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.

The Big Reboot: 4

As Mr. Webb scrolled through the list of the Texas standards for Economics and Government, he had no words to describe his feelings when he saw every reference to “democracy” replaced with “Republican form of government.” He flipped over to the US History standards: strike-throughs permeated the Progressives and FDR’s presidency, with emphasis instead placed on the achievements of Republican presidents that were more business-friendly. Back to Economics, the standards there practically screamed out a jihad to exterminate North Korea and Cuba, the last holdouts of Communism.

It didn’t take Mr. Webb long to realize that the Republican-controlled government had gerrymandered not only the state representative boundaries, but the very curriculum itself. Anything that started with “democra” was gone, to be replaced by words that started with “republica”. What was their game, to have kids vote Republican always because they thought Democrats were a bunch of Commies? Or because they didn’t know any other alternative existed? Mr. Webb pondered long and hard on the implications of democracy’s descent down the memory hole.

Mr. Webb voted, but never for any party that had a chance of winning. He voted to have the right to complain, but always kept open his ability to say “Hey, I didn’t vote for the guy!” when complaining about whoever got into office. Both parties seemed to be completely dominated by special interests, at least that’s what he had gathered after teaching social studies as long as he had. That’s why he felt he couldn’t teach AP Government anymore. It was all about theory, not practice.

Obama being in the White House hadn’t helped to halt the erosion on the Bill of Rights that had started back under Nixon. Republicans trampled on every amendment but the second. Democrats were more even-handed in their amendment-trampling. That meant the exercise of reading through the Constitution at the start of every Government class got to be really depressing when it came to the amendments. Not that the first parts didn’t have their moments: the parts where the Founding Fathers bent over backwards to accommodate slavery always led to some gritty discussions.

Mr. Webb would read out the Constitutional passage from Article 1, Section 9 in an even tone: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

Then he’d ask, “OK, so what does that mean?”

At that point, the students would squint at the overhead projection of Mr. Webb’s computer screen. In his first year, he would write stuff on the board or make handouts, but he got penalized on his annual assessment for not using technology. Starting in his second year, he put the same information on a computer screen, projected on a wall. That got him high marks for using technology.

As the students squinted, one would say, “Is this about illegal immigration?”

Mr. Webb said, “No. We don’t import immigrants.”

Then a kid would key in on the word import. “Slavery. It’s about slavery, right?”

“There you go. It’s about slavery. And it says what?”

“That… uh… hey! They could import slaves until 1808!”

“That’s correct. Now, do you know why the year 1808 was chosen? I mean, they discussed that number. They didn’t just pull it out of the air.”

Shrugs. Mr. Webb didn’t ask the question for an answer so much as he asked it to prime the class for the severity of the answer he was about to provide. “1808 was seen as a year that, by which, the domestic breeding of slaves would be able to cover our needs for slaves, given their mortality rates, so that we wouldn’t be dependent on importing them from Africa.”

“So why is that in there?”

“It was there to sell the Constitution in the slave states. They took that as a guarantee that slavery would be preserved for as long as they wanted it to be part of the US economy. Six of the thirteen states were slave states. No way to have a union of all the states without them.”

“So they had to keep the slaves.”

“That’s correct. As it was, the slave trade continued. US ships would run the British blockade of the west coast of Africa when that started in 1807. Although US warships joined the blockade in 1808, there were still US businessmen importing African slaves into the USA. There was a lot of money to be made in that trade, even if two-thirds of all the slaves on a ship died in transit and the ship itself became so befouled with human waste that it wouldn’t last more than a few trips, sometimes only one.”

“Wait, Mr. Webb… human waste?”

“Remember your US History class, where they showed the layout of a slave ship, with all those slaves chained down like sardines? They didn’t really explore the consequences of such an arrangement, but if you got a guy chained down to a deck and put food in one end, there’s not a lot of leeway for him in where he goes to dispose of his waste.”

“Ewwwww!”

Yes, that was pretty nasty stuff, but it was also part of the reality of the slave trade, which was a major portion of US History. Acting like the slaves were somehow magically transported to the USA where kindly old masters gave them better conditions that existed back in Africa was insulting and patently false. Families were ripped apart, children murdered, women raped, everyone worked nearly to death… Mr. Webb saw no reason to try and teach a sanitized version of events. The ugly had to be known so that it repulsed and caused people to turn away from that sort of thing.

Even if it wasn’t on the TEKS. Mr. Webb saw it as a necessary supplemental enrichment activity.

As was information on that post-1808 slave trade. “Guys like Jean Lafitte and Jim Bowie were part of the slave trade after 1808. They would bring a ship into harbor, the local sheriff would confiscate the slaves – they were illegal, remember – and then auction them off as police contraband. The traders would then re-purchase their cargoes in auction.”

“Wait, so that meant the auction was a pay-off to the local cops!” Mr. Webb loved it when the light bulbs went on in his students’ heads. Discussions like these tended to keep all but the most die-hard potheads awake and involved.

“You got it. That sort of thing happens a lot in politics, so keep your eyes peeled for shady deals as we go forward in the course.”

Then came the skeptic. Mr. Webb loved it when these kids asked questions, because it helped the bigger picture unfold. “You said Jim Bowie was a slave trader, right? This was a guy that fought for freedom at the Alamo.”

“That’s right. Not necessarily the freedom of his slaves. The South in the Civil War said it was fighting for freedom, as well. Mythology makes everything black and white. History reveals just how gray things are. Consider the story of Andrew Johnson, who was our 17th president, right after Lincoln. OK, he had two slaves before the Civil War started. They were domestic and ran a shop in town. When Tennessee seceded from the USA – which it did only after the Northern states attacked the Southern ones – Johnson refused to leave the Senate. He stayed loyal to the USA, so the state of Tennessee confiscated his slaves and put them in prison. Both of Johnson’s slaves escaped, though.”

“And they made it to freedom?”

