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The End Of Miller City

By: Bill Wucinich

Teacher Marcey Walsh looked at the math problem solution with a puzzled look on her face. "Jonathon, how could the answer be $101.78 when the customer only gave you $25?"

"Because that's what the computer screen said, Mrs. Walsh. I would owe my customer $101.78 in change." Then, he stopped. "But that doesn't make sense. I'm giving her back more than the entire bill!"

"That's right. Now let's work on the next problem."

After school, Marcy sat in her room grading other papers but her mind kept going back to those few minutes with Jonathon. He wasn't the only one who was having trouble; the entire class was having problems with logic.

The Miller City school system had installed the best computers in all the classrooms. The curriculum had been designed to produce graduates who not only were computer literate, but also able to handle state-of-the-art equipment in the technology hungry job market that had been created as new businesses moved into the county. But Marcey was troubled by what she was getting from her students. It seemed that once she explained the logic, the students understood. But none could seem to get to that point by themselves. By the time she finished her papers, she was sure that either she was missing something or something was definitely wrong.

Marcey's husband, Ron, was watching the evening news when she walked in the door. Before taking off her coast, she started talking.

"Ron, I think I have a problem at school."

Ron clicked the TV off and looked at her. "Uh Oh," he said.

"It's the computer. All of my kids can work their way around it without thinking. They are absolutely unafraid of it."

She paused looking for the right words. "But it's like they're slaves to it. They blindly accept anything it says. If the computer screen tells them to jump, they jump."

Ron looked puzzled. "But aren't computers supposed to tell us when to jump? I thought that's why we had them."

"You're right. Let me ask you something. When you diagnose a patient's symptoms, do you blindly accept test results or do you review them to see if they are what you would reasonably expect based on your knowledge and experience?

"Naturally, I always review them first. But…"

"The problem is that my kids don't. It's as if they can't."

"Wait a minute. Are you telling me that your kids can't think?"

"I don't know. But I believe that it's more than just a coincidence that my entire class seems to have the same problem. What do you think?"

"Sounds reasonable," said Ron.

A week later Ron and Marcey were having breakfast at the small restaurant across the street from their apartment.

"Well, have you come up with anything yet?" Ron asked after they ordered.

"Nothing yet. I'm looking for something that…" Marcey paused and picked up the placemat in front of her. "And I may have found it."

The mat had the normal advertisements around the edge, but the middle was full of puzzles. It was the kind that most restaurants used to entertain children and give their parents some peace and quiet while waiting to be served. Looking up from the mat she pointed to the puzzles.

"Ron, have you ever looked at these mats?"

He started to laugh. "No I never could draw a line from one end of a maze to the other. That's why I went to med. school."

"I'm serious. Look at your mat. Those four puzzles are really thought problems. This is what I've been looking for."

The next morning, Marcey made four copies of the restaurant mat for each of her students. Promptly at 8:30, the bell rang signaling the beginning of another school day. But, much to the surprise of the class, Marcey changed the routine.

"The first thing I want you to do is turn off your computers. We're going to be doing something different today. Pick up one of the papers and do the maze puzzle. Follow the instructions carefully. I'll be around in a few minutes to pick them up."

After 10 minutes, Marcey began picking up the puzzles. She then told the students to start on the next puzzle with the shapes on it. She went back to her desk and looked at their first effort. While some had marks on them, most were blank. It was obvious that none of the class had any idea of how to get from the beginning to the end of the maze. It was the same pattern with the rest of the puzzles. Faulty attempts by some of the students but nothing from the rest.

At home that evening, Ron quietly listened as she explained the results. When she finished, he put his paper down. "Marcey, are you telling me that your kids can't think?"

"I don't know. I've tried everything I can think of and they're still having the same problem. Any fifth grade child should be able to work these puzzles without any problem."

"Have you mentioned this to your principal?"

"I'm not sure how to tell him."

Ron shrugged his shoulders. "Then, if I were you, I would contact someone right now. It's sounds to me like you've gone as far as you can go. If you don't think you're ready for the principal, think of someone else. What about school? Is there some professor you could talk to?"

Marcey thought for a minute. "Well, Dr Pertman comes to mind. I had him for a few courses and he's a practicing child psychologist. I could at least give him a call. It can't hurt."

"No it can't. Maybe there's a simple explanation you're not thinking of."

The next day, Marcey called the university and was put through to Dr. Pertman.

"Marcey? How are you? Sorry to keep you waiting. What can I do for you?"

"Dr. Pertman, I think I have a problem and I would like your opinion."

"Let's hear it."

Marcey spent the next fifteen minutes filling him in.

