Gord Winkle was well into his third jelly doughnut, his mustache vibrant with strawberry jelly and a smattering of custard, when Janitor Ed McGonigal strode purposefully into the staff room. Everyone fell silent. Because Ed had been working at Bedlam for as long as anyone could remember, he had become almost a part of the building in the minds of most of the faculty. And he never came into the staff room.
“Hah!” he said, triumphantly slapping what appeared to be several magazines down on the table in the center of the room. “No need to thank me, evan thoo I was doin’ yer jobs for yeh today. I caught a bunch a sophomore boys readin’ this—this—trash!” He gestured toward the pile before him. The teachers craned their necks to take a look. It was a pile of PC Gamer magazines. One of the covers had a computer-drawn figure of large-bosomed woman giving the reader her best come-hither look. “The clarty blaggards tried to tell me it was fur an assignment. I told ’em I wasn’t a wee bairn jus’ yesterday.”
Red Carpenter, who usually taught in the business department but had recently been drafted to teach two sections of sophomore English, stood up. “Actually, Ed,” he said, “those are for an assignment. I assigned my students to read them in preparation for my class.”
Ed looked crestfallen. As usual, in moments of stress, his Scots accent got a bit harder to decipher. “Oh, ’tis soorry I am, Mr. Caerphentaer. I neaver asoomed that ennyone would assign setch a thing to oor stoodents. And in an English class nae less. Did yuir textbooks nae come in in time then?”
Red laughed and slapped Ed on the back. “You’re killing me, Ed. No, we don’t use textbooks. We live in a digital age, and we need to keep up with the times. Books are so passé. I actually teach a majority of the class through an MMOG.”
“Huh?” Ed looked as stunned as a sheepdog that had just run into a fence post. “I dinna ken what the world yuir talkin’ aboot. Cain’t you poot it in English fur me?”
Gord looked up expectantly, smacking his lips as he hoped that an MMOG was some type of treat as of yet unbeknownst to him. He was quickly disappointed.
Red smiled. “An MMOG is a massive multiplayer online game, Ed. The kids are totally into it. From their computers, no matter where they are, they can enter a virtual reality that allows them to role-play, testing out other identities and worldviews as they build virtual cities, trade virtual currency, and conduct virtual commerce. And all the while, they are building their language skills without even realizing it.”
“So yoo’ve got the laddies and lasses playin’ games noo instead of larning, then?”
“No, I’ve got them playing games so they learn, Ed. Big difference.”
At that moment, Christina Lopez, chair of the English Department, stepped through the door. She was just in time to hear Ed say, “Are ya tellin’ me a video game is better’n a boook? School’s changed since I was a lad.”
Red smiled condescendingly and said, “Welcome to the twenty-first century, Ed. The digital era is here and print is dead. Our machines—our phones, our cars, our tablets, our PCs—they will read for us and speak to us. In a world where people spend a majority of their day looking at screens, books are obsolete.”
“Hold on now,” said Christina as she poured herself a cup of coffee. Last year she felt deep reservations when principal Bentley VanderHaar suggested that Red could teach two sections of sophomore English, and the little bit of the conversation she’d just heard was doing nothing to alleviate her concerns.
“I understand that books can be delivered in multiple ways nowadays,” she said, “but that doesn’t change the fundamental importance of books, of learning to read and think.”
“Aye, lassie, I alwass said ye had a foin heed on yuir shoulders,” said Ed.
Red smirked and said, “Learning to think is important, and there’s more than one way to think, you know. Am I the only one in here who has ever heard of Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligences?”
“Which you learned about from a book!” Christina snapped.
“Actually, which I learned from Spud Kwatowski,” Red countered. “He always recorded the lectures in Ed. Psych. for me.” Red placed his thumbs in his armpits, puffed his chest proudly, and added, “I made it through college and my master’s program without cracking a book open even once.”
“That comes as no surprise to any of us,” Christina mumbled under her breath. Then she spoke up. “As it turns out, Red, books are not dead. In fact, sales of young adult books have never been higher. Ever since the Harry Potter series, kids are reading more books and longer books than ever before. Books let us dig deeper, think harder, and get lost in the world of the book.”
“You can get lost in a video game too,” said Red with a grimace.
“Of course you can,” said Christina. “But I’m not sure that’s a world you have to really work at opening up to our students. Last time I checked, they were quite willing to explore that world on their own. English class is about teaching them to read deeply and closely and to communicate through their own writing. Reading lets kids get into someone else’s mind and see the world from their perspective. That teaches them to be more open minded and to think more broadly. And we need that in our society.”
“Oh, yeah?” asked Red, “Well, it sounds like you want to start off that broad thinking by narrowing their definition of literacy.”
As their argument grew louder and more and more teachers became involved in it, Gord Winkle tuned it out. He had realized an entire baker’s box of pastries sat unguarded on the other table. Gord was a big fan of the Jack Aubrey novels of Patrick O’Brian. Like his hero Jack (who was depicted as both portly and handsome), Gord found himself on a spy mission. His task was to use the distraction created by the two arguing Spanish captains to escape from the brig, sneak into the chart room, nab the plans to their island fortress and then steal a long boat, get the plans to his ship, and deliver them safely to the admiral.
Under the influence of his own imagination, Gord dropped below the plane of the table and stealthily moved his admittedly considerable bulk over to the bakery box (secret plans). Then, in a move almost ninja-like in its execution, Gord took advantage of Ed McGonigal’s shouting about how Robert the Bruce’s success as military commander depended on his reading books. Gord grabbed the box, crawled to the door, and vanished as if he were never there.
The debate about teaching with books or with MMOGs was not settled that day in the staff room, but there was at least one beneficiary. Under a lab table in the shop, hidden from prying eyes, Gord Winkle enjoyed no fewer than six pastries and half a chapter of Master and Commander until the bell rang for the end of his free period.
Jan Karsvlaam recently left his position as Director of Development for Calvary Christian High School in Austin, Texas (after his Ten-Gallon Hat Ice Bucket Challenge resulted in a lot of wet, very expensive hats, and a lot of angry donors) to become Athletic Director for the soon-to-open Louisville Christian High School. Though disappointed that the board rejected his first two mascot proposals (the Louisville Inquisitors and the Louisville Martyrs), he is hopeful they will consider his third and favorite idea: the Louisville Fightin’ Theologians.