used to live next door to a neo-Nazi homosexual drug dealer that worked in a porn shop. He smoked dope all day, every day.”

“Wait, a neo-Nazi homosexual? What?”

“Yeah, and he beat up his boyfriend a lot. The apartment manager tried to get the cops to evict him, but since he was collecting evidence for them against his supplier, they said they wouldn’t evict him.”

“That’s just messed up.”

“Sure was. Anyway, the guy only smoked dope. He said it was safer and all. The guy practically had emphysema, the way he woke us up by coughing up a lung every morning. I don’t need that legalized.”

“But tobacco and alcohol are legalized. That’s hypocritical.”

Mr. Webb grinned. “Guess what else I want to ban.”

Someone, maybe the stoner or maybe someone else, would say, “But prohibition doesn’t work.”

“Yeah, that’s what the rich people that still want to do the drugs want you to think. A former Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler-”

“Smedley?”

“I don’t make these things up. General Smedley Butler ran the Philadelphia police department during prohibition. Within 48 hours of his taking the job, he had raided 900 illegal bars and broke up a bunch of upper-class drinking events at hotels. That last part got him in hot water, even though it meant that he really was cleaning up the town with strong enforcement. The rich people got him run out of town. They’re the ones that owned the newspapers that attacked him. The regular people like the way he got rid of the criminals and they didn’t want to see him go. You had a similar situation in the early 40s, when heroin was almost totally unavailable in the USA, due to World War Two. Street quality of heroin went way below the 2% necessary for it to be potent with an injection, and all the junkies were going through involuntary withdrawal. We could have ended heroin addiction in the USA after that, but the USA made a deal with the Mafia: if they would help liberate Sicily, then the USA would turn a blind eye to any crimes they did after that.”

“Whoa.”

“And the heroin came back into the USA. It also came back into Italy. Mussolini had nearly wiped out the Mafia in Italy, so they were ready to topple him and to get a government more to their liking. Communists also wiped out drug growers and dealers. The Chinese Communists destroyed the opium problem in China that way. The Nationalist generals that we supported were all major drug lords. Remember, that’s how the Nationalists funded their government. During the Vietnam War, the CIA made deals to let the South Vietnamese heroin dealers have immunity from prosecution in the USA and Vietnam if they would inform on the Communists. Not surprisingly, that coincided with a massive increase in heroin availability in the USA. Ironically, it coincided with Nixon’s declaration of a War on Drugs.”

Everyone was paying attention to Mr. Webb by now. “Carter didn’t declare a war on drugs, but he actually ended the deals of the Nixon administration and began to prosecute heroin traffickers. They didn’t have immunity in the USA, any more. That, and a major drought in Southeast Asia in the late 70s nearly wiped out heroin use in the USA. Prohibition works, so long as everyone is part of the fight and we don’t cut deals with the devils out there.”

“So why do we still have heroin?” It was no secret that the affluent neighborhoods north of Garson were famed as the “heroin capital of Texas”.

“Afghanistan. Carter wanted to take the Russians down a peg, and one of his advisors had a plan to stir up Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan to draw the Russians into their own Vietnam War-type conflict. Now, while opium had been grown in that land since around 1300, when the Mongols introduced it there, heroin was unknown there until 1980, when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Heroin became the drug that supplemented their income very handily. See, it takes ten pounds of opium to make one pound of heroin. It’s worth more that way. So they’d grow it in Afghanistan, and then move it into Pakistan, where all the heroin labs were.”

Invariably, there would be a Pakistani student in the class that either knew an army officer that was involved in heroin production or trafficking or who was the son or daughter of an officer. “My dad told us that he either had to have his trucks transport heroin, leave the country, or we’d all be killed. He didn’t want anything to do with drugs and didn’t want us to die, so we moved here. He can never go home, though.”