“No, they made it to Washington, DC, where they returned to service as Johnson’s slaves. They escaped prison so that they could be slaves. Yeah, that still makes my head spin. It gets twistier, too. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln only freed the slaves where the Union was not in control.”

At this point, Mr. Webb would bring up the text of the Emancipation Proclamation and, sure enough, Tennessee – which was in Union hands – and all the Union-occupied counties of Confederate states were left out of its range. The language was very specific.

“OK, so Johnson became the governor of Tennessee after the Union took it over and he actually freed the slaves in that state in 1864. Lincoln did not free the slaves of Tennessee: Johnson did.”

As the students’ brains twisted in the wind, Mr. Webb would continue: “After the Civil War, Lincoln said that there should be a moderate re-integration of the Confederacy. Malice toward none and so on. This was totally contrary to the wishes of the Radical Republicans, who wanted to completely re-forge the South. Lincoln was shot in April, 1865, so he wasn’t around during Reconstruction. Johnson was, though. And Johnson wanted lighter treatment for the South, along Lincoln’s lines. He got impeached because of his opposition to Congress’ plans. I speculate that, had Lincoln not been shot, he would have been the first president to endure impeachment or, at the very least, would have had a miserable time with Congress and would not be as well thought of as he is today.”

“Well, at least he got the 13th Amendment passed.”

“Yes, he did, but read it carefully.” Mr. Webb went back to the 13th Amendment and read it out. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Then he asked, “Does this totally get rid of slavery?”

“Except as a punishment for crime.”

“Right. So, after the Civil War, lots of free blacks went north to start over in a different state. Illinois and Indiana had laws against vagrancy. So, when the blacks showed up without jobs, they got picked up on a vagrancy charge. Can you guess what the punishment for vagrancy was?”

“Oh no.”

“That’s right. One year of slavery. They would be auctioned off at the courthouse to local businessmen. After the Civil War, Illinois and Indiana became the two states with the largest slave population.”

At this point, the bell would usually be about to ring, so Mr. Webb would display pictures of baby animals to soften the cruel blows of history so the kids could contemplate something beautiful and not be overly burdened with the baggage of the past. Sometimes, students would ask for the kitten and puppy pictures early in class if the discussions got particularly depressing, which happened more often than not.

While the above was fine in a regular Government class, the AP Government test never asked any questions about the grittier side of politics. It focused on how things should run and maybe allowed a brief consideration of this excess or that one, but never to the point of saying that the system was broken or perverted. Philosophically, Mr. Webb couldn’t agree with that view. That made it very difficult for him to feel comfortable with teaching an AP Government class.

The class also had the lowest percentage of students getting a top score, a 5, of all the AP exams. Given that the district was starting to pressure AP teachers to get more passing scores, it kind of made good career sense to jettison that course, so as not to be targeted for not improving one’s passing percentage.

Not that there was that much benefit to a student for passing an AP Government exam. Heck, most AP exams no longer got a student out of a college class. Many schools wouldn’t take anything less than a 5. In Texas, even a 5 on AP Government wasn’t good enough for credit unless the student sat for a test on Texas government. And even then, as with most other tests, the high-scoring student would be given a pass on the intro course, but would still have to take a higher-level class in that subject to satisfy degree requirements. Gone were the days when a kid could place out of his college freshman year with AP exams. The colleges wanted their money, and they were going to make every kid take at least four full years, come hell or high water.

Leaving behind the AP Government test wasn’t all that hard to do for Mr. Webb. But now, seeing how the Republican-held Ministry of Truth had purged references to any opposition from the TEKS, Mr. Webb wondered how long it would be before he’d have to leave behind teaching in general, before his opinions got him fired. He wasn’t worried as much about what parents had to say as he worried about what multi-syllabled administrators would have to say.

At least he was teaching Economics, which was a class nobody cared about. The test for all the money was in the 11th grade. Kids in the 12th had either passed it or failed it and counted against the school. Nothing they could do would change that. While the school would pull out all the stops for 10th graders that looked set to fail the 11th grade test, those that failed got a list of re-take dates and a workbook to help them review. While 10th graders “on the bubble” got all manner of drills, Saturday school sessions, and careful attentions, the kids that actually failed had to find their own tutors if they wanted to pass and get a full diploma.

Mr. Webb didn’t like the way the system made a group of kids disposable, so he’d volunteer to tutor his seniors that needed help for the state tests. He didn’t volunteer with the front office or the admin building: they’d never announce it and might instead try to convince him to spend time with those 10th grade kids that might be set to fail. Mr. Webb just let it be known in his classes that he had 6th period off, and if the seniors didn’t have a 6th period class, they could come on by and get some help.

“There’s always hope in Mr. Webb’s room!” was his motto.

Although, looking at what was left of the TEKS after the Republicans had had a go with it, Mr. Webb wondered how he’d have hope for himself. When he added the purge of Democrats to the instruction to teach about the Holocaust “without bias”, his blood went cold.

Thankfully, the picture of three cats with noodle cups on their heads like hats reminded Mr. Webb that, yes, hope remained in his room. The picture of the otters holding hands didn’t hurt, either.

Mr. Webb then noticed the time: he only had 3 minutes left before his appointment at the book room. He had to move, and move fast if he wanted to have enough books on the first day. Mr. Webb grabbed the library surplus book cart and took off down the hall to the elevator.

The Big Reboot: 3

Mr. Webb’s thoughts about how to keep his fifth period from turning into a zombie apocalypse had to wait. Reeve Powell popped in. Mr. Powell taught US History, and had been a friend of Mr. Webb’s from the start of Mr. Webb’s years at Teller. He had been in the hall when Mrs. Martinet threw her fit over the desks and loved it. Mr. Powell didn’t agree with all of Mr. Webb’s choices in decor, but Teller was a big enough school to afford every teacher enough space to do their own thing.

“Hey Dean, I have a question. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure, Reeve, what’s up?” Mr. Webb turned down his music. Mid-seventies Hungarian hard rock wasn’t always conducive to conversation.

