Third period. Same routine, different names. Teaching involves a great deal of repetition, but with different variables of human interaction affecting the outcomes. The same lesson plan can be repeated four, five, six times a day, once a year or semester for many, many years, and still nobody can guarantee that everyone learns that lesson.
Absences, tardies, of course those can affect things. Kids in class drunk, or high, or just deprived of sleep from working all last night – there goes the attention span. Text messages, websites, breakups, hookups, emotional confusion – even before cell phones, the last three things were enough to distract many a mind.
The biggest killer of them all, however, was the perceived pointlessness of it all. “How do I use this in real life?”
A highly compelling argument, that one. Mr. Webb’s answer typically went, “If you don’t learn it, there’s no way you can use it in real life, should the need arise,” but did that cover all the bases? No, it did not. While Mr. Webb went out of his way to use what he had learned in real life, not everyone was as diligent or as dedicated to lifelong learning. Some folks just wanted to take a mental holiday.
Honestly, forcing people to learn things was analogous to to trying to teach a pig to dance: complete lack of success and it only annoys the pig and the teacher. Some people saw a value, any value, in completing high school economics – even if only to get a degree – and so, those people could be reasoned with to cooperate with the learning process, to participate in it and to not disrupt the flow of the class.
But then, there were those that never saw any value in what was being taught. Such was the case of Ali Gaber, Adam Robertson, and Efraim Zapata, three young men in Mr. Webb’s third period that sat together, towards the side and towards the back.
Mr. Webb was familiar with the Gaber name: the father owned a car dealership, and the family had plenty of cash, which the Gaber boys consumed conspicuously. There were four of them, and Ali was the youngest. Mr. Webb had taught two of them before, and they were completely useless in class. They were completely self-centered, and Ali didn’t seem to be any different.
He was fine, as were all the kids, filling out the yellow textbook forms and taking care of the administrative functions like that. But as soon as Mr. Webb asked, “So, what is scarcity?”, Ali groaned aloud and cursed.
“You’re seriously not giving us notes on the first day?”
“Yes, I am, and you’re not going to talk that way.”
“It’s the first day of school. Nobody’s getting written up, and the police won’t ticket you anymore for cussing out a teacher.” One had to commend young Ali for keeping up on current events, even if he had an aversion to developing his technical vocabulary.
“Coach Sheppard reads his emails.” Ali was on the varsity squad, a starter, and didn’t want to lose his place. The threat carried weight.
Ali was no pushover, though. “You would do me like that, on the very first day? You would punk me like that?”
Adam had to jump in, now. “Man, we got a punk for a teacher.” Ali’s motion was seconded.
“Damn. A punk.” Efraim carried the motion.
Mr. Webb quietly typed out an email. Then, he looked back at Ali. Mr. Webb’s voice ran cold. “You got your future in your hands, Ali. You apologize, even if it sounds sarcastic and without meaning, and I don’t punch the send button. You don’t apologize, and then we got us a war. For me, war does not end until one party or the other is completely disengaged or destroyed. You apologize, and then we can keep the negotiations open and I don’t have to complain about how you showed up drunk in my class.”
“Drunk? What the hell? I’m not drunk!” Ali’s face betrayed an angry panic.
Mr. Webb kept his sangfroid demeanor. He’d seen this dance, before. “You acted out, you cursed at me, you argued, you disrupted class. Classic signs. Counselors and student resource police officers always tell us to watch out for those signs of substance abuse in our students.”
“Smell my breath, I don’t have any liquor on it.”
“That can be masked. Your behavior doesn’t lie. That’s what I go by. You act drunk, I gotta call it the way I see it.”
“But I’m not drunk!”
At this point, Adam and Efraim were tapping Ali on his shoulders, trying to calm him down, whispering, “Just say you’re sorry, dude.”
Ali relented. “I’m sorry! Geez!”
Mr. Webb let a thin smile appear. “I accept your apology. And don’t forget to show up sober every day in here. It’s one of my pet peeves, kids showing up drunk or high or both.”
“Man, I’m an athlete. I don’t do any of that stuff.” Ali was already acting like he was cool again. Good. It meant he could be reasoned with, after a fashion.
For his part, Mr. Webb knew not to press too far. “I’m glad to hear that. I hope you set a fine example as a scholar-athlete.” Ali, Adam, and Efraim laughed at that one. So be it. Nobody looked surprised that those three acted the way they did.
Veronica Carranza raised her hand. Mr. Webb nodded at her. She said, “Scarcity is the foundation of economics. It is the problem of unlimited wants and limited resources. Scarcity refers to how there are insufficient productive resources to fulfill all wants and needs.”