Mr. Webb thanked the student for adding valuable details to his story and then continued. “The Reagan administration and later the first Bush gave all these guys a free pass. The leader of the biggest heroin-making faction, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar,” any Afghan students in the room shuddered at the mention of that name, “wiped out all the democratic factions first and then solidified the mujaheddin under his leadership as a combination heroin-trading outfit and anti-Russian resistance. Similar thing happened with the Nicaraguan Contras – who were a bunch of death squad thugs – and cocaine. That’s why crack became so huge in the USA in the 80s. All of Reagan’s buddies in the Contras were flying tons of cocaine into the US, where gangs were baking it into crack. The guys on the street would get busted, but the major dealers all had immunity from prosecution as intelligence assets. That’s why prohibition doesn’t work: we’re too willing, as a nation, to make a deal with the devil.”

Silence pervaded the room. As Mr. Webb made ready to put up the pictures of polar bear cubs, someone would ask, “Man… where did you learn all that stuff?”

Remembering the great Frank Zappa, Mr. Webb would say, “I read books.”

He also wrote them, which was why he was in the copy room. He had a 36-page dissertation, “Economics Gone Wild!”, that he used as his text for AP Economics in place of the woefully outdated and inadequate textbook. The AP kids were free to read it as a supplement, but Mr. Webb no longer assigned any readings or assignments out of it. His text and released AP exam materials were sufficient for the need at hand… provided he was able to make copies of the text in time for the start of school.

Finally, he got to the copier and scanned in his originals. But after only two packets, the copier seized up, displaying a cursed “PAPER JAM” on its informational screen.

The blasted copiers were so complicated and finicky, they were constantly breaking down, and this was the last copier available. It was hot and humid in the copy room, so it was likely that the paper was starting to stick to itself or the drums inside.

“Oh great, Webb broke the copier.” Mr. Friendly said the exact words needed to steel Mr. Webb’s nerves and get him to fling open the copier doors, to plunge into its innards to clear the jams. Mr. Webb refused to be That Guy that broke the last good copier the day before school started.

When he pulled out the main bank of drums, Mr. Webb heard the worst sound possible when clearing a copier jam – the tear of paper. A sheet had been stuck somewhere in there, and now a tiny bit of it would shut down the whole operation, unless Mr. Webb found it and extricated it from the belly of the beast.

The guilty corner was there, way in the back, just past an overheated cylinder. Would Mr. Webb be able to reach it without burning himself? Would he even be able to reach it? Not even hesitating, Mr. Webb blindly thrust his arm into the narrow gap afforded him and prayed silently that his fingers would find their target without his forearm getting singed.

The Big Reboot: 6

The stacks of books looked good. Plenty of blue-backed regular Economics books, stacked in groups of five with spines alternating left and right, just the way Mr. Webb had left them at the end of last year. That means they hadn’t been raided for summer school. That was always a mess. Whenever a summer school requisitioned books to another high school, they stayed there until after their home school hollered. And then, it would take almost six weeks for them to arrive – and grading periods were every six weeks. Not a good arrangement.

Mr. Webb took 120 books, five at a time, thanking God for giving him hands big enough to grip the books in that easy-to-count manner. That filled up both sides of the bottom two shelves of the book cart. It also made the 15 AP Economics books on the top shelf look weak. The fact that the books were a sickly shade of green with spines disintegrating only made them look sadder.

Both titles were ridiculously out of date. The last textbook adoption had been in 2003, of books that had been published in early 2002. They were supposed to have lasted only ten years. Now they were like so many veterans, kept too long at the front. Shells of their former selves, desperate for some relief.

The AP books were the hardest hit. They had been written just before the huge tech stock crash of 2001, so their chapters about the “Internet economy” having possibly found a way to end the business cycle were hopelessly, unintentionally hilarious in a world that had seen the hard side of a business cycle not once, but twice, since then. And that second time was sure one for the record books. Mr. Webb had seen later versions of the same text, with the bubbly chapters on eternal growth and dotcoms forever excised like they had angered Stalin, replaced with chapters asking questions about global growth and income inequality.

Worse, the AP books had been written in a very pro-econometric way. To a non-economist, that meant they taught concepts that the Panic of 2008 with its subsequent none-dare-call-it-depression had shown to be horribly delusional. Mr. Webb believed that Economics had no business calling itself a science. Sure, there were a lot of numbers to be analyzed, but the subject had nearly zero predictive power – just ask all the poor slobs that got wiped out in 2001 and 2008.

