The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence


Total Chaos:  Behind the Scenes of a National Blue-Ribbon High School

The following are the first 10 pages of Total Chaos, a 316-page nonfiction narrative published in 2001 by People's Press. To order this book. send the editor a check for $10. 

Preface
There is, after all, only one significant reason why Ritalin could possibly be so popular, and this is not because it is a raving success, not at least for the children taking it. Rather, it is because Ritalin is a powerful reinforcer for those who deal directly with children and thus benefit from its effects on their sensory-addictive behavior. This [...] includes lowered activity levels, greater attention, less aggression, and increased compliance and productivity. For those who actually take the drug, however, the overall picture is much less promising, since again, this includes added problems with eating and sleeping, possible impairment of cognition and attribution, no improvement in reading skills, no improvement in social skills, no improvement in academic achievement, and no clear reduction in antisocial behaviors.
            —Richard Grandpre, Ritalin Nation
The Columbine massacre was not surprising… at least to me. What was surprising was the national networks failure to interview high school teachers like myself, who rejected refuge in denial. Perhaps there were so few of us that the networks simply couldn't find us. Indeed, denial seems to have become an acceptable American trait today as illustrated by a long succession of American presidents. What was also surprising was the absence of mention of the drug Ritalin, so extensively prescribed to students throughout the country. Was there a conspiracy of silence between educators and drug companies? After all, haven't both been profiting enormously from the widespread use of the drug?
With no children of my own and no recent experience with teenagers, I was suddenly thrust into a public high school as long-term replacement teacher on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, quite a frightful shock for a college professor with 14 years of experience in higher education, victimized by corruption and finally ending up blackballed. I'd hardly heard of Attention Deficit Disorder, let alone understood the phenomenon.
Recently, I noticed a book, Prozac Nation, on the shelf of the local public library. I mentioned it to a friend, who knew somebody taking the drug: “Hey, you know how I could get my book published? (I'd been trying in vain for a year.) I could change the title from Total Chaos to Ritalin Nation.” She laughed. But only several weeks later, there it was on the shelf: Ritalin Nation. Somebody had beaten me to the punch. I checked the book out, read it, and finally made sense out of my crazy experience as replacement teacher.
Some of the dialogue in Total Chaos may prove repulsive for some readers, while extremely comical for others. No matter, for it is all genuine. Vulgarity is more common in the classroom than most parents and educators would like to admit. Perhaps Ritalin too is more common in the classroom than most would like to admit. According to the author of Ritalin Nation, “millions of children [are] taking Ritalin.”
Finally, Total Chaos is dedicated to the nation's army of substitute teachers who arrive at schools all over the country on a moment's notice to earn a buck often in exchange for a tough day of juvenile chaos and clamor. It is also dedicated to those very few teachers who have decried the incompetence of their peers and superiors, rather than deny and rationalize in the name of collegiality and job security.
Total Chaos is a condemnation of the fraud perpetrated in public education by the nation's tenured educationists, “imposters in the temple,” as Martin Anderson referred to them in his book. More generally, it is also a condemnation of America's current obsession with the “image is everything” national premise. Total Chaos constitutes an autobiographical narrative. All names and places have been slightly altered to avoid possible legal suit. The following is my story.
1. The Hireling
Schools, vast factories for the manufacture of robots.
            —Dr. Robert Lindner, Must You Conform?
“ALL RIGHT, WHO LET ONE RIP? IT SMELLS LIKE RAGU IN HERE!” hollered a student.
“WHO FARTED? THIS ROOM STINKS!” hollered another.
“GOD, OPEN THE WINDOW, SOMEBODY!” hollered another.
“Uh, this is the Principal,” announced the intercom. “I have uh some sad news to relay to you this morning. As many of you probably already know, Jim Sparks died this past weekend in a motor accident. Jim's guidance counselor would like to speak a few moments. So please uh give her your attention.”
“Hi. This is Judy Woodrow, Jim's guidance counselor. I'm just as shocked as all of you, uh very saddened indeed. Jim was not a good student. Books were not easy for him. Coming to class, well, he tried his best, and sometimes his best wasn't good enough. Some of you are aware that more recently Jim had made a pact with himself to do better, but he had a difficult time with alcohol. Jim really wanted to go to college, play sports, join a fraternity, even get married and have a family. I think if Jim had lived, he would have succeeded quite well in those endeavors. Most of you were aware that Jim was a fine athlete. Well, we'll miss him. Here's Dr. Polk again.”
“Yes, uh, guidance will have a special meeting at uh one o'clock for any of you who are experiencing particular difficulties. Several psychologists from town will be present to help you cope. If any of you are having particular problems, you may leave your class and uh go down to guidance at any time today. Now let's uh have a moment of silence for Jim. When the bell rings, classes should begin...”