“Nice reading, Veronica. What does that mean in your own words?”
Veronica grinned. “Ahh… ahh… I don’t know?”
Celina Castillo, who sat next to Veronica at a table with Maria Cardenas and Victor De Leon, raised her hand. “It means that there’s not enough to go around.”
Ali re-engaged with a self-promotion. “There’s plenty of me to go around.”
Mr. Webb responded, “So, you’re saying that you’re entirely up for grabs? Free to anyone that asks?”
“Hell no! You got to pay to take your turn!”
“Can such payments be regulated and enforced?”
“My boys got my back on this one.” Seconded and carried, Adam and Efraim.
“Ah, then there is a scarcity of you. If there’s the ability to control access to you via a price structure, then you are scarce. If everyone had an Ali-”
“Barf!” Veronica said what everyone else was thinking.”
“If everyone had an Ali, then there truly would be plenty of you to go around, and there’d be no money in charging to get to you.”
Adam was ready with a betrayal. “Ali removal services would clean up, though.”
“Indeed they would, Adam.”
“Hey!” Ali looked like he was about to go all Three Stooges on Adam for realizing a business opportunity of that nature.
Annie Zhao and Janice Fung looked very confused. Ester Bakhoum looked like she was having trouble whispering an explanation of what happened to them.
Mr. Webb clicked on that arrangement. ESOL. They moved in groups like that, helping each other out. From looking at how they were dressed, Mr. Webb figured that Annie and Janice were intermediate in their English speaking and Ester was more advanced. ESOL kids betrayed their familiarity with the language with their clothing, more often than not. Simple dress: basic skills. A few accessories and makeup: intermediate. A brand-name t-shirt and evidence of hair care products in play? Advanced, my good friends. Advanced.
And if they acted like Ali? 100% American. Mr. Webb was betting that Ali didn’t speak a word of Arabic. To make sure Ali didn’t disrupt things as Mr. Webb re-explained scarcity to the Cantonese girls, he looked at Ali and, changing his voice to speak from right to left, said,
Ali didn’t get mad until after both Ester and Saiful Islam Zogby laughed. “Hey, what was that?”
Saiful kept laughing. “It was nothing. He just said you were crazy.” That got the others to laugh.
“Well, maybe I am a little crazy.”
With Ali feeling pleased in his craziness and not wanting to explore his Arabic deficiencies any further, Mr. Webb took on the task of working the ESOL angle. “Scarcity…” Then he got up, and held up a box of pens. He stood to one side, faced the middle of the room and said, “多少?” Then, taking the other side of the transaction, Mr. Webb pressed a few buttons on a calculator and held them up to where he used to stand.
Annie said, “Oh!”, then turned to Janice and said, “ga dou chin!”
Janice smiled and repeated, “ga dou chin!” Mr. Webb didn’t speak a word of Cantonese, so it was good to have Annie around to translate from Mandarin to Cantonese. True, they were supposed to learn in English, but Mr. Webb knew that if he tried to speak a little bit of their language, it went a long way.
Many years ago, in his second year of teaching, Mr. Webb had a student that came to his class in the fifth six weeks. The counselor said, “Tran here doesn’t speak any English at all. Try and do what you can with him.” For an entire week, Mr. Webb pointed at pages in the book and, for the same entire week, Tran blazed through those problems, nothing doing.
Obviously, Tran was not getting challenging work. Mr. Webb wanted to test his skills, so he went to a group of Vietnamese kids that were in the Algebra class. He asked, “Hey, do you guys know Vietnamese well?”
Sure, they all said they did. So Mr. Webb asked, “How do you say ‘solve this equation for x’ in Vietnamese?”
That was a stumper. “Mister, we don’t know how to teach math in Vietnamese.”
“Well, could you ask your moms and dads for me?”
The next day, they had an answer. They also said that, since there was no x in Vietnamese, that the statement should be about solving for y. Later that day, Mr. Webb handed a sheet of 20 introductory Algebra problems and said to Tran, “Làm mai bài đó để tìm hiểu ý.”
Tran blazed through the problems, handed in his worksheet, and said, in perfect California-accented English, “Here ya go, mister. They were easy.”
Everyone, Mr. Webb included, could not believe their ears. Tran spoke English, and plenty of it!
A few days later, Tran was in an Algebra class and making great grades.
Mr. Webb had two theories to explain Tran’s sudden revelation of his English skills. The first was that, by going out of his way to speak a little Vietnamese, Tran would meet him half-way and speak a little English. By speaking a little Vietnamese, Mr. Webb would have shown Tran to not be afraid of testing out his knowledge.