"That's the background. On the surface, everything seems to be working as planned. But based on what I'm seeing in my classroom, I think that something is going wrong and the system is not aware of it. What do you think?"

Dr. Pertman's response came back slowly and thoughtfully. "Well, my first reaction is that the curriculum appears to make sense. But, as you talked, I did wonder whether it was inadvertently designed for the needs of robots rather than humans."

"That's my point, Dr. Pertman. That seems to be how my students are reacting to it."

"Well, before coming to any concrete conclusions, I would like to look into this further. Could you send me other examples? I would like to see the place mat puzzle papers. I also want to know more about your students. Do you think you can get the results of their past IQ tests?" The requests were coming so fast the Marcey had trouble getting them down. "I also need demographics such as the average age of your students, how many have spent their entire time in your system, number of siblings, parents' ages, how many single parents, and anything else you think would help me understand the environment the system is operating in. I don't want the names of your students. I'll review what you send me and get back to you in about two weeks."

"Thank you Dr. Pertman. I'll get to work right away."

"Give me your home phone number. I don't think I should contact you at the school. Finally, as a word of caution, don't get your hopes up. There could be a logical explanation for your student's behavior."

Marcey gave him the number and hung up the phone. She spent the next few minutes looking over her list of what she needed for Dr. Pertman. The biggest problem would be the demographics of the class. For that, she would have to get the student records from the Student Affairs office and there was a board policy not to allow these files to leave the office. She understood their concern. The information they contained was private and the threat of potential lawsuits was always present if any should get out to the general public. But that could prove to be the least of her problems if her suspicions were correct. She decided to leave the demographics for last and begin work on the other information.

She spent the next two evenings writing a journal of the events leading up to her call to Dr. Pertman. Then she assigned an identifying number to each student and prepared a folder for each one. The folders contained the puzzles plus other examples of times when the student was unable to solve a thought problem. She was now ready for the demographics.

The next morning she went to the Student Affairs office.

"Good morning," she said, sounding much more confident than she really was. The secretary looked up with the plastic smile of a career bureaucrat. "Good morning. Its Mrs. Walsh isn't? What can I do for you?"

"I need a little favor," Marcey said sweetly. "I'm preparing for the parent-teacher conferences next week and would like to know something about my students' parents and family backgrounds so that I won't be talking to total strangers. So I was wondering if it would be possible to look at their files after school?

"Yes, I think that can be arranged. Although, today is especially busy so I'm not sure I will have all of them pulled. But I should have enough time to get most."

"Thank you," Marcey edged out the door. "I'll stay out of your way. You won't even know I'm here. See you at three."

Promptly at three o'clock, Marcey put on her cheery face and walked into the Student Affairs office.

"Hi! How was your day?"

"Fine, thank you. I did manage to pull all your files. They are in the office at the end of the hall." Marcey went to the office and found the files stacked on the corner of the desk. She took a tablet and pencil from her brief case, sat down and went to work.

That night she reviewed all her information. When she was satisfied that she had everything, she put it in the box and mailed it to Dr. Pertman.

"True to his word, Dr. Pertman called two weeks later.

"Hello Marcey. I'm ready to talk."

"Hello Dr. Pertman. I'm almost afraid to ask. What do you think? Have I wasted your time?"

"I don't think so. The more I looked at what you sent me, the more obvious it became that, just as you thought, the entire class was having this problem And that is too much of a coincidence to be believable."

"I agree. It's more than what I would have expected."

"I believe you're right. Let me review what I did. I first compared your students' IQ results against other student's averages in the same age brackets. I found that in all respects, their scores fit a normal bell curve with the exception that all were lower than average on those questions requiring a reasoning process. Then I correlated these results to the specific brain areas that control this particular function. In simple terms, their left brain function, the one that controls their ability to reason, appears not to be working at all. Are you with me so far?"

"I have one question doctor, are you telling me that I'm trying to teach a room full of abnormal children?"

"Not necessarily. I'm saying that you may be dealing with normal children who have abnormal intellects. Let me go on. After I finished looking at your materials, I kept coming back to coincidence. What were the odds that all the students would experience the same problem? Logically, the answer would be that it would be so low that it would be outside the realm of possibility. So yesterday I had a long discussion about it with a neuropsychologist friend of mine. What he told me may give us a clue as to what we are dealing with"

"Forgive my interruption doctor. But now you're getting into areas completely over my head. A neuropsychologist? Are you saying that they might have a physical rather than a mental problem?"

"Not really Marcey. Recent studies have shown that we all may be a little bit crazy. That what's passed off as odd behavior might very well be a mild form of mental illness?"

