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Awkward Conversations with My Superintendent, Part One

July 6, 2016

I have shared some humorous stories about my principal, but what follows here is anything but funny.  It is an example of the steps teachers sometimes have to take for the good of their students, and why they are sometimes put in conflict with their leadership in order to protect them.

After 19 years in this district, I have worked for five different superintendents.  Two I would describe as competent and good people, one I would describe as incompetent but a good person, and one I would describe as possessing neither of these qualities.  Happily, she was finally “encouraged to retire” by the school board, but not until after six tumultuous years of poor decisions, wasted money, narcissism, cognitive dissonance and destroyed morale.  I spent two of those years as union president, and to say those two years were a nightmare would ludicrously understate the matter.  It’s no fun to realize that you are working for someone who cannot tell the difference between making a good decision or a poor decision, and is willing to steamroll over anyone who gets in her way to accomplish an incoherent agenda she is incapable of even describing.  It’s even less fun when you realize you are one of the few people in a position to stand up to her and try to get her to stop what she’s doing.  And stand up to her I did.  Sometimes I was able to stop her, and sometimes I wasn’t.  My colleagues paid a price for it, some worse than others.  Our students, though, paid the biggest price, because the quality of their education suffered.  The superintendent and many on our school board, though, never seemed to notice.  Or perhaps they just didn’t care.

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Enter Superintendent Number Five, who only has to not be terrible to seem like a significant improvement.  And he is an improvement in many ways.  He is not vindictive, and doesn’t seem to suffer from the same intellectual and emotional vacuity that plagued his predecessor.  Some of my colleagues were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; I, far too jaded from my experience, took an attitude of wait and see.  Yes, he’s saying all of the right things. Let’s see what he does.

Like many school administrators, the new superintendent is very interested in making decisions based upon data.  By and large, this is a good thing.  Data tends to more convincing than intuition, and reason tends to be better served by replicated examples.  However, in order for data to be useful you have to a) collect valid forms of it and b) have the ability to interpret it correctly.  I find many school administrators do not seem to have an understanding of these concepts, and certainly don’t seem to have them as part of their skill set.  This can be a very frustrating reality for teachers trying to use classroom data to make good decisions on behalf of their students.

It wasn’t too much of a surprise, though, that the first real test of the new superintendent’s leadership involved a decision that wasn’t the least bit data driven.  In fact, the only way to justify this decision was to ignore all of the data.  It was a choice that, had it been carried out, would have been incredibly disruptive to student learning, and likely would have violated some students’ civil rights. The administration had such little confidence in this resolution that some teachers were instructed to lie to parents about the reasoning behind it.  Teachers pleaded with the administration to explore other options, but they were rebuffed at every instance.  A deadline was set for when this plan would be instituted, and as that day approached, the faculty’s anxiety grew.

There was one option to try to stop what was happening: contact the state department of education and hope they would be willing to intervene and prevent the district from making a terrible mistake.  This call carried risks—it wouldn’t be an anonymous complaint, and if a representative from the state contacted the district, the superintendent would know which of his staff had made the complaint.  Thus, many of my colleagues were unwilling to take such an action.  They were rightly worried about retribution; indeed, they could be poisoning the well for a phone call that might not even obtain the desired outcome.  It was too dangerous.

In spite of those risks, I volunteered to make the call to the state.

Twenty Years of Teaching

July 5, 2016

This school year marked by 20th as a teacher.  I estimate that in those two decades, I have taught between 1600-1700 students.  Many of them I remember, and some I do not (which is embarrassing when I cross paths with them at the grocery store).   Some have become teaching colleagues, at least one went on to win an Emmy Award for computer animation, and others turn up in a number of surprising places.  For instance, one that turned out to be a very helpful police dispatcher when my dog went missing, and another worked at my favorite ice cream stand and insisted my money was no good there.  It was a fat and happy summer.

I started my career in 1996, which was a very different world than the one we currently inhabit.  Bill Clinton was about to run for reelection, Hillary was First Lady and still four years removed from her election to the United States Senate.  A charming and talented rapper turned actor named Will Smith was just on the verge of becoming a bankable superstar.  This new invention called the internet was very exciting—or, we hoped it was, because to try to use it usually took three hours to log on via phone line.  And just as you were about to reach your first World Wide Web page, someone would pick up the phone and there went your connection.  Certainly, the idea that we would carry the internet in our pockets was a technological advance deemed unthinkable just twenty years ago.