BINNNNNN! I'd never quite get used to it, the loud bell resounding in the very gut of my cerebrum. Students swarmed out of the room, yapping loudly and chaotically, while others swarmed into the room doing the same.
BINNNNNN! It was a struggle to get their attention. They continued yapping loudly and chaotically despite the bell.
“WE'RE SAD! WE DON'T WANT TO HAVE CLASS TODAY!” hollered a female student.
“YEAH, WE SHOULDN'T HAVE TO BE HERE!” hollered another.
“BUT MANDY, WE OWE IT TO JIM TO CONTINUE OUR STUDIES! I THINK WE SHOULD ALL JUST SHUT UP AND LET THE TEACHER TEACH!” hollered another.
“OH WHY DON'T YOU SHUT UP KATHY! NOBODY WANTS TO DO ANYTHING!” hollered Mandy.
“OKAY, OKAY” I hollered. “WE'RE SUPPOSED TO HAVE CLASS AND I'M SUPPOSED TO TEACH. WOULD EVERYBODY PLEASE TAKE OUT YOUR BOOKS.”
“BUT WE DIDN'T BRING BOOKS TODAY! MY FRIEND DIED YESTERDAY AND YOU DON'T CARE! I'M LEAVING THIS STUPID CLASS!” Mandy stood up and left the room without the pass.
Teaching would constitute a major struggle from the very beginning. After twenty long minutes in that class, I simply gave up trying, at least for the remainder of the day. Nobody would protest... not the Principal, not Number One Vice Principal, nor Number Two Vice Principal. For 90-long minutes, students yapped and yapped and yapped. I drifted into thoughts of my arrival upon the island only eight hours before, late at night, beautiful and desolate...
The tractor-trailer truck was first aboard, for balance no doubt, then one by one up the ramp like ants we drove and soon: “...NO SMOKING INSIDE AND OUTSIDE! THAT MEANS FOR THE NEXT 45 MINUTES YOU DON'T SMOKE!” How clear and starry the night with its great path of full moonlight glowing upon the waters; scintillating greens and reds here, there upon the black pallet of the bay.
Pacing with my hot cup of coffee alone upon the deck, I sought thoughts. But it was damn cold outside, so I returned to the car inside the mouth of the huge ferry, where everything was metaphysically fluorescent and white. How we needed more of that ambiance and how to pump it into the souls of our citizens, into our little voids of tv and Saturday night bars. Let it drown out the public opining of presidents, senators, their bimbos and nabobs!
How distant we'd become from the universe, despite our spaceships and communications satellites. If I could only bottle the subtle jouncing of the car-seat springs and that humming vibrato-ed monotone from one shore to the next, what a great tonic for the attention-deficit children of the nation's classrooms. Perhaps indeed it was better in the hull, inside the throat, for there the only vistas were my own reflections and House un-American musings.
The hydraulics began resounding, the front door slowly rose and again the intercom: “...THANK YOU FOR TRUCKING WITH THE AUTHORITY...” We glided ever so silently until tons bounced against the rafters, then chains and pulleys jangling and clanking, while the Mack started up its motor and the rest of us ours…
It was time again to fill out the W2, health insurance, dental plan, optional life insurance, state retirement and proof of national status forms. The bureaucracy of the new job already had my time sold off like cheap market vegetables at the end of the day. Was I not better off without insurance, forced routine, forced tooth brushing, soaping up and nose-hair clipping? Time again to struggle from one coffee to the next, from one faux-conversation to another, from one introduction to another, to another, to another, from ten new names to a hundred new names.
Dear Henry,
I thought you'd be interested to know what happened yesterday at R.C.'s commencement. The administration was so afraid of what the valedictorian might say, that she was omitted from the program. After the two major speakers were done, the entire senior class stamped their feet, clapped their hands in unison and chanted: “We want Kelly! We want Kelly!” So she marched up on stage and a very angry, frustrated president had to step aside. The person in charge of media was supposed to turn off the microphone if this happened, but he didn't-it was a fine moment in R.C. history. I am quite amazed at the whole scenario. It makes me feel like the world may be in good hands after all! Of course, these students had little to lose in their protests, unlike you, who lost your job...
-Joyce
2. A Day of Old Dog
[There are] thousands of American children who have been affected by the rush to Ritalin. The drug's use to treat ADD has become so rampant that at the slightest sign of trouble-a child keeps running back and forth to the water fountain, has an unruly week pushing other kids on the playground, plays drums on his desk with pencils-parents are circled by the school's teachers, psychologists, and even principal, all pushing Ritalin. [...] In 1990, 900,000 American kids were on Ritalin. Today an astounding 2.5 million are-and some 80 percent of those are boys. Its use in schools has become unremarkable, nearly status quo, and therein, many caution, lies the biggest danger of all.
