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.”


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.

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