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When I walked into a school for the first time in August 1996, it was not at the tiny, rural school I have taught at the last 19 years.  I was interning at an inner city school in New Haven.  This school had 900 students, and probably 800 were African-American.  Others were African immigrants, some were Hispanic, and maybe a half-dozen were white.  The school, like many underfunded schools in impoverished neighborhoods, had problems.  Certainly not “Joe Clark with a baseball bat” problems, but there were issues nonetheless.  The building was old and in decay.  Many of the classrooms were outdated.   A number of the teachers were burned out, and running out the clock to retirement.  There were students living in shelters, others haunted by broken families, some coping with the gunshot or stabbing deaths of family members.  One student was reportedly the local drug dealer—his rare presence in school and the fact that he drove a brand new Acura only fueled that speculation.

But there was hope as well.  There were a number of students who wanted to learn, and viewed education as (Jamie Escalante once put it) “The Great Equalizer.”  Some of them wanted to return to the neighborhood after graduation and make it better, to be good role models for the young.  There were a number of teachers who were not burned out—many worked very hard to give their best to their students, and the students knew it.  It was a great environment to learn to be a teacher, because students didn’t wait to see if you were worthy of respect—they presumed you were not and then you had to prove otherwise.  If you had failed to do so, they would let you know in no uncertain terms.  I had failures, of course, but I also had successes.  At the end of my year, I was certain I wanted to be a teacher.  It therefore may have been the most important year of my career.

I have stories and even a scar from my time in New Haven.  I once broke up a fight between two female students and one of the combatants’ fake fingernails ended up lodged in my arm.  The story I remember the most, though, involved an aspiring DJ named Laurence.  Laurence didn’t care much for school, but he was popular, and loved to make people laugh. He certainly had the passion for music and the personal charisma to be a good DJ.  He already had business cards at age 16, which he loved to share with his teachers.

My year in New Haven was a challenge in a number of ways.  I was going through a divorce, and the stress of that combined with learning a new career, taking night classes at a nearby university, and a two-hour daily commute began to wear on me.  I know it was starting to show, even though I was doing my best not to let it.  It was during one particularly bad day that Laurence sauntered up to me in the hallway.

“Hey, Mr. Brodie.  I gotta question for you.”

“Sure.  What’s up?”

“Hey, what does DNA stand for?”

I was very excited.  This was going to be one of the very first teachable moments of my young career, and I was ready with an answer.  “It stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  It’s a molecule that carries all of our genetic information—“

“No, man,” he said, in mock impatience. “That’s not what it stands for. You want me to tell you what it really stands for?”

I wasn’t sure where he was going with this, but how else could I respond?  “Sure.  Tell me!”

“It stands for… Dis Nigga’s Attractive!!!”

Extremely pleased with himself, Laurence strolled away. I stood in the hallway, and could not stop laughing.  I did my best to stay focused the rest of the day, but I couldn’t.  Each time I thought about Laurence’s joke, I giggled.  And I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It kept me tickled all day.

I don’t know if Laurence perceived my mood, and thought I needed a laugh, or I was just conveniently in front of him, but it was just what I needed that day. It’s funny to think that he’s now in his mid-thirties.  I don’t know what happened to him—I’d like to think he made it as a DJ, but mostly I just hope he’s happy.  I doubt he remembers that day.

All I know is I’ll never forget it.  And when I think of the year I spent at the high school in New Haven, it’s still the first thing I think of.

 

 

More Silly Conversations with My Principal

April 20, 2016

Most schools have  a staff member who has a special skill that others may not share. Often there is the custodian who can operate all of the heavy equipment that no one understands, or the efficient secretary who knows every phone extension by heart, or the physics teacher who inexplicably comprehends how to navigate all of the frustrating nuances of the grading software.  Schools usually have these experts, but there is usually at least one more:

The Photocopier Wrangler.

The one who always finds the jam, who knows how to replace staples, add new toner, and not only realizes how important it is to do a sample set of a packet before printing it sixty times, but is also aware which screen will enable that feature.  The Photocopier Wrangler even knows how to copy a book without that dark black border that wastes toner and increases the likelihood the copier will jam.  Moreover, the Wrangler does not need to be  reminded of these difficulties.