“I was looking for more decorations for my room, Chinese lanterns in particular, and I thought you might know where to find them.”

“Indeed I do. Canton Supermarket at the corner of Elm and Audie Murphy.”

“That’s a Chinese market, right?”

“Chinese and Vietnamese, yes. They should have it. It’s where I got my Chinese Chess set.”

“Huh. Would you mind coming along with me to help me find my way around there?”

“Sure, I’d be happy to. Let’s go get some Chinese lanterns.”

Mr. Webb locked up his room and rode with Mr. Powell to Canton Supermarket. It was one of the centers of the Asian community at Teller, and it wasn’t unusual to bump into current or former students shopping or working there. They always got a little excited to see one of their teachers shopping there.

The place smelled just like China, just with less tobacco smoke and coal dust. Both Mr. Webb and Mr. Powell had been to China and the aromatic blend was unmistakeable. “Wow, it’s like a market in Beijing!” said Mr. Powell.

“Yeah, that was my first thought when I shopped here after I got back from China. I love it.”

“What do you buy here?”

“There are some great coconut-milk covered peanuts I like to snack on. Also the candied anchovies.”

“What? No, wait, never mind. I don’t want to know.” Mr. Powell had his limits. Anyone else could be making up candied anchovies, but if Mr. Webb mentioned them, they were probably for real.

“If you like fish, they’re absolutely great. High in calcium.”

Mr. Powell laughed. “Stop! I don’t want to know! I like fish uncandied, thank you very much. Where are those lanterns?”

Mr. Webb pointed to the left, where the medicines and cigarettes were for sale. Above the counter, near the Buddha statues, hung a few Chinese lanterns.

“Those are perfect!” Mr. Powell walked up to the counter and asked what the meaning of the characters on the lanterns were. He bought a double-luck and a peace lantern.

Mr. Powell and Mr. Webb got along well together. One of those reasons was the aforementioned common cause against Mrs. Martinet. Another was that they didn’t think a demographic shift was a negative thing. It was an excuse to learn more things and to branch out in one’s decorative touches. Mr. Powell liked to hang things from his ceiling and Mr. Webb liked to hang Bollywood movie posters alongside the maps and comic ads. When a kid showed up fresh from Karachi or Guangzhou, they really lit up when they saw a bit of homeland familiarity.

“Mr. Webb, you watch the Bollywood films?”

“Ha, ha, ji ha.” And then Mr. Webb would sing, “Yeh dosti / Hum nahin torenge…”

“Hahaha, you’re a funny man.”

“Well, if you have B lunch, I show Bollywood in my class. We’re just starting “Kal Ho Naa Ho” just now.”

“Oh, that’s one of my favorite Shahrukh films! Can I bring my friends?”

“Yes, and if you want to bring in food, I can get you a pass to my room from the cafeteria. Just promise to keep it clean and to throw your trash away in the cafeteria so my room won’t stink.”

“Of course. I will see you for the B lunch.”

“Chalte chalte. Phir milenge.”

Bollywood brought in just about everyone from a nation that bordered the Indian Ocean or Russia. Persians and Afghans liked the films, too, since Hindi was fairly close to their languages. Those students were the fans that knew the films. Other kids would come in out of curiosity. Once they got past the fact that they had to read the movie, they got sucked into the filmi drama that played for 25 minutes every day in Mr. Webb’s class. A typical Bollywood masala love story would run for 6 days that way, invariably with a cliff-hanger every time the lunch bell rang. They were a great escape.

Since the only rooms next to Mr. Webb’s were the cafeteria and the in-school suspension class, he played the sound loud enough to be heard properly, like a film should be enjoyed. He had 100 watts of speakers playing the songs and dialogue with high fidelity. Nobody in the cafeteria could hear, people walking by would look through the window and wonder what was going on and the kids in ISS, well…

The ISS teacher was fine with the noise. It kept his mind from going funny because of the quiet. Kids trying to sleep got blown out of their golden slumbers every time a shrill soprano falsetto rang out in a song. Kids in ISS that spoke Hindi got a 25-minute break from the boredom.

There were other times when Mr. Webb blasted out his music during passing periods. Kids loved that. They’d smile, they’d dance, they’d move along a little happier. It made their day, having music to walk to. The ISS kids got pretty much just the bass parts. Mr. Webb’s room acted as a massive bass chamber, driving the sound into the room next door through the ceiling and floor. He had tested it before and knew just how it sounded in there. Sometimes, Mr. Webb would put on the sound of a beating heart, full blast, just to mess with the kids in ISS. Again, the teacher there was totally cool with that, even if his charges weren’t always thrilled to hear weird sound effects.

Of course, Mr. Webb would mention to his students that forcing people to stay in a confined space, depriving them of communication with others, and requiring them to all do repetitive or pointless work – like copying pages of a dictionary – were all straight out of the military interrogator’s bag of tricks. Were they torture? Not as such. They didn’t scar anyone for life. They just were an application of moderate mental pressure.

Once, a Palestinian kid said, “Moderate mental pressure? That’s what the Israelis said they used when they imprisoned my uncle for three years.”

“Well, rest assured I don’t go as far as the IDF. I have my detentions, but that’s as far as I go. It’s not like I’m going to start hanging 100-watt bulbs just six inches above a guy’s head because he racked up too many tardies.”

They talked about the differences between school and an Israeli prison camp for a while, and then got back to the lesson. Mr. Webb played a little Oum Kalthoum after that, and the Palestinian kid laughed. “Man, that’s old people music. It’s good, but it’s old people music.”

“Well, I’m old people. In’sh Allah, I’ll get older still.”

“In’sh Allah, you’ll get older, Mr. Webb.”

Someone else asked, “Jeez, how many languages do you know?”

“I can start a bar fight in 20 languages.”

“You speak 20 languages fluently?”