Rather, the subject seemed to have a sort of reverse predictive power. Whenever all the major banks and first-world governments proclaimed things at an all-time high were only going to get better, you could be sure that a major recession was in the cards… and that if it didn’t come on time, then it was going to be violent, destructive, and brutal when it did arrive. Cue the pictures of kittens.

The regular books were so watered down, it was hard for their basic concepts to be irrelevant, until one got to their hip and relevant focus articles. The article praising Enron’s innovations in the energy market was particularly piquant. The chapter exuding the buy-and-hold virtues of stock market investing was downright dangerous, though. Zero interest rate policies and high-frequency trading algorithms had made the stock market a regular minefield for retail small investors. Over the last 15 years, bonds had outperformed stocks, contrary to the optimism expressed in the books. And now cue the pictures of baby dolphins.

With his load of books ready, Mr. Webb signed out his books and wheeled them back to his classroom. State law required that he have one per student, and he intended to honor the law even if he didn’t honor the book. This year, the assistant principal in charge of the books had said something that made Mr. Webb’s spidey-sense tingle.

“If you would rather have just a classroom set of books, that would make things easier for you and reduces the risk that we lose a book and have to pay the fine for it.”

Back in 1993, when he taught at Sunflare High School in East Dallas CISD, the book room guy said the same thing. That school was a desperate mess of teachers that taught only to the tests, and books were useless for that sort of thing. Mr. Webb had to struggle to get one book per student then. He also returned 100% of his books, in spite of the book room guy betting he’d do no better than return one of every ten.

There wasn’t a struggle this year at Teller, but the attitudes of East Dallas CISD seemed to be settling in here and there. Mr. Webb wondered how long it would be before things got bad enough for him to leave, like he had to leave East Dallas CISD back in 1995.

There had been a grade and attendance fraud scandal at Sunflare, and a friend of Mr. Webb’s had gone to the news about it. The television news station had gotten a copy of a Sunflare student’s transcript and showed evidence of the fraud. East Dallas CISD’s response was to go after Mr. Webb and his friend, since they were in a team-teaching project that, according to the TEA audit in the wake of the scandal, were the only teachers engaging in instructional activity in the entire school.

East Dallas CISD transferred the principal and his assistants to other campuses, where they kept their salaries and privileges. It then sent an assistant superintendent to Sunflare, where he accused Mr. Webb and his friend, Ms. Violet Gardens, of handing over transcripts to the media, which was a felony violation of the Family Educational Records and Privacy Act of 1973.

Mr. Webb and Ms. Gardens had hired a lawyer to sue the district, which was a big mistake. In court, the lawyers for the district admitted that the assistant superintendent had committed defamation per se and that his accusations were groundless, but that the law was written so that the district couldn’t be sued for the actions of one of its officers. Said officer had to be sued individually. The judge over the case was disgusted with EDCISD, but had no choice but to find for them under summary judgment. The district lawyers then turned around and offered a pair of options: either the plaintiffs could pay their legal fees and re-file to sue the assistant superintendent personally, or they could drop the case with prejudice – meaning they wouldn’t re-file – and they wouldn’t have to pay the very substantial legal fees for the district lawyers.

Mr. Webb remembered the wicked glee he felt when, years later, those same lawyers were fired by EDCISD for financial misdealings. But that didn’t make the trauma of the ordeal go away. Mr. Webb had found a way to forgive the assistant superintendent, which was fortunate when the guy later moved into his neighborhood and began to shop at the same supermarket. Even though Mr. Webb had found forgiveness for his fellow man, he knew his name was mud in EDCISD. Worse, if he tried to get a job somewhere else, he’d be tarred with a reputation as a troublemaker, should any district call back to EDCISD. If Mr. Webb had been making out with his students, he’d have a better chance at getting a job in another district. Schools were only too happy to pass the trash and keep those teachers in heavy rotation, but whistleblowers deserved to die on the vine. They didn’t get deliberately bad assignments – that would be retaliation – but they would get progressively worse class assignments and reviews.