At times when others are tempted to curse, slam copier doors, shout at the machine, scream at the clock, or rush to the office for help or insist that the secretary summon a technician, the Photocopier Wrangler just sizes up the situation and gets on with it. Usually by the time help arrives, the Wrangler has solved the problem, and the machine is humming along like normal. The Wrangler is often already in class, completed copy job in hand.  Indeed, new staff members might have to wait months, if not years, to discover the identity of their school’s Wrangler.

As it turns out, the Photocopier Wrangler at my school is yours truly.  Indeed, it was while wearing my hat as the Wrangler that led to my most recent Silly Conversation.

Man-Beating-a-Copy-Machine2-300x204

I entered the copy room to discover the photocopier non-functional.  One of the paper drawers was popped out, and a hastily written note adorned the feeder: “COPIER JAMED. OFFICE TOLD.”  I realized instantly it was far more likely that the copier was actually jammed, as that is a common mishap for these machines, whereas being “jamed” is far less common.  After a brief investigation, I realized that a sheet of paper had become wedged behind the paper drawer, thus causing the malfunction.  It was an odd place indeed for a paper jam, made all the more strange because it appeared to be an original.  It thus would have had no business being anywhere near the paper drawer.

That, though, was a mystery for another time.  As the Wrangler, it was my job to find a way to clear the jam.  The misfed paper could not be reached by hand behind the drawer, so I pushed the drawer in and out, until the force of the drawer popped the little perpetrator up high enough that I could reach it. It had now been ripped into a few pieces, but with a bit of stretching, was able to collect all of the sheets.

I shut the drawer and the machine went back to work.  Its first order of business was to print out the same document seven times, because we all know that when we send our document to a printer, and it doesn’t immediately come out, the magic elixir is to send it as many times as possible until it does.  I did finally get a chance to start my copy job, and then headed to the office to let them know the machine had been restored to working order.

I entered the office, and announced to one of the secretaries that she need not call the tech person out, as the problem had been resolved.  My principal looked up from his desk, and with his face a twisted mass of confusion and awe, asked me to repeat myself.

Me:  I said the photocopier has been fixed and you don’t need to call in the tech person.

He said nothing else, but rose from his desk and took several silent steps towards me. His mouth was actually agape, and he looked upon me with such disbelief, one would have thought I had instead announced that I had reanimated his dead brother, and that he was waiting to speak to him in the teacher’s lounge.

Him:  Wow! How did you do that?

Me:  I cleared the jam.

Him: What?

Me: I said I cleared the jam.

Him:  I don’t understand. How were you able to do that?

Me: I used my arm.

Him:  You used your arm?

Me:  Yes.

(I waved it around a bit to make sure there was no confusion.)

Him:  How did you use your arm?

Me:  I stretched it.  And then I clamped my hand around the paper, and then withdrew my arm.

(Again, I felt it necessary to supplement this description with a mimed demonstration.)

He said nothing, his expression unchanged.  It was at that moment it occurred to me that the photocopier was not simply an office machine to my principal. It was a great spiritual mystery, one that could barely be cognitively apprehended.  A bit like the Holy Trinity, the Noble Eightfold Path, or whatever the fuck it is Scientologists believe.

Having nothing else to add, I turned and headed back to my classroom.  Such is the occupational hazard of being the Photocopier Wrangler.

 

 

 

 

Silly Conversations with My Principal

January 21, 2016

Those of you that follow me on social media have already seen these.  I decided to collect them together in one post.  There may be more coming…

Education reformers have a number of villains whom they blame for the problems of public education.  Incompetent teachers, poor parenting skills, weak politicians.  What is never discussed is the lack of educational leadership.  Anyone who works in schools, however, knows this is a major issue.  Yet the reformers seldom mention it.  I think it never even occurs to them that leadership might be part of the problem. Perhaps because they are all leaders of various corporations themselves?

While the two dialogues that follow are not to be interpreted as indictments, they do suggest the problem in epitome.  Next time, I will share a far more worrisome story about my current superintendent.

Conversation #1:

My principal calls during class:

Him: Hi, it’s (His Name). How are you doing?