“No. I can start a bar fight in 20 languages. I’m reasonably conversational in, uh…” Mr. Webb always had to count. “English, German, Spanish, French, Russian, Hindi and Urdu, they kinda count as one -”, nods from the South Asian students confirmed that assessment, “- and Italian. Two years of Latin in high school and ten years of watching Bollywood really helped out. So that’s seven.”

“So you know, like cuss words and stuff in 13 other languages?”

“You’re such a whiz at math, kid. Time to get back to work.” And back to work the went, as the violins and udd and tablas and tambourines played on, as Oum Kalthoum sang words that stirred the hearts of grandfathers and grandmothers.

Teller High was a multicultural place, for sure. And that’s why Mr. Powell wanted to pick up a few Chinese lanterns.

As they drove back to Teller, Mr. Powell asked, “Have you seen the new TEKS for this year and the district guidelines on how we’re supposed to teach them?”

“No. Not really. They’re different?”

Mr. Powell laughed in a way that indicated, yes, they were most assuredly different and not in a good way.

“Huh. And there’s something about how we’re supposed to teach them?”

“Check your email when we get back. Marlene sent it out this morning.”

Marlene Holroyd was the district’s Supervisor of Secondary Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction. With that many syllables, her job was always in danger whenever budgets were tight. Every district had to have a superintendent, every school needed a principal, and nobody wanted to fire teachers. But the people with too many syllables in the central administration office? They’d been running scared ever since Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers went down.

Mr. Webb suspected that the decline in the quality of his job was directly correlated to the fear-driven directives that started to flow from central admin since 2007-08. Before the bubble burst, teachers were free to innovate. They were free to use their own professional judgment in running their classes. They had to get good scores on the TAKS tests, yes, but they were free to figure out how best to get their kids to pass the state-mandated assessments.

After the crash, property values dropped, and with those, annual property tax revenues. Budgets got tight all over the state, waves of teachers from California came through the state, desperate even for substitute jobs, and talk of layoffs and cutbacks made its way through faculty lounges all over the district.

Mr. Webb didn’t think the central admin’s reaction was entirely conscious and planned-out. It was ad-hoc, and it was born of an unconscious fear. How could a central staffer prove that he was still useful? The simplest way was to start a witch hunt. They made themselves as indispensable as possible, promising to keep scores high, to increase them where possible, and to root out the teachers that weren’t meeting their quotas of delivering passing scores on those state tests. Cut the central office staff? OK, if you want to see those scores plummet and the district go into state receivership…

So the central office staff kept their jobs and the class sizes grew. The central office staff kept their jobs and the teachers didn’t even get a raise that kept up with inflation. Mr. Webb didn’t like the way that teachers would be blamed for and punished for problems that weren’t entirely under their control – that was one of the more mind-bending forms of Chinese prison camp treatment – but he had a hardened mind, thanks to his enduring his own detention music over the years.

Today’s email was likely another turn of that central office screw. Mr. Powell started to share his concerns about it. “I’m supposed to teach about Nazis and the Holocaust this year.”

“Well, you always do that. Field trip to the Holocaust museum, right?”

“Not this year.”

“No budget?”

“No permission.”

“Huh?”

Mr. Powell’s voice took on a mocking, administrative tone. “We’re supposed to teach about the Nazis and the Holocaust without any bias.”

“What? If there’s anything there should be a bias about, there should be one of us standing at the front of the room, saying that murdering millions of people is wrong, flat-out wrong.”

“I know. These kids get idiotic ideas from who knows where, and we need to be able to at least tell them what’s what about being a decent human being.”

“No bias… I just can’t believe it… And that’s not the only change, I take it?”

“Oh ho ho ho ho ho noooooo. It is not the only change. I don’t even get to mention the Progressive movement.”

“Huh? That’s a pretty major part of the second half of US History.”

“Check your new TEKS and Marlene’s email. You’ll go out of your mind, it’s so idiotic.”

When Mr. Webb got back to his room and his email, he found the message from Marlene. Mr. Powell was right. Mr. Webb went out of his mind, it was so idiotic.

The Big Reboot: 2

Mr. Webb logged into the gradebook program and took a look at his class rolls. Seeing familiar names was good if they belonged to students he’d taught as freshmen that were now seniors. All the terrors usually dropped out, leaving the good ones – or the ones that had matured – behind. Familiar names were bad if they belonged to kids whose names he learned in the course of enforcing discipline in the hallways. Well, if it was for tardies, it wasn’t that bad.

But if it was for when Mr. Webb asked, “May I please see your ID, sir?” and the kid either refused or said nothing, yeah, that was bad. Even worse were the kids that Mr. Webb knew by their ID number because he memorized it from writing it on referral forms so many times. Mr. Webb could also memorize the numbers from the frequent tardies: he had 089365 in his summer school economics class, and it was a blast. He called him 089 for short.

But all the familiar names and numbers were the good guys. That was fantastic, as it meant they knew how things rolled in Mr. Webb’s class. They could mentor others on how things went, how to keep Mr. Webb from going ballistic, and what kinds of donuts he liked, should they feel inclined to bring donuts for the class. They were kind of like his own cadre of drill sergeants. In return for their service, they were automatically pre-approved to sit on the thrones or the sofas.

Second period looked fine, only 21 people in that class. Any number under 25 was good, in spite of what certain think tanks that tried to justify massive student:teacher ratios so that administrative salaries wouldn’t have to be cut in hard times had to say. Mr. Webb liked to point out that the same guys in the state house that voted for education cuts also insisted that there be no fewer than one adult per 10 children for groups touring the capitol building. The student:teacher ratio sure mattered when it was in their backyard.

25-30 kids in a class was tolerable, but over 30, and things got rowdy just about every day. 10% of everyone in a class was a born troublemaker, and another 20% were born followers of born troublemakers. In a class of 20, the two born troublemakers were easy to keep at a low simmer so that they didn’t start an uprising. In a class of 20, those troublemakers had better than even chances of emerging as class wits. In a class of 30, in the time it took to calm the first two troublemakers, the third would get started, and that would get the followers to join in. Calming that uprising got the other two a window of opportunity to get wound up, and the game of disciplinary whack-a-mole would be well underway.