Mr. Webb knew that was in his future if he stayed in the classroom. Therefore, in the summer of 1995, he quit the profession that he loved with all his heart. He went into the IT industry and got a job supporting Doors 4.0 for Nauticalmilesoft. That led to him getting into email administration with Nauticalmilesoft’s Missive server when it released in 1996. From there, he went on to be a consultant, a system administrator, and then back to Nauticalmilesoft in 1999 as a full-time Missive expert.

By 2002, all the people from EDCISD that had been involved in running Mr. Webb out of the business had either been fired, were retired, were dead, or were in jail, so Mr. Webb felt it was safe for him to go back to teaching. He took a 45% pay cut, traded in some pretty sweet benefits for crappy health insurance and long vacations, and got a job at Teller High. He was so happy when that happened. Garson ISD was a great place to work, even though it had a streak of racism amongst some of its older, more hidebound teachers.

In the years following, Garson’s gleam had faded. The kids were the same. His fellow-teachers were pretty much the same. It was the administration that was going weird. Them and the state legislature. No way did Mr. Webb want to endure the trials of 1995 again. That’s why the suggestion to get just a class set troubled him so much. Crappy inservice sessions, he could put up with. That was part of the price one paid in order to be a teacher. Falling standards and increased paranoia were another thing entirely. If things got too bad, Mr. Webb was going to have to find a way out.

But, for now, things weren’t intolerable. Heck, they were pretty grand. Mr. Webb rolled his cart into his room and checked things over. He had come in a week earlier to set things up, and everything seemed ready. He had a stock of food for the first few weeks in his cabinets and fridge, his books were ready, his walls were covered with posters, maps, and cartoons, and his copies were –

Faster than you could say, “Oh crap!”, Mr. Webb had grabbed the masters for his copies and was halfway down the hall, headed pell-mell for the copy room.

The Big Reboot: 5

Mr. Webb got to the south book room just in time. All the Economics books, regular and AP, were here, and those were the books Mr. Webb needed, in plenitude. The Government books were in the north book room, and Mr. Webb was glad he didn’t have to schlep over there this year.

Once upon a time, the athletes actually delivered the books to the classrooms. Oh, for those days. Once upon an earlier time, teachers had more than one day before classes started to get their rooms ready. That was over twenty years ago, back during Mr. Webb’s first stint as a teacher. Although his five years in the East Dallas Consolidated Independent School District were something of a hellride when it came to the administration, there were elements of teaching unique to that era that were better than what teachers had to deal with today.

Back then, in the five days prior to the first day of school, teachers spent all of two days in meetings. The meetings dealt with getting back to the campus, saying hello to the new staff members, and procedures for kicking off the start of school. The other three days all belonged to the teachers. With those three days, there was no crowd to get copies made, no line at the laminating machine, no teachers coming in a few days early to get their rooms in order because four of those five days before school started were killed with stupid meetings, with only a day or less to deal with the actual usefulness of going over the start of school procedures.

As Mr. Webb inched his book cart forward six inches closer to bookland, he reflected on all those meetings from the last four days.

Total waste of time. That was the short version.

Complete waste of time. That was the version with one additional syllable.

Those were the meetings, all day in an auditorium or a student desk, that made Mr. Webb hate auditoriums and student desks. They made Mr. Webb hate the politicians and administrators that were complicit in confining teachers to auditoriums and student desks. But worst of all were the staff development days in cafeterias. Those flat, backless seats were absolute torture. They always made Mr. Webb’s back go out, which was why, in recent years, he had taken to wheeling his own chair into the cafeteria whenever he had a staff development meeting there.

Cafeteria meetings tended to be ones about improving test scores. Social Studies teachers had it relatively easy: the State of Texas made sure that football coaches would keep their jobs by making the state-mandated Social Studies tests ridiculously easy to pass. The State of Texas had learned its lesson in the Texas Educator Competency Test fiasco of 1991. It’s not that all the coaches were bad teachers. Loads of coaches were totally awesome at teaching. It’s that there was no reason for a perfectly good offensive coordinator to have to be let go because he was a little weak on The Gilded Age.

