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.”
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.