Me: (somewhat irritable, because I’m trying to teach my class): Fine. What’s up?

Him: Was (Name of Student) in class this morning?

Me: No.

Him: She wasn’t?

Me: No.

Him: Did you mark her absent?

Me: No, because–

Him: Well, it’s very important that you keep your attendance records accurate, and take attendance as soon as possible. It makes it much easier for us to know when a student isn’t in class, and to figure out why. Why didn’t you mark her absent?

Me: She withdrew two weeks ago. That’s also the reason she wasn’t in class.

(Excruciatingly long pause…)

Him: Oh. Right. Right. Um, Ok. Ok. Thanks.

(He hangs up.)

Principal

A slight exaggeration, perhaps…

Conversation #2

Another call to my classroom while teaching…

Him: Hi, it’s (His Name). How are you?

Me: (Even more irritated this time) Fine. What do you need?

Him: Could you send Mason up to see me?

Me: No, I can’t.

Him: Why not?

Me: I don’t have a Mason in my class.

Him: You don’t?

Me: No, I don’t.

Him: Are you sure?

Me: Yes, I’m sure.

Him: I wonder where he is…

Me: I don’t know. Maybe he’s off mixing cement somewhere.

Him: Mixing cement? Why would he be mixing cement?

Me: I can’t tell you unless you show me you know the secret handshake.

Him: Handshake? What handshake? What are you talking about?

Me: Never mind. He’s not here. Don’t know where he is.

Hell is Other People, Part Two

October 17, 2015

In the midst of the lengthy and tedious email exchange over protecting the civil rights of my students, my principal arrived at my door to tell me he had received a phone call from a parent regarding a sticker in my classroom observed during open house.  I assumed that the parent with whom I had been corresponding grew tired of making poor arguments to me, and chose to now make them to my principal.  This was not the case, as it became immediately clear that this was another parent who had a different concern well beyond safe space stickers and rainbows.

“The parent,” the principal offered, “says he was concerned about a sticker in your room that appeared to be pro-ISIS.”

Um…what?

“Do you know what sticker he’s talking about?”

So now I have a parent who thinks I have pro-ISIS decorations.  I heart the Islamic State.  Guns don’t kill people, the Islamic State in the Levant kills people. My other car is a Daesh-owned Tacoma.

So, I’m either filling my classroom with pro-gay propaganda, or pro-Islamic State propaganda.  We need to get our stories together, people.  I clearly can’t be doing both.

To be fair, when he said ISIS, I knew exactly what he was talking about.  There is a bumper sticker that reads “Isis” in my classroom.  However, it does not refer to the band of Sunnis desperately trying to establish an 8th century caliphate near the Euphrates.  It is instead a reference to how the word has been used for most of the last 2500 years: the Egyptian goddess. This is the bumper sticker that frightened my parent so:

EBISI

This was a gift from a student I received nearly fifteen years ago. I was teaching world history, and anyone who’s ever had me in class knows I adore puns.  So what do you get for your pun happy world history teacher?  You get him a bumper sticker that has the names of two Egyptian Gods (“Ra” being the second) and arranges their names to sound like a cheer! Of course, it never occurred to me that I would one day need to explain how the bumper sticker meant I wasn’t a terrorist.

My principal clarified this to the father, who accepted the explanation with the caveat that the sticker “was still awfully close.” Close?  Close to what?  That the name Isis is close to the acronym ISIS? Yes, that’s true, but lots of words in our language are close to others.  For example,  I am close enough to close the door. In spite of this absurd attempt to save face, I took the matter to be over and done with.

A few days later, one of my students approached me after class.

“Are my parents giving you a hard time?”

I explained that there was a phone call to the principal, but it was just a misunderstanding and it’s all been resolved.  The student sighed heavily and said “I’m sorry. I tried to explain to them what the sticker meant, but they wouldn’t listen to me.” I told her no apology was necessary, and reiterated it was a misunderstanding.  I did appreciate the fact that the student felt comfortable enough to speak to me about it, and I was grateful for the chance to reassure her that I didn’t hold any of it against her.

There are several ironies here.  One being that this came during a unit on the stereotyping and racial profiling of Arabs, South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  Another being that Isis was the goddess of health, marriage…and wisdom.