So while other subject areas were being run through the wringer over passing percentages that were at or below state minimum standards, the Social Studies crew was sitting pretty with over a 90% pass rate. That meant they got a challenge goal. Increase the percentage of students passing with a commended score. All at once, that sent the message that it didn’t matter how well they did, they weren’t going to be rewarded for it. Did 99% of the students pass, with 89% of them commended? Way to go! Now go for 100% and 90%! Stretch yourselves! No, the lesson was clear: just muddle through the same as you did the year before.

Lately, the district had taken to killing time during these cafeteria meetings by having teachers collectively work on district-standard final exams. Mr. Webb liked to invite the Economics teachers to his classroom, where they could sit on a chair with an actual cushion and a back to it. Besides, they all taught seniors. Who cared if they passed or failed the test, so long as they passed for the semester and got to graduate? Nobody liked to fail a senior, least of all in a class like Economics or Government that wasn’t even subject to a state-mandated test.

At Teller High, there were three Economics teachers. Mrs. Steinway was for the kids that wanted to keep their GPAs up without any real effort. In 45 years of teaching, she had never changed her assignments or tests, so students would hand down her coursework to their buddies in the upcoming class. Just copy those papers to a T, and a 100 was guaranteed. Coach Walker focused a lot on microeconomics and running a personal business: he wasn’t hard at all, so long as you showed up sober and did your homework. If you were actually into the idea of running a business, he was a great teacher to have.

And then there was Mr. Webb. He never let his assignments or tests get cold. He made class participation 25% of his final grade. On the other hand, he never had homework. Kids that had a distaste for busy work and who were blessed with a gift of gab would sign up for his sections. Between them, the three Teller High Economics teachers covered the spectrum of the student body. None of them would ever teach the way the other did, but they also respected that each teacher got to run his classroom the way he wanted to.

So, when it came time to grind out the district-standard final, they each chipped in a few questions from finals they’d given in the past and let it go at that. Once the copy and paste job was done, they got to relax a little and complain about having to do staff development instead of something useful. The exercise of composing a final was, itself, a complete waste of time since the district always used an old version that some earlier central admin had cobbled together. Every year, the teachers would point out the spelling errors and other mistakes on the test. Every year, Marlene Holroyd would thank the teachers for their input and promised to make corrections. Every year, the same test, mistakes uncorrected, would show up in time for finals. What in the world did Holroyd do in her office all day, anyway?

Mr. Webb moved his cart another four inches closer to the door of the book room. Any day now, it would be his turn. He thought about that one test-score meeting run by Holroyd’s predecessor, Shelly Ann Tewkesbury. It was her first time to be an administrator in a suburban district like Garson. She had come from Midland, where she had been a school secretary for a few years, got her Master’s in School Administration, and had run the night school there for a year and a half before coming to Garson. She had never spent a single day in a classroom as a teacher, and it was her job to try and tell the teachers how to do their jobs better. In that first meeting of hers, she showed a rah-rah flag-waving God-loving 100% Southern Baptist-approved video that had been put together by the First Baptist Church of her flatland prairie hometown.

Quite a few of the Jewish teachers wondered what to make of it. There were some Muslim teachers that were left scratching their heads. A majority of the Christian and unaffiliated teachers were also puzzled by that video. Wasn’t stuff like that supposed to be saved for spontaneous, student-led expressions of faith?

It wasn’t that anyone objected to Ms. Tewkesbury being a woman of strong faith. More power to her for it. The objections were more to do with the fact that she was using district time to apparently proselytize on behalf of her denomination. These objections were reinforced when she had some light and fluffy youth pastor from her denomination speak to the teachers about the role of faith in History and how to tell the good news and happy truth about Jesus Christ in the course of the day.

Visions of Supreme Court cases danced in Mr. Webb’s mind as he chose to ignore that speaker. Other teachers were sending texts. Some were working on handouts for the first day. There were those that were putting together their hardcopy gradebooks, due to their well-placed mistrust in the electronic grading system. Mr. Webb figured that if everyone else had checked out like that, it wouldn’t hurt if he read a book. He had Robert Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilisation”, a fascinatingly detailed history of North Africa and the Middle East. At least Fisk’s book was going to be relevant for his World History section that year.