"Well, I do know that we all have quirks. But that doesn't make us crazy does it?"

"Yes and no. My friend would say that such quirks might be a mild form of craziness. It would be nothing so abnormal that a person couldn't function in society. But it would still be a mild mental disorder nevertheless. For example, the computer whiz who can't engage in small talk may have a mild form of autism or the originator of religious rules and ritual hand washing may have been suffering from a form of obsessive compulsive disorder."

"But Doctor, you're talking about fifth graders!"

"I understand. Remember, this is preliminary at best. I would need to do more tests before hanging my hat on anything I've just told you. In the meantime, I think it's time for you talk to your principal. You can use my name. I'll send you a resume as a way of introduction. It is extremely important that you emphasize that this is preliminary and that no conclusions have been reached. You want to make it absolutely clear that all you're doing is reporting what you have observed in your classroom and nothing more. Then request a meeting with the school psychologist so that we can more fully elaborate on what we have done. I want to give them the opportunity to question anything they wish. We have to remember that I am an outsider and you are a newcomer and, most importantly, it's their system. So, at this stage, how we proceed may be more important than what we present."

"Thank you Dr. Pertman. I'll make an appointment as soon as I receive your resume. But I do have another question. Am I getting paranoid, or might we have a system-wide problem?"

"A good question. Our obligation is to make them aware of what we suspect. Which is why we need to talk to the school's psychologist to as soon as we can."

"Do you think it's serious?"

"Serious enough to at least raise the issue. I'll be waiting for your call. I can be available almost any afternoon. Just give me a few days to clear my calendar."

After some small talk dealing with suggested meeting dates. Dr. Pertman hung up. Marcey didn't move for almost an hour. All of a sudden, her safe, secure world built around her husband and her teaching had changed. All she could think of was the old saying about how in life a person either had to lead, follow or get out of the way. Right now, she didn't know which of the three states she was in. All she knew was that she was on her way to somewhere.

Four days later Marcey was ushered into the principal's office. She had only talked to him one other time during her interview process. And that conversation lasted less than fifteen minutes. As she later learned, if a department head passed an applicant on to the principal, the meeting with him was a mere formality. As far as he was concerned, the applicant was already hired. That's why he had department heads. His job was budgets, policies and rules with occasional classroom visits interspersed.

The principal, Mr. Halderman, greeted her cordially.

"Good afternoon Mrs. Walsh. What can I do for you?"

"Well, I've run into something in my class that I need to talk to you about."

Marcey began. She was very careful to stick strictly to the facts. Mr. Halderman listened politely nodding his head every so often in agreement. But his expression changed when she described the results of her mini-tests. By the time she finished telling him of Dr. Pertman's preliminary findings and was about to ask for the meeting with the school psychologist, he was no longer listening. He raised his hand to interrupt. Laying aside Dr. Pertman's resume without even looking at it, he asked in a voice tinged with steel. "Mrs. Walsh, are you aware of our policy prohibiting the release of student records to anyone? That this type of information is to remain in the school?"

"Yes sir, I am."

"Then perhaps we should begin by hearing your explanation for doing so."

Marcey shifted uneasily in her chair. "I didn't want to bother you until I was sure that I had a problem."

That didn't satisfy Mr. Halderman. "Didn't you think that we were capable of judging whether or not you had a problem?"

Marcey was starting to feel like a witness on a Perry Mason TV show.

"Yes. But I'm a new teacher in your system and I didn't feel it was my place to come to you until I had more facts."

Mr. Halderman bored in. "So, instead, you chose to violate one of the most important regulations we have. I hope you realize that should this get out, your action could leave the district open to a lawsuit."

"But no names were used."

"Even without names, each of the parents of your entire fifth grade will want to know if their child is the one with some sort of disability."

"OK, I will concede that I was wrong. I should have come to you first. But the fact remains that there is a situation in my class that warrants your attention."

"Oh, I agree Mrs. Walsh, we do have a situation. But I don't believe it's the one you think it is. You see, I can't have everyone on my staff making decisions on their own. Our curriculum and teaching procedures were installed after a thorough study of the objectives we wanted to meet. The only responsibility you have is to teach within the guidelines we have established."

"Excuse me, Mr. Harderman, but I believe as educators, our first responsibility is to our students. This responsibility requires us to constantly monitor the effectiveness of our methods. If we don't, then all the regulation in the world won't make a bad system good."

"I agree Mrs. Walsh. We must constantly monitor what goes on in our class rooms and, in that regard, it appears that I have been remiss in my duty as far as your room is concerned."