            —Jeanie Russell, Good Housekeeping, 1997, as quoted in Talking Back to Ritalin: What Doctors Aren't Telling You about Stimulants for Children by Peter R. Breggin, M.D.
“WE'VE HAD TWELVE TEACHERS ALREADY THIS YEAR! WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO QUIT?”
“MAYBE THEY'LL JUST FIRE HIM!”
“NO, THERE WERE ONLY EIGHT TEACHERS! REMEMBER MRS. MCNURTY, MR. PIPE, OR WHATEVER HIS NAME WAS. HE WAS SUCH AN ASSHOLE!”
“WHAT ABOUT MR. MURPHY? HE DIDN'T DO ANYTHING! HE WAS ALWAYS EATING A SANDWICH IN CLASS!”
“WHY DO WE HAVE TO LEARN THIS ANYHOW?”
“¡ANDALE! ¡ANDALE! ¡VAMOS A TRABAJAR LOS VERBOS!” I hollered.
“WHAT'S HE TALKING ABOUT?”
“WE'RE NOT GOING TO DO THIS! NOBODY WRITE!”
“YEAH, YOU SAID WE COULD SEE A MOVIE!”
“NOBODY WRITE! WE WANT A MOVIE!”
“Mr. C, CAN'T WE SEE THE MOVIE NOW?”
“NO! FIRST WE'RE GOING TO CONJUGATE THE REGULAR 'AR' VERBS, THEN WE'RE GOING TO LISTEN TO A SPANISH SONG,” I hollered back. “Amy, ¿puedes conjugar 'hablar'?”
“BUT I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM!” hollered Amy.
“Is it urgent?” I asked.
“YES!” she responded.
“Okay, then take the pass. Jack, ¿puedes hacer el verbo?”
“HEY! IT'S NOT FAIR IF SHE GOES. I HAD MY HAND UP BEFORE HER!” hollered another student.
“ONLY ONE PERSON OUT AT A TIME! Now, who can do the verb?” I asked.
At Haven Island Regional High School, it didn't take long to discover that the kindly minority of students was doomed to be drowned out of existence by the loudmouthed majority of conflict-seekers, grade-grubbers, time-wasters, giggle-heads, ball-obsessed chaos provokers and stand-up comics. For me, the struggle would become routine in all of my classes, even Honors.
“BUT WE'VE NEVER DONE THIS!” hollered a student.
“We just did it yesterday,” I said. “It was homework.”
“IT WAS? NO IT WASN'T!”
“YES IT WAS STUPID!” hollered a different student. “ SEE, I HAVE IT!”
“YOU ALWAYS DO YOUR WORK, BETSY! YOU'RE A SUCK UP!”
Well, that was a Monday class. Now it was already Tuesday. The Blue-Ribbon spiel I'd received from both the Superintendent and Principal the day of my hiring had caught me off guard. I'd suddenly awoken at five in the morning with the effigies of twenty hollering females filled with hatred, my freshman Honors class. To relieve my mind, which had concentrated in thickening depression, I sat in bed attempting to read a poem by Canada's poet laureate Al Purdy. His were vignettes of evaporated life, milk in the fridge of a dead mother in an old house in Saskatchewan. How the hell was I going to face the new day? Why, I wondered, couldn't I be there with Al's dead mother? That seemed to be the only solution. “Sadly there seems no answer/no real answer to anything/only the sea and the land/the beauty of the morning/terror of the night/and a brief residence/ here on earth/ there is no other place.”
At my age... and relegated to the hinterlands! I'd much rather be fat, drunk on the couch, and on the dole, rather than upon a donkey, corralling the wild, the dumb, the depraved, the child-molested and the drugged into Blue-Ribbon classrooms. Wherefore the padding and straightjackets? Divide and conquer was still the tactic of the day. Push them onwards, especially out the door. Graduate the hoards. “You'd be surprised,” had said the Principal, “just how many of our students go on to college.”
Dissipate the lot into sudden survival of the fittest. Manufacture better and better drugs. Keep them pumped up, send them out like soldiers of the front, put them in steel cages, confine the new ones, ring periodic bells, pray for Pavlov, keep them moving, busy, busy, bombard them with handout sheets and have that periodic death announcement to remind them of the reality outside.
“I'M DROPPING YOUR CLASS!” hollered a student who walked into the room thirty minutes late. We were reading a legend about a tiger and rat from the textbook. “HERE!” she bellowed, throwing a form on top of my book. I signed it. She grabbed it and left the room. Thank God, I thought, as a student read: “El tigre era grande. La rata era...”