He wasn’t more than three pages in when Shelly Ann Tewkesbury had parked herself next to where he was sitting and made an example of him. She cleared her throat and said, “Let’s all pay attention to the speaker. Be the kind of person you want your students to be.” Mr. Webb quietly closed the book and looked up at the speaker. A few other teachers followed suit. The older teachers kept at their tasks, pausing only long enough to smirk at how Mr. Webb got caught. They were within their rights: Mr. Webb would have been a smirker himself, there but for the grace of the First Baptist Church of Way Out in West Texas’ God.

But as Shelly Ann Tewkesbury walked away, Mr. Webb fired back with his bad back. He screwed his face up in deep pain and reached back to that lumbar region that is so faithless and inconstant, especially if it’s connected to a posterior that’s been stuck on a cafeteria seat for an hour. He gathered up his book and staggered deliberately out the door to the cafeteria. It wasn’t at his high school that year, so he couldn’t recuperate in his room. No matter, he had recourse to the men’s restroom, followed by a painful, grimaced easing into a plastic chair out in the foyer adjacent to the cafeteria.

Mrs. Steinway went out to check on Mr. Webb. “Are you all right?”

“Oh yeah, I’ll be fine. Thankfully, there’s a chair out here.”

“Well, thankfully, we can’t hear that unbearable presentation out here.”

“True, there’s that silver lining.” Mr. Webb grinned. “You can go back in there, if you want.”

“Not on your life, Webb. I’d sooner shoot myself. Where does she get off, preaching to us like that? This isn’t some homogeneous village out in the boonies. This is a district with a lot of diversity. You don’t get away with stuff like that. Who does she think she is?”

“Well, she’s our Supervisor of Secondary Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction. It’s her job to torment us. She just chose a religious theme, this year.”

Mrs. Steinway laughed. Then she straightened her face. “And where does she get off, embarrassing you like that in front of everyone? That’s not even good classroom discipline, let alone how you treat adults.” Mrs. Steinway was right about that. The US Army field manual was firm in its disapproval about public shaming like that. It either made people more regressive or more rebellious. The Chinese Army concurred: better to deal with the issue one-on-one, removed from the scene of the activity. How hard would it have been to tap Mr. Webb on the shoulder and then ask him to step outside for a word? Anyone with halfway decent classroom management skills or who had been a POW interrogator would know to do that. Clearly, Ms. Tewkesbury was neither of those types of people.

She didn’t last long in that role, either. After only two years, she was gone. She had been promoted one level higher, to Supervisor of District Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction.

And it wasn’t like all the administrators were clueless idiots. It just seemed to be a role in which clueless idiots could flourish, so long as they could create an environment of fear so that none would dare challenge them.

And so the staff development uselessness kept coming. There were years when the high school teachers were taught the difference between a hot dog fold and a hamburger fold and how to use that in making visual aids for their classes. There were years when everyone worked on document-based questions, even for courses that had no primary source documents in them.

There was one year when everyone was getting technology training on the PCs that would go into classrooms – which PCs lasted only 3 years before getting yanked. A presenter assured all the teachers there that the keyboards were kid-proof. Mr. Webb had to call BS on that claim. Within 10 seconds, he had used a pen cap as a lever to send the N key skyward.

What galled Mr. Webb the most was that the district made him apologize for the incident. That made it clear to him that some administrator had gotten a kickback on the hardware deal, and he didn’t want anyone to rock the boat by showing that the systems didn’t meet the criteria of being kid-proof. Kickbacks and shady deals were rife in administrative circles, particularly in the East Dallas CISD.

In the meantime, the teachers suffered through steaming piles of uselessness in those first four days. Over his 15 years of teaching, Mr. Webb had taken a personality inventory no less than six times. Starting with his second time, he decided to place in a different quadrant than his first time. Having succeeded with that, he got each of the other two quadrants on his third and fourth tries. For his fifth try, he totally nailed having his answers cancel each other out completely so that he had no discernable personality whatsoever, according to the test. The sixth testing was just depressing, since he’d already done as much as he could with it in the five previous tests. And so, being depressed and all, he answered the questions as depressingly as possible. The consultant running the session had him stand with the other “introverted” people and blithely ignored the gothic prose that went into Mr. Webb’s answers. Seriously, stuff like that would have gotten a kid sent to the counselor for a page folded into thirds with “Dealing with Depression” on the front. Another BS artist getting paid big bucks to sling sunshine to teachers…