"Mr. Harderman, it is your right to come into my room anytime you want. I will show you all I have done and what I am doing. But I also have the obligation to bring to your attention any situation that I feel needs to be addressed. I'm not saying that I am right. But I am convinced that what I'm telling you requires your attention."

While she was talking, Mr. Harderman had turned to his computer and began to type. For almost five minutes the only sounds in the office were the soft clicks of the keys and the tick-tock of the wall clock. A couple of times, he paused and looked out the window. Then, having made a decision, he would begin to type again. When he finished, he printed a copy for Marcey and gave it to her.

"Mrs. Walsh as much as I hate the idea, I find myself forced to put this incident in your file. Please read your copy to make sure that I have not misrepresented anything that was said today. If you agree with its contents, please sign and date it and I will make a copy for you. Let me be very specific. From now on, I expect you to conduct your class per the terms of your contract and within the guidelines that have been established. I do not expect to have to deal with this issue again. However, if another similar incident occurs, the consequences will be much more than a note in your file. Do I make myself clear?"

Marcy nodded, picked up her signed reprimand and left the office.

Marcey had calmed down by the time she got home. Ron would be working late tonight, so she had a couple of hours to decide what, if anything, she should do next. She made a cup of tea and sat in her chair by the window.

She was still there when Ron came home. Her half-finished cup of tea still in her hand.

"Well what happened? I kept expecting to hear an explosion but I see that the school is still where it was", he said as he opened a can of soda.

Marcey half-smiled. "There wasn't an explosion. It was more like a muffled roar with the damage confined to your wife." Then she let loose of her feelings. "It was as if I was on trial. He wouldn't listen. All I heard was 'you broke this rule, you broke that rule, you did this, you did that, you….you…you.' And this was before I even finished what I wanted to tell him. I've never been through anything like it before."

Now that the built-up frustration was released, she couldn't stop. She went over the entire meeting and showed him the paper he had signed. Ron just listened.

"Now what?" He asked after she calmed down. "It sounds to me as if you're on probation. Another problem in your room and you're out."

"I realize that and that's one of the reasons why I've decided to continue. I really don't have anything to lose. I am convinced that I'm on to something."

Ron leaned forward and looked directly at her. "Do whatever you feel is right", he said. "Just make sure you think it through. There will be no looking back."

"I know. I know", she said quietly. "I'm going to call Dr. Pertman tomorrow. I have no choice."

The next day Marcey talked to Dr. Pertman. He asked a few questions, but for the most part remained silent as she described what happened.

"What do you want to do now?" he asked.

"My first thought was to walk away. I would finish the year and leave. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I couldn't let it drop. Something's wrong! So I want to continue. What do you suggest?"

"First of all, have you talked this over with your husband? Remember, his career in Miller City is also at risk."

"He knows that. But he said there's always a place for general practitioners somewhere."

"All right, if this is what you want. Our next step is to have one or two of your students examined more closely. There is a procedure I want to run on them called a PET scan. This will tell us if the area of the brain that controls the reasoning process is functioning normally."

"Would they have to be taken out of school? That could be a problem."

"Yes. We're probably talking at least a day or two. Do you think you can find one or preferable two parents who would let their children be tested?"

"I don't know. Next week we are having our six-week parent-teacher meetings. So I may be able to arrange something then. But, I will need more information. Exactly what is involved with the test? Where would it be given? How soon would they have to go?"

Dr. Pertman described the procedure. It would be done at the Mayo clinic and would last about an hour. He would wait to make the final arrangements until she had the two volunteers. As soon as she hung up, Marcey began thinking about which parents she would ask.

The search turned out to be less difficult then she first thought. She quickly found two parents who were also noticing the same symptoms in their children and were going to talk to her about them at the parent-teacher conference. Once she discovered these two, it didn't take long to get their permission for the test to be given. Dr. Pertman made the arrangements as soon as she told him that she had two volunteers. Six weeks later the parents requested in a note to Marcey that they be allowed to take their children out of school for two days. Marcey approved with the proviso that all the missed work would be made up upon their return. The following week the students along with their parents went to the Mayo Clinic where the tests were administered the same day they arrived.

A week later, Dr. Pertman called Marcey with the results. They were not surprising. The PET scans showed that both students had a distinct weakness in the upper left quadrant of the brain. It was as if their ability to rationally solve problems had wasted away from lack of use.

After spending a few minutes discussing the results, they decided that he should prepare another report describing everything he had done and what the conclusions were. He would emphasize his background and experience as well as that of the doctors who had conducted the PET tests. His hope was that Mr. Halderman might be impressed enough by their qualifications that he would at least give Marcey a chance to be heard. The report arrived a week later and Marcey made an appointment for the following Friday after school.