“CAN I GO TO THE NURSE? I HAVE A SCRATCH!” hollered a student who'd been giggling hysterically since the beginning of the period in the back of the room.
“Take the pass!” I said. Two other students had constructed tiny paper jets and were sailing them through the classroom, then came a couple of flying condoms they'd obtained from the nurse's who kept a huge bowl of them like candy on a table.
“All right, cool it!” I said. “Let's get this story finished! And Kathy PLEASE STOP EATING!”
“BUT SHE'S NOT EATING! SHE'S SUCKING!” and the boys roared with laughter.
“COME ON OVER HERE, KATHY!” hollered one of them.
“YOU'RE GROSS MARK!” hollered a female student.
“SHE'S GOOD AT THAT!” hollered another male student.
“All right, all right, let's settle down!” I said. They settled down, more or less, and we continued reading, more or less, about the tiger and rat.
“El tigre era fuerte, pero la rata era inteligente,” continued another student.
“Muy bien, Jaime,” I said.
“HEY DUDE, WHY YOU GOIN SO FAST?” asked another student.
“YEAH, WE HATE THIS STUFF!”
“THIS SUCKS! WE DID THIS LAST YEAR!”
“Well, if you guys think you know it, okay,” I said. “How about flashcards? We can make flashcards on the vocabulary in the story.”
“FLASHCARDS ARE GAY!”
“RICHARD, YOU'RE SO STUPID! SHUT UP!”
“HEY, WHERE'S JOMO THE HOMO? HE'S OUT AGAIN? THAT'S NOT FAIR!”
“Mark, that's twenty points!” I said.
“HEY, MR. C, I DIDN'T MEAN NOTHIN AGAINST HIM. I MEAN I WASN'T SAYIN THAT TO HIS FACE OR NOTHIN.”
“Just relax, Mark, okay!” I said. “Look, first fold in half, then fold again and again. See? Then you can rip.”
“WE CAN? OKAY, I'M GONNA BLAST! YOU ASKED FOR IT, MR. C!”
“YOU'RE SO EMBARRASSING, JIMMY!”
“I'M TAKING THE PASS! I'M NOT STAYING IN HERE!”
I'd handed out a piece of paper to each student and had attempted to demonstrate how to cut it up into squares by folding and tearing because, well, some students visibly didn't know how to do it.
“Hurahduhtop,” mumbled a student in the back.
“What's that, Alfred?” I asked.
“HEARING AID!” hollered a female in the front. “CHECK THOSE BATTERIES, CROMBY!”
Thank God when Fridays arrived. Amen. I was a bat out of hell. Before I knew it I was looking down from the bow upon the pigeons, soaking up the sun. A Transport Authority employee removed the rope from the bull-horned metal stump on the dock. The harbor was crowded with motorboats. The windows of the lunchroom had flailing arms, while the deck was stuffed with carcasses circulating with plastic cups of bright yellow beer in a surprisingly warm afternoon.
The rope man heaved the bundle of hemp on to the ferry. The breeze picked up, the air pure and cool, hardly a wave as we flowed on blue butter. I noticed a lone man reading a listing brochure and told him that the buys were a thousand times better, in all senses of the word, in Labrador. He just looked at me. The New Bedford ferry plowed by making waves, while my thoughts dropped into the tape recorder, though two yappers in my left ear quickly replaced them. We crept like a tug.
“HOW ARE YOU?”
“HOW ARE YOU?
“GOOD!”
“OH, THAT'S JUST NICE...”
In my head resounded bits of the day's nonsense. Changing seats, now, then, I moved about the deck trying to escape humanity. I looked at the sparkling swath of luminescent infinity and thought how my mind had already grown too large for Haven Island. Indeed, I had to sail it away somehow. Instead, I pulled out the day's conflicts like rotten teeth. Once on land, I sped away into freedom, whipping through Grove Hole. FISH FRY TONIGHT.
Dear Dr. Cromby,
Thank you as always for your contributions. Your review will appear in the next issue of Linguistics Journal. I am sorry to hear that your high school position has been unsatisfactory. In the fifties I put in four years in three different high schools, and when I quit the third high school job, I swore I would never teach again even a single hour in any public high school. You have mentioned the problem of disruptive students; but, even more important is the problem of indifferent, incompetent and I would even say sadistic principals and superintendents, who sit on their fancy salaries and refuse to lift a finger to help a teacher overwhelmed by crazed students. They have the nerve to blame the teacher when in fact they have tolerated an atmosphere of insanity without doing anything effective to alleviate it.
                -Dr. Louis Levinson, Ed. Linguistics Journal