And 40 in a class? Forget about it. Classes that big, usually full of freshmen, had to start out in a state of war. Those were the classes where Mr. Webb let the line between school and North Korean prison camp blur. Mr. Webb read US Army field manuals on interrogation from before 1967 – the ones that had sections that detailed what, exactly, constituted torture – as well as the Air Force report about how US pilots were treated by the Chinese Army when they were captured.

What was amazing to Mr. Webb was how so much of what constituted torture under the Geneva Conventions was considered to be proper classroom disciplinary technique. He was looking for tips, and wound up getting a refresher course. There were mental conditions described as regression, when the captive started to say and do anything that he thought would please his captor. To an interrogator, such persons were useless, as they would lie if they didn’t know an answer, just to show their captors how willing they were to cooperate. In schools, those types weren’t labeled as regressive. They often got called “top ten graduates.”

Mr. Webb liked kids that cooperated, but not if they lost their imagination in the process. That’s why he paid careful attention to the parts about how to avoid regression. Apply moderate mental pressure, and then let up, that’s what the field manual recommended. It was right. Mr. Webb had a formula for detention that involved torture music. It would be 29 minutes of a tune he called “Revolutionary Atonal Hawaiian Cage Match” followed by one minute of Wesley Willis’ “Rock and Roll McDonald’s.”

“Revolutionary Atonal Hawaiian Cage Match” was the blunt instrument that would be applied to the miscreant’s minds. It was an asynchronous looping of several songs that had no business being played together. It combined the randomness of John Cage’s “Music of Changes” (totally random piano notes), The Beatles’ “Revolution Number Nine”, the skin-crawling creepiness of Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano”, and the chorus from Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” It was Don Ho’s repetition that sealed the deal and made the tune sound like it was going on forever. Mr. Webb had no clocks in the room – a Chinese Army touch – so that there was no way to know how long the detention had gone.

When “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” came on, a wave of relief rolled over Mr. Webb and the detention attendees. Mr. Webb asked them not to do whatever they did to get a detention again, and the students promised to never do those things, ever, not even for other teachers. It had a great success rate. Even better, if someone was acting goofy the next day, Mr. Webb would ask, “Do you want to get a detention?”

The young swain would invariably offer up some defiant bluster like, “Maybe” or “So?”

Then the people that had gone through detention would tell the goofball words of advice like, “No, you don’t want it” or “You best sit down”. Or they would have a few involuntary muscle spasms at the mention of the word “detention.” Deprived of an audience and becalmed by the peers, the young person would mend his ways and get back to business. No shouting, no screaming, just moderate mental pressure.

If a student refused to go to detention, Mr. Webb liked to point out that it was obvious that he was a creative person and that he would think of something that would get the student back in line. He’d read “1984.” He knew everyone had a Room 101. Usually the thugs that refused detention had an Achilles’ Heel. Mr. Webb would build up to that. He’d take the guy out into the hall for a conversation, so that there wouldn’t be any audience to make him feel like he had to stand up to authority.

“So you skipped detention. What say I have you go to the office?”

“Whatever. They’d just give me a school detention.” Those were three hours long, but were infinitely more bearable than 30 minutes of Mr. Webb’s “music.”

“Huh. Maybe I should call your parents?”

“Like they’ll tell me what to do.” True. If the kid actually respected his parents, this wouldn’t even have been mentioned.

Mr. Webb would pause, pretend to study the tough guy, and then utter, slow and low-down, “Or maybe, just maybe, I should call your probation officer. Or parole officer, whichever.”

That brought out the fear in the face. “Hey, man, not cool.”

“I get the numbers from the school resource police officer. You got conditions on your release, and I plan to have a conversation with the guy and tell him the truth.”

“Hey, I’ll be good. There’s no need for that.”

“No, there is a need. I’m scheduling a call with him, every two weeks. It’s in your hands, what kind of truth I tell him.”

“OK, mister. I’m sorry.” The sincerity really came through right about now. The kid would either get his act together or skip out. Either way, not a problem in the classroom.

Following up on skippers was required, but rarely got them back into class. Usually, the kid would drop out.

Of course, hardly any school in Texas had a dropout rate over the state maximum allowed, even though, statewide, any given class of freshmen would be much smaller by the time it reached senior year. That was because public schools would have students withdraw and enroll at a charter school that was exempt from penalties for high dropout rates. They used to be able to exploit that loophole with just signing a kid up for home schooling, but the state closed that off back in 2005, probably to boost the amount of state money going to the governor’s pet project of charter schools.

So, yeah… good class size second period… all the regular Economics classes looked good, in fact. Biggest was 27, not too bad. But the AP classes… Only 12 in first semester AP Economics and just 9 second semester? What happened? Usually, Mr. Webb could count on 20-plus in each AP section, and three sections of AP, no less. This enrollment was lower than a third of what he expected. Whoever was in charge -

- probably had a scheduling conflict. Mr. Webb looked back at his biggest class, and there was the story. A lot of bright kids in there, all of them in band. He clicked on a student to see his schedule. Yep. The top band class was right through one section of AP Eco and both AP Physics and AP Biology had killed off 4th period. Kids had to make some tough choices, and, ironically, the class about the study of choices had lost out.

Well, maybe Mr. Webb could just ramp things up in that one class and make it more challenging. Then he noticed one more group in that 5th period class besides the band contingent: four inclusion students.

It was wonderful the way the state decided that a standard class should include students that covered two standard deviations above and below average intelligence and then mandated that everyone pass or the school would fall under severe punishments. Translation: if a person shows up sober in a standard class, pass him. If a person just shows up at all in summer school, pass him. Once upon a time, there were more levels of classes to allow for targeting different ability levels. Now, everyone either got lumped into dumbed-down general population classes or they could have their brains fried to a crisp in AP classes. And it looked like these high-fliers that prized Band, Physics, and Biology over Economics were about to be doing a lot of vocabulary words and questions from the end of the chapter. Notebook checks, even. Level playing field, nothing, they were going to have a leveled playing field. As in scorched earth.