Hell is Other People, Part One

October 12, 2015

See?  I told you I was back.  Only had to wait one day for my next post…

On my way to open house this year, I calculated that this is my 19th one.  In short, I’ve been teaching a while.  I have already had my first two second generation students, and a few others with parents who graduated the June before I started teaching. In all of those years, I have worked hard to cultivate strong relationships with my student’s parents.  That is not to say that they are always happy with me.  Sometimes we have disagreements of how best to address a student’s needs in the classroom.  Any differences, though, I am usually able to work out through communication and compromise. Any veteran teacher will tell you, though, that sometimes you get a parent with whom you just cannot reason.  What follows are two stories that happened recently that fit this model perfectly.

Interestingly, neither of these events had anything to do with any content in my class, nor any perceived slight in the way I spoke to a student.  They both had to do with the decorations in my classroom observed by parents during open house. Anyone who has seen my classroom knows that it is fully decorated with a number of posters and bumper stickers of a historical or inspirational nature (and in the case of my Sojourner Truth “Ain’t I Woman” poster–both).  Many of them were gifts from former and current students.  I also have displayed several examples of student work.  In short, there are many interesting things to look at in my classroom.  This is as it should be, because otherwise the most interesting aesthetic would be stacked concrete block.

A few days after open house, I got an email from a parent expressing concern about the “political bent” of some of my classroom decorations, and a concern that he felt it may have been making it difficult for students to comfortably express their point of view.  He wouldn’t say exactly what messages he was concerned about, but I had feeling I knew.  I didn’t think he was complaining about a Republican bias regarding my “I Like Ike” poster from the 1950s, nor excessive Protestantism due to my “Help Wanted: No Irish Need Apply” sign, my pro-Monarchist sympathies due to my “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, my strident Catholicism due to my Mother Theresa quote, nor even the ardent feminism expressed in my Rosie the Riveter poster. I decided to convey to him that I was sorry he felt that way, but I observed no such bias in my classroom decorations.  I wasn’t going to ask him what bothered him so–if he responded, then, he was going to have to be specific.

In his next email, he made it clear what it was he found objectionable: my GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) “Safe Space” posters and stickers.  He thought their presence created an environment where students (i.e., his son) wouldn’t be free to express their objections to homosexuality.  I calmly explained that I have a moral and legal responsibility to protect the civil rights of all of my students–and indeed, the state interprets Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as including protections towards LGBT students.  By creating a safe space, I am carrying out those guidelines.  I also added that he may consider it a political issue, but that it is not–it is a human rights issue.

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word

Some people have a very different interpretation of the word “safe.”

After this, his responses grew more irrational–he claimed that if i was going to have “rainbows everywhere” as he put it, I should also have symbols for all of the major religions.  I then explained the difference between civil rights (rights that protect you for who you are) and civil liberties (rights that protect you for what you believe), and that he was erroneously conflating the two.  He replied by arguing  that it was impossible to protect civil rights and civil liberties simultaneously. In other words, he felt that his freedom to express his disdain for LGBT people was more important than their right to be protected from discrimination.

This, of course, reflects a common misunderstanding about civil liberties (and freedom of expression in particular).  Your right to express yourself freely does not mean you can say whatever you want, however you want to, in any context you choose without consequence.  It just means one of those consequences can’t be prison.  Given that many of our leading politicians don’t seem to understand this very basic concept, it’s no surprise that this parent doesn’t seem to understand this difference.  Being a public school teacher, he really shouldn’t need to have this idea explained to him by a colleague–nor should he be clinging to the notion that protecting his students’ civil rights is somehow limiting his freedom. The irony is, after taking my class, his son will have a clearer understanding of this than he will.

After that,  I informed him that we were at an impasse, and that I would pursue the conversation no further.  He did respond, but I deleted the email without reading it.  That was enough, thank you.

As sad and absurd as this was, it was nothing compared to the ludicrous episode that followed a few days later: the concern that one of my wall decorations seemed to endorse the Islamic State.

I am not making that up.  And that will be for next time.

The Turing Test, Part Two

October 12, 2015

Preface:  A long layoff, I know.  For those of you who know me personally, you are aware of the rather intense transition my life has endured over the last few months.  If you don’t know me, and our curious…you can send an inquiry by email.  I’m not going to bother with it here. I do wish to return to blogging, and will begin by returning to this story from March 8.