"Good afternoon Mrs. Walsh. Please, take a seat."

"Good afternoon," said Marcey sitting down.

She took a deep breath and reminded herself again that this time she would not allow him to intimidate her as he had done during their previous meeting. After a pause to collect her thoughts, she began.

"Mr. Harderman I have requested this meeting to continue our previous discussion."

Mr. Harderman immediately stiffened. "I thought I made it…"

Marcey calmly continued as if he had not said a thing. "I'm back to give you additional information that confirms what I told you at that time."

She leaned over and put the report on his desk and continued. Mr. Harderman remained standing. He made no effort to pick it up.

"This report summarizes everything that has been done since I began having difficulties with my students. It also includes an additional test that was conducted on two of them at the Mayo Clinic. I believe that when you include the results of this test with the ones I did previously, there can be no conclusion other than that something is wrong. Should you have any questions after reviewing the report, both Dr. Pertman and the neurosurgeons who performed the tests would be more than willing to meet with you to discuss their findings."

When she finished, she sagged into her chair. She desperately wanted a glass of water to relieve her parched throat.

Mr. Halderman did not move. "Mrs. Walsh, I thought that I had made it very clear to you that you were to concentrate solely on your classroom duties. I was apparently wrong in this belief because you have again disobeyed the regulations of our school. I cannot tolerate such behavior. I must have discipline not only from our students but also from our staff. Without discipline I will have chaos. With chaos will come failure and I will not allow failure."

Marcey couldn't believe what she was hearing. The man was living in his own world of administrative rules and regulations. He was a machine that simply opened the minds of the students like gas tanks, filled them with information and turned them loose. Apparently, there was no need to think.

Mr. Harderman paused for a moment and then in a tone of a professor completing a lecture, asked, "Have I made myself clear."

"Yes, you certainly have."

"Good. Now let's discuss your actions."

"I said I understood. I didn't say I agreed."

"I'm not asking you to agree" he replied. "I'm simply telling you the way our system operates and your role within it."

As far as Marcey was concerned, she had heard enough. She fought to keep herself from reaching across the desk and slapping the smirk off his self-satisfied face.

"Mr. Halderman, how you can stand there and make decisions without knowing any of the facts is something I can't understand."

"Mrs. Walsh, I will not sit here and listen while you question my…..".

"And I, Mr. Halderman, will not sit idly by and let you treat me as a child. You have the obligation to listen to your staff just as they have to bring to your attention any concerns they may have. If this is what you call creating chaos, then I believe that I can be of no further use to you."

There was a look of relief on his face. She had given him the opening to do what he knew all along was going to have to be done.

"I agree. Under the circumstances, I think that your formal resignation should be on my desk Monday morning. I believe this would be easier on you, rather than having me officially dismiss you from your duties. Do you have any questions?"

Marcey folded and unfolded her hands. She recalled what Dr. Pertman told her. This man was fighting for his turf and she was an expendable obstacle in the way.

"Do I get to say goodbye to my students?"

"I'm afraid not. It would only put an additional burden on them."

Marcey rose and left the office. As far as he was concerned, she didn't exist anymore. He was already on the phone checking on the reason why his supplies expense for the previous month was over the budget.

She went to her room and began to clean out her desk. There wasn't much to take. After all, she had only been in the room for five months. When she was done, she sat for a few minutes looking around the room. She paused when she reached Jonathan's desk. His work had improved but he still continued to want to give too much money back to his customers. She remembered his face when she explained the answer to the math exercise. Then she remembered the look on Mr. Harderman's face.

That same night a special meeting of Miller City's Economic Progress committee was called to order. The purpose of the meeting was to hear the results of the exit surveys that were conducted with all the companies that had moved their operations out the city in the past year.

The chairperson of the sub-committee took her place at the rostrum, opened her report and began.

"As you all know, these surveys were conducted in order to find out why the number of new companies coming into our city has declined while the number of those leaving has increased. Rather than boring you with statistics, let me come to the reason most frequently given and that is the quality of our work force. The survey results are telling us that while our people are able to operate the tools and computers, they are unable to take the process to the next level which is to act on their own. Further…."

She wasn't able to finish because she couldn't be heard over the cries of waste of money, my Johnny can complete with the best of them and haven't you read the test scores?

All at once, a voice was heard over the din. "Excuse me! Excuse me! May I speak?"

The chairperson finally brought the meeting back to order and recognized the voice. "Yes miss. Do you have something that is relevant to this discussion?"

"Yes I do. My name is Marcey Walsh and I was a fifth grade teacher in you system."

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