That really ticked off Mr. Webb, because one of the reasons he’d gone into teaching in the first place was to be the kind of teacher that could give a challenge to a student that was bored out of his skull with the standard curriculum. No, there had to be a way to reach those guys without delivering a mental KO to the kids that were barely at a 6th grade reading level. There had to be a way.

The Big Reboot: 1

Mr. Webb had a great gig. It was the start of his eleventh year as an Economics teacher at Edward Teller High School in Garson, Texas. Garson was one of those infinite suburbs north of Dallas, Texas that always did its best to vote for as many Republicans as possible. The kids were all right in Mr. Webb’s opinion, but other teachers complained about “the demographical change” that had happened in the years between now and 27 years ago, when Mr. Webb was a senior named Dean Webb at Teller.

When the demographics started to change after the S&L collapse of the early 90s, the nearly all-white student body of Teller took on more and more color each year. Some teachers couldn’t stand that. Frau Hassenfleisch, the German teacher, had a great suggestion: just fail all the Mexicans and Blacks so they’d drop out and transfer to “their” schools. Mr. Webb winced when he heard that story in the faculty lounge. Of all the teachers to be unreconstructed racists, it had to be the German teacher.

“Oh, it got worse!” said kindly old Mrs. Smiley. “Mr. Stein told her she was crazy to even suggest that and then she jabbed a finger right up in his face and said, ‘And we should have shoved you all into the ovens when we had the chance!’ We were so glad when she left after winter break.”

“Mr. Stein? The Math teacher? The guy that never hurt a fly?” Mr. Stein was famous for his lectures on how roaches and flies “were God’s creatures, too.”

“Good old Mr. Stein, that’s right.” Mrs. Smiley nodded and frowned. “Poor guy lost two uncles back in Germany in the Holocaust, and she had the gall to try and put him there, too. Just awful.”

But Mr. Webb wasn’t worried about shifts in demographics. He had grown up watching Sesame Street, so he didn’t care if his students were covered in blue Muppet fur. He did care if they were freshmen. He had been at Teller for eleven years, and the years he had freshmen in a Geography class were, hands down, his most stressful ones. This year had a certain sweetness to it: all his classes were senior Economics. He didn’t care what diversity he had in his classes as long as they were properly segregated by age.

His classroom really lent itself to the senior scene. When he got a room all his own in his second year at Teller, he had chucked out all his desks and replaced them with tables and chairs that were being tossed out of the library during its remodeling. That had led to a scene when the lady that used to have that classroom tried to order him to keep the desks in his room.

“Those desks are brand new! You can’t just put them out in the hall!” Mrs. Martinet was hysterical, as if Mr. Webb was putting her mom on the street.

Mr. Webb stayed calm as the football team members moved the furniture around. They laughed a little as they overheard the exchange. “It’s my room. I prefer tables and chairs. It’s more collegiate.”

“They look like junk!”

“They were good enough for our library. It’s a sin to waste them.”

“It’s a sin to waste the new desks! There are rooms with crappy old desks and you’re just putting these out! They’ll go back to the warehouse and nobody will use them!” Mrs. Martinet was turning purple. The jocks’ quiet laughter probably had something to do with it. She hated children. She only taught because the salary was basically money for jewelry and handbags – her husband more than covered all her other bills – and there was a lot to be said for the 80-day weekend teachers got every summer.

Mr. Webb liked the big vacation, too, but he was in teaching for the kids. That’s why he had tossed the desks. He didn’t want his room to be any more like a jail than it had to be. It was bad enough that bells decided when conversations should stop and start, privileges could be revoked on a whim, and going to the bathroom required a security clearance. He didn’t need to add regimented, uncomfortable chairs with plywood bolted on to remind the kids of their institutionalized status.

He also liked to cover his walls from top to bottom with maps and posters from comic book stores. As Mrs. Martinet tried to get between a linebacker and a shiny new desk, she lashed out against the decor. “This place looks like a dump! It looks like some kind of deranged head shop!”

“Hey, I don’t have any glassware!” A cornerback lost it on that one. He laughed so hard, he dropped the desk he was schlepping and scuffed it on the floor.

“Oh my God, do you know how much that costs? I’m getting the assistant principal up here! This is unacceptable!” She stormed out.

Mr. Webb called out after her, “Hey, we could swap out the new desks with the crappy old ones and send the old ones back to the warehouse. That’s a win-win.”

The assistant principal ruled in Mr. Webb’s favor and Mrs. Martinet had to continue her process of losing it somewhere else. Over the years, Mr. Webb had acquired more chairs, tables, sofas, and even a beanbag so his room was the most comfortable in the building. If chairs lost their legs but were otherwise serviceable, he’d set them on a back shelf where computers were supposed to be installed, but had been removed when the district decided that it wanted to “go wireless”. The three big, legless chairs along the back shelf were fondly known as “the thrones.” Kids that sat in them had a commanding view of the whole room, so Mr. Webb tried to reserve those for the students that were least likely to abuse such a vantage point.

To be sure, chairs that old and vintage had more than a little dust in them. Basically, it was best to just sit on the furniture and not ask too many questions. They were much more comfortable if one didn’t think about how many years of dead skin cells were in that dust that would arise and hover over the chairs for a few seconds every time they got a hard thump. At least the tables got wiped down with bleach every week, so those were mostly sanitary.

The two microwaves and the full-size refrigerator were also pretty clean, so students liked to warm up their lunches in his room. That was cool with Mr. Webb, so long as they didn’t interrupt his daily Bollywood showings at lunch. Lots of kids enjoyed having their Bollywood a half-hour at a time, and Mr. Webb had picked up a pretty decent command of Hindi and Urdu over the years. If there was a movie title or a song lyric that could convey his meaning, Mr. Webb could keep a conversation going.