The motivational speakers were depressing, too. They praised the teachers for their role in society, even though Mr. Webb knew that, statistically, at least one of his fellow-teachers was going engaging in sex with his or her students. Every year, one of them would be asked to leave and not come back. In return for that teacher not suing over wrongful dismissal, the district wouldn’t give the teacher a bad reference. That was known as passing the trash. Mr. Webb was always suspicious of teachers that had covered a lot of ground in their career. Rare was the teacher actually caught in the act and then criminally charged. This year, though, one of Teller’s own was in the county jail. He had been careful, though, and only had sex with students 17 and older. In Texas, that was a felony, but not a statutory rape charge. He had a good chance of just getting probation after a few years of going in and out of the courts. That was why Teller welcomed a new coach that year right before the training on appropriate behavior and relations with students.

That appropriate behavior class got dusted off every year a teacher actually got arrested in the district. If it was at another campus, the principal got to conduct the training. This year, the Teller teachers got to have a local policeman provide the staff development session. Honestly, it was so simple: always keep your door open if there’s one student in the room with you. Never ask for or accept physical contact, like back or neck rubs. Don’t party with your students. Simple enough rules to follow, but there were always teachers that taught for all the wrong reasons.

Team-building events worked at making teams, but usually because the teachers would identify a common enemy in the form of the consultant presenting the team-building exercise. At least the consultants were slick in their presentations: when budgets were tight, the central office staff had to do the presentations, and they were awkward, at best. They nevertheless succeeded, since it was quite easy to identify them as common enemies, as well.

Classroom discipline refresher courses were actually fun if they led to some role-playing. Mr. Webb really liked to test the mettle of a presenter by getting completely into character. Most of the time, presenters would have the teachers portray minor misbehaviors, but one year, a presenter painted himself into a corner. “OK, I need someone to be really angry and rebellious. Any volunteers? OK, Mr. Webb, why don’t you step up.”

Yeah, that led to another apology, but he had it coming with his “student whisperer” attitude. There are times where you just drop the discussion and write the kid up, then call the office to let them know he’s on his way up so that if he takes to wandering the halls, he gets further discipline for that. And it wasn’t like Mr. Webb was being unrealistic. He was only drawing on his past experience with a particularly angry and rebellious young man. If the presenter didn’t want a ten thousand-mile stare and a cold, hard, “I will kill you and your entire family”, he shouldn’t have asked for angry and rebellious.

As it was, he shouldn’t have started crying. In real life, Mr. Webb had handled that situation by making crazy eyes of his own and then saying, “You kill me, and I will go mad dog all up one side and down the other on you. You do not know what I’m capable of when I’m dead.”

“When you’re dead, you’re dead. What are you talking about?”

“What, you think you’re so smart, you know what happens after I’m dead? If I’m alive, I keep my limits, but when I’m dead, it’s on!”

A few more minutes of that, and the kid had nothing left to say. Mr. Webb kept the crazy eyes for ten seconds more, then went totally normal and said, “OK, back to the Spanish-American War.” The class laughed when the tension receded, the kid skipped the next two days, then came back and apologized for being out of line. Mr. Webb gave him some make-up work and everything was smooth for the rest of the semester. Kid got a C+ and got along great with Mr. Webb.

But instead of being able to do something useful, teachers had to sit through useless staff development courses that were state-mandated by politicians in the back pockets of educational consulting companies. The politicians were also in the back pockets of the state tourism industry, which had successfully gotten legislation passed to push forward the school start date so that teenagers would be able to work more days during the tourist season. Educational law was full of little nuggets like that.

And, say, how long was it going to take to get some books around here? Mr. Webb noticed that the book room guy didn’t have any helpers this year, so it was just him and the teacher getting the books. Already, the people that had signed up for the next half hour after lunch were queueing up with their library surplus book carts.

Finally, Mr. Webb got his turn to go into the book room to see if he had enough books for every student, or if there were only enough for a class set. Fearlessly, he made his way to the back shelves, where the Economics books were kept.