To continue:  I had worked constantly, desperate to complete the Turing Machine, and pass the class.  Every time I thought I had solved the problem, it turned out I had failed.  I was becoming desperate, but there was no internet to help me, and I didn’t know the other students in class well enough to request their assistance.  Part of it was hubris:  I didn’t think I should need that help.  I had already spent all of Professor Otte’s office hours having him re-teach me the class.  I wanted to show that I could do this on my own.

The problem was…it didn’t seem like I could.

In spite of all of my efforts, the last day of the quarter arrived, and I still hadn’t solved it.  I worked on it all night, and it was now 8 a.m., and the assignment was due in two hours. With a non-functional Turing Machine, I would not pass the class. My second quarter as a transfer student, and I will have failed one of my courses. In my major.  This was not good.

When my final attempt failed, I simply rose from the desk and headed into the shower.  I’d turn the assignment in, and hope the professor would take pity on me.  Maybe he’d give me an extension. Maybe he’d give me an incomplete. Maybe he’d let me change my grade to “audit.”  I didn’t have any reason to think he would, but it was this hope that I clung to. I had to in order to avoid the humiliation I was feeling due to trying so desperately hard to succeed and having utterly failed.  I took what I could only describe as the “Shower of Failure”: I leaned against the shower wall as the water bounced off of me.  I did nothing else.

And perhaps it was because this was the first time in five weeks I hadn’t been thinking about the god damn Turing Machine, I was suddenly struck by an idea.  Wait, could that…that might…oh my god!  That might work!! Yes!! That might work!! No…that will work!!!

I leaped from the shower and raced over the computer and punched in the program pattern. I didn’t want to wait–I was terrified if I did, I’d forget my idea.  The pattern looked good.  I tried a configuration of numbers.  It worked.  I tried a  different number combination.  It also worked!  Another–success!  I altered the configuration, because it had to apply to different variables.  Yes.  A different number combination.  Yes.   Another combination.  Yes.  A different configuration. Yes!

I think I sat at the computer a half an hour typing every variation I could think of.  The machine passed every one.  It worked.  It worked!  It finally worked!

I began shouting the phrase “IT WORKS!” over and over again as I indulged in a spontaneous,  purely caffeine and adrenaline fueled Spontaneous Energetic Happy Dance of Victory.  I shrieked “IT WORKS.” at everything–plants, furniture, the food in the refrigerator, the spider in the corner of the bedroom.  I screamed at Zorro, my pet tortoise. He was singularly unimpressed, but I didn’t care.   I had done it!  I had created a successful Turing Machine.  I was going to pass. I wasn’t a failure.  I was the logic God!

Alan Turing, whose machine became the bane of my existence for five weeks in college. None of which compares to what he endured.

Alan Turing, whose machine became the bane of my existence for five weeks in college. None of which compares to what he endured.

The only thing that paused my revelry was a strange sensation underneath my feet and between my toes. Why were my feet wet?  Why was…the entire floor wet?  It was then that I realized that when I raced from the shower I had forgotten two very important things:  one being I never shut off the water, and now the apartment was nearly flooded.

The second thing I had chosen not to do was actually get dressed.  I had been solving the Turing Machine and celebrating my success completely naked.  With all of the windows in my apartment opened.  On all sides, which allowed several of my neighbors a front row seat to my victory dance.  Not exactly Magic Mike, but they were all staring at me.

I stared back at them a moment.  I’m certain a silly grin crossed my face, as I instinctively began to hide myself. I scanned the room for something to cover myself before meeting my neighbors persistent gaze.  I then impulsively raced over to the window, stuck my head out and shouted “I SOLVED THE FUCKING TURING MACHINE!” and continued my celebration. The neighbors watched, still confused and intrigued by the insane white man.

A few minutes later I was dressed and outside.  I leaped onto my motorcycle, and as I pulled out of the apartment parking lot, I glanced behind me. The neighbors continued to stare.  I laughed out loud as I raced up toward campus. I continued to giggle as I handed to the computer disc to a confused Professor Otte, and giggled all the way home.

There are a number of lessons one can derive from this story.  I think perhaps the most important one is this:  Don’t ever take Advanced Symbolic Logic.

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