The 2012-13 school year was just about to start, and Mr. Webb was ready for it. He had a sweet gig and looked forward to the day before classes started, when he got his roll sheets and could begin to get ready for the first day. This year, though, when he got his roll sheets, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

US Foreign Policy Meltdown Roundup

A list of all the places where the US has seriously screwed things up, either through a failed attempt to “fix” the country or through massive failures of tact (insults, spying, ultimatums, etc.). These are all from recent years, which were supposed to be a much better time for US foreign policy than the Bush II years…

Libya
Syria
Iraq
Afghanistan
Ukraine
Egypt
Israel
Brazil
China
India
Russia
Germany
France

OK, probably not all of them… but these are the major ones. I still hold that Bush II was the worst president the USA has had, but Obama seems to be doing all he can to get the tie.

The Great Trade-Off

Which is better, to live a life of ease or to live a life with hardship? I am convinced that the hardship is more important than the ease. While it is nice to have a break from a hard life, it is the hardships of mortality that we are here to experience and to learn from. We do not fully understand the importance of pain, sadness, loss, and death. We may have clues to their importance, but the full value is yet to be revealed to us.

Which leads me to the title, the trade-off between ease and hardship. The grand, Faustian bargain that we all face: do we choose to avoid hardship or to endure it? Do we escape to luxury, or do we make sacrifices? And by luxury, I don’t mean enjoying a few days off from one’s work. I mean a life in which there is little or no work. I know of few paths to luxury that do not involve a crime or great sin of some sort, and none that involve compassion for one’s fellow man. If we have compassion, we work – and work is hardship.

I know of men of great means that nevertheless devote themselves to long hours of service. They know that the hardships they endure on behalf of others are much more important than enjoying their riches. I know of men of little means that will use whatever they can get their hands on to get substances that will remove them from their hardships. I say those things to show that appearances do not always give a glimpse into the hearts of others. We have all kinds of people in the world.

The diversity in the world to come, however, will be limited. Heaven is not known for its broad spectrum of inhabitants. They tend to be people that undertook hardships and not those that escaped them. It is here on this earth, away from God and His perfection, that we are able to experience the deep lessons of mortality. These lessons, in turn, prepare us to return to God.

When we avoid the pain by running to the arms of pleasure, we do not do the things we are meant to do here and set ourselves up for a true hell – regret. After this life, we have memory of things unatoned for, and that is why I choose to work and endure other hardships. That is why I want to do the work of God here, so that I can do the work of God later on. Life here is not supposed to be heaven. If it were, then it would not be here, it would be in heaven.

Trading mortal experiences for a counterfeit of heaven is the great trade-off that we are offered. To accept is to live without pain. To reject that exchange is to life eternally without regret.

The USA, Islam, Russia, and China

To explain the current mess in the world with a resurgent al-Qadea conducting conventional warfare operations and a new cold war, I need to start back in 1989, in Panama.

When the USA forced a regime change in Panama in 1989, things went rather smoothly, all things considered. Yes, there were the massive civilian casualties and destruction of property, but there simply doesn’t seem to be a way to avoid those things in any sort of regime change. No, the “smoothly” I use refers to the installation of a pro-US government and the maintenance of Panama as a pro-US client state. We had such a thing under Manuel Noriega until George H. W. Bush repented of his close association with that dictator. But when Noriega had to go, the USA found a ready ally among the Panamanian elites, and Panama persists in its orbit around the USA. All well and good for US interests.

A few years later, when GHW Bush repented of his close association with the dictator Saddam Hussein, he did not opt for a regime change in Iraq. He got the USA a massive base in Saudi Arabia and, later, Kuwait, but he did not support Kurdish or Marsh Arab uprisings against Saddam Hussein. The realpolitik of that decision made perfect sense to me at the time: in Panama, we had extensive contacts that would be loyal to US interests. In Iraq, we had none. Removing Hussein would, at best, give us the devil we did not know and, at worst, plunge the region into a violent conflict involving religious, tribal, and nationalistic factors. Beast though he was, Saddam Hussein kept order in the area.

There was Haiti, where Clinton returned Aristide to power in 1994. Aristide served until 1996, and was reelected in 2001. By 2004, though, he had to go, as he was making business difficult for US multinationals by trying to make them better corporate citizens. He was also making business difficult for drug dealers by arresting a good number of them. Anyone that knows anything about US foreign policy knows that the major US corporations drive that foreign policy and that drug dealers frequently pop up as intelligence assets. Mess with one, the US might lean on your country a bit. Mess with both, and you will not run your nation for much longer.

Which brings me next to Afghanistan: as long as the Taliban were making strides in negotiations with US over a pipeline traversing their country, the media here depicted them as harsh, but decent enough fellows that could bring much-needed order to a chaotic region. When the negotiations fell apart, the media reviled them as cruel vermin that had to be swept aside. 9/11 happened, and the already-underway plans for regime change in Afghanistan had a much more legitimate color. Hamid Karzai, it seems, is the man the US wants in charge there. Perhaps his ties with major oil companies and drug dealers helped in that respect. Accusations that Karzai engaged in election fraud or even power-sharing negotiations with the Taliban have not made him offensive enough to demand replacement in the eyes of US officials.

The point I want to make with all this is that the rest of the world is not Panama or Haiti to the USA. There are places where we don’t have someone ready, waiting in the wings to do our bidding. There are places where other nations have someone ready and waiting to take over, and still others that nobody has a man ready to go, that will dissolve into anarchy, should a strongman be removed.

Since 2001, the people in charge of US foreign policy, regardless of party or ideology, seem to be unaware of the situation described above. The Neocons under bush thought Saddam Hussein could be removed and a pro-US government installed. Years later, a pro-Iranian government came to the fore that gave oilfield concessions to Russia.