The second theory was that Mr. Webb’s Vietnamese was so bad, there was no way that Tran’s English would sound worse by comparison and that, in order to not have his ears bleed from overmuch linguistic slaughter of his native tongue, Tran would resort to as much English as possible to keep Mr. Webb from subjecting Vietnamese to any further tortures.
In weighing the theories, Mr. Webb gave more precedence to the latter one. It would always be easier for a student to try and speak English than for Mr. Webb to try and learn a student’s native language, and that’s how things went.
Truth be told, though, there was some comfort in hearing familiar-ish tones, even if they weren’t perfectly put. And for a big white guy to be making an effort with their language instead of yelling at them to learn English, well, such gestures were welcome, indeed. Teller High was a multicultural place, and every welcome gesture counted.
Back to the scarcity issue, Mr. Webb explained, “If you have to pay for something, it is scarce. If there is no cost for it, it is not scarce. Do you understand?”
They all nodded, even kids that spoke good English, but who were just a little slow. Victor De Leon asked, “Can you say those every time, mister? Your definitions are better than the ones in the book. They’re shorter.”
“Well, ideally, they’ll be what you’re able to say. I have never liked copying definitions out of a book except as a form of torture. I want you to learn, so I want you to take the words from the book and translate them into words of your own, words that you can use and understand.”
Victor nodded like he was pretending to understand. Then he looked at Celina’s notes to see what she put down.
Nigel Jackson, who sat in a low, comfortable chair in the front, raised his hand. “Say, do we have to copy down all these notes?”
Mr. Webb said, “Only if you want to. I give a certain amount of class participation points for having notes. If you think you know them well enough to make useful comments in class, then I give you points for the good comments, and you won’t need to show me notes, if that’s how you want to roll.”
“Good.” Nigel shut his book and capped his pen. “I’d rather answer questions than write notes.”
“Just make sure your comments are appropriate for class. When you make an inappropriate comment or cause a disruption, I take away points.”
Ali piped up. “Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. When does this start?”
“Already has. I suppose I should tell Coach Sheppard that you’re already failing my class with a negative five.”
“Mister, I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t know. Give me another chance.” The desperation in Ali’s voice was hilarious to all who heard it.
“Ha. You did know, you were just banking on the general lax enforcement of rules here in the first two weeks to get away with as much as you could, Ali. You’ll get your chance when you earn it. What’s a shortage, Ali? And don’t read it to me from the book. Your own words.”
“Mister, how about I just do my notes and show you at the end of class?”
“I do notebook checks on Friday, not before. Your only way out of the hole you dug with your mouth is with that same tool. What’s a shortage?”
“Umm… the opposite of surplus. How do I make that shorter?”
“Start by explaining what a surplus is.”
“Umm… uhh… It’s, ahh…” Ali read the definition to himself. “It’s, ahh… when there’s more stuff than what people need.”
“And the opposite?”
“When there’s not enough stuff.”
“Right. And now you’re not failing.”
“Can you tell Coach Sheppard now?”
“I didn’t tell him anything yet, and no news is good news to him. But back to a shortage. It’s when there’s not enough of something to satisfy everyone’s needs. It’s when the price goes up very quickly, because there’s not enough of it.”
Nigel had a connection. “Like in an auction, when there’s something really rare.”
“Right. Bidding goes up on that.”
Ali found a way to earn points and glorify himself at the same time. “So since there’s only one of me, there’s not plenty to go around. There’s a shortage of me, right? So let the bidding commence.”
“That’s only if more than one person is willing to bid on you.”
Ali made an appeal to the ladies of the class. “Well? Any takers? I promise the best homecoming, ever.”
Mr. Webb brought it back to the topic at hand. “So it would seem there’s a surplus of you at this time.”
“Wait until they get to know me.”
“We shall see.”
They talked a little more about Economics, but time ran out for the period, so Mr. Webb put on some Jay Chou, causing Annie and Janice to start laughing excitedly. Ester joined in the fan reaction: obviously, she shared more than just an ESOL class with her friends. Then Mr. Webb put on “Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio” by Flaco Jimenez and all the Mexican kids fell over, laughing.
Efraim said, “Mister, that’s old people music. You got anything, like, from this century?”
Olga Tañón’s “Me Cambio Por Ella” was Mr. Webb’s musical response. Efraim smirked, not happy with the song’s utter lack of gangsta rap, but Maria, Veronica, and Celina were singing along as Victor danced an expert merengue with an imaginary partner.
But Mr. Webb won everyone over when he fired up War’s “Low Rider”. Efraim gave him a fist bump on the way out and everyone was smiling.
So far, so good. Mr. Webb added Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” to the playlist and went back out into the hallway to guide in his fourth period.