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.

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