The US State Department tried to leverage the Arab Spring movements for its own benefit, preaching that Twitter and YouTube and Facebook would make the world more democratic and wonderful. Instead, Arab Spring toppled the US-backed dictator in Egypt and delivered a very US-hostile Muslim Brotherhood to power.

For some odd reason, the US then chose to back al-Qaeda forces in Libya when they rose against Qaddafi’s government. The US supported the same al-Qaeda forces when they went into Syria to topple Bashir al-Assad. Now that those same al-Qaeda forces are invading Iraq, the USA is not attacking them, but is instead insisting that the regime in Baghdad change. Whaaaaat?

al-Assad is a Shi’a, after a fashion. The rulers in Iraq are Shi’a. The Iranians are Shi’a. The al-Qaeda maniac murderers opposing those three are Sunni. The Qatari and Saudi factions that are backing the al-Qaeda forces are also Sunni. The USA is lining up with those forces. Let me specify that the USA is lining up with extremist Sunni factions that see no political solution for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. The more politically involved Muslim Brotherhood did not get USA backing. The highly violent al-Qaeda did.

Now that the USA attempted a regime change in Russia’s own back yard, it’s not any surprise that Russia will make common cause with the Shi’a. Now an age-old Islamic split takes on a new importance in the new cold war. The USA has somehow decided that it cannot ally with moderates in this case: it makes its cause common with ravenous, bloodthirsty war criminals. Russia is on the side of stability, even if it’s the stability of a harsh regime. Honestly, the Russian position makes more sense to me.

I know that the USA makes political hay off of supporting democracies around the world, but the fact remains that if we want reliable allies overseas, it often involves installing dictatorships to serve our ends. Corrupt, criminal, festering dictatorships. We like our Francos and our Somozas and our Marcoses, but if they get a little Mussolini on us and start to flex their muscles, we move to silence them. I don’t see how we’ll be well-served in the long run by violent Sunni extremist terrorists.

Neither do the Chinese. They have their own mess of violent Sunni terrorists to deal with, and they’re not about to provide material aid to their fellow-travelers. That gives them one more reason to side with Russia in the current geopolitical line-up. China also might need to use violence to preserve the integrity of its regime: Russia will not criticize that, while the USA will. That’s yet another reason for China to line up with Russia.

So it’s USA and Sunni extremists against Russia, China, and Shi’a governments. In a matter of time, I see the USA coming out the loser in this contest, reaping the whirlwind that it has sown in supporting the very entity that wants to see it destroyed.

Right On, My Brother!

I love music to be happy to. I love music that speaks of a better day and a better way. I love music that lifts me up and shows me the way to go. That means I love this collection. I need to get more of The Staple Singers, that’s for sure.

Is it funk? Is it soul? Is it gospel? Is it rock? Does it matter? It’s definitely resonant of the seventies. Think Jackson 5, Sly and the Family Stone, the O’Jays… yeah, the good stuff. The music is fine stuff on its own, but the spirit behind it takes it all to a higher level. Make no mistake, there’s a message in this music, but it’s an open invitation to everyone that wants to be a brother or a sister to one another. To me, that’s the true spirit of Christ, and it’s something the world can always use more of.

Anyone that thinks choirs of angels singing would be boring beyond belief is obviously not taking into account that Pops Staples is in heaven right now. This stuff never gets old, and that’s important when you contemplate eternity.

Where’s the Earth-Shattering Kaboom?

The Apocalypse, the big one, the big finish, that should have happened by now. With the number of nuclear weapon incidents we’ve had, every one ending with a line about how, but for the one… switch, latch, trigger either failing or holding in such a way to prevent a fully-armed detonation of a weapon, I find it miraculous that the word “every” needs no qualifiers.

Why?

Humans, as a rule, are not any less error-prone since 1945. We’ve had lethal incidents involving nuclear power and even nuclear weapons, but nothing that destroys cities, let alone all life on earth. Make no mistake that the decision to initiate actions with the intent to end all life on earth is in the hands of a very small number of decision-makers. So far, that decision has not been made, either purposefully or accidentally. Early detection and launch control systems have produced conditions that could have resulted in catastrophic, accidental, global thermonuclear warfare. Not just one or two: far too many to count on two hands.

This, on top of our planet having received the blessings of a flawless 4.6 billion year run, at least from the observer bias of being a member of the human species. Had humans popped on the scene simultaneous with the riotous explosion of life in the Permian, while our brains would have given us a grand advantage, there would have been no supply of cheap, efficient fuel directly beneath the surface. Had the world brought forth life in abundance and glory only 100 million years after the planet formed, that life would not walk a metaled world: the supernova dust that brought metals to earth took a span of aeons to accumulate here. I could go on, but Stanislav Lem has already written that essay, so I refer interested readers to seek out his words on this topic. Suffice to say, our planet has a long and fortunate history of being in the right place at the right time.

And here I see another suspension of the laws of probability simply because I draw breath. By rights, I figure that humanity should have snuffed it back in the 60s or 70s… or last week. Why are we still here? Are we really that lucky, or is there a force at work that is preserving us for a later purpose?

Those who know me will not be surprised to see me subscribe to the latter view. There are things that must happen, so they will happen. Events that would interfere with those things that must happen will not be allowed to come to pass. Not just nuclear holocausts: financial collapses, asteroid impacts, solar flares – there are so many things that could destroy life as we know it and as it exists with either complete or near-complete wiping out of the whole of humanity, and yet, they do not impact us, not now, and not for some time.

It’s not just that the end is near. The end is whizzing past our heads. The end can arrive at any time. But I believe that it will not arrive until it needs to. I believe that what stays the end for now is that there is a higher purpose that must be accomplished here. When that purpose is complete, the end to this existence arrives – I believe that is the way with any life, really. But when the end to the purpose for the world being our world, as we know it, when that end comes, there is something else to happen after that.

We do not have forever, but we have as long as we need, provided we are about the business of making better choices and learning how to love better. Today is always the day to strive to do better in our lives.