The Indispensable 56

How I Became a Teacher

Ron Clark may have cornered the market on strategies for classroom control, but it takes a different brand of strong-arming to really get results. The first installment of excerpts from a book whose author cannot be named for obvious reasons.


Growing up, I never thought I’d be a teacher. Like any kid, I went through phases about what I might be one day. One week I’d be running around the house in a tinfoil space helmet and declaring I wanted to be an astronaut, and the next I’d be sleeping with my mitt under my pillow, dreaming of playing centerfield for the Yankees.

Ultimately, though, I knew in the back of my mind that when the time came, I would go into the family business as a mid-level enforcer for an organized crime outfit in southern New Jersey. My father before me was a mid-level enforcer for organized crime, and his father before him was a mid-level enforcer for organized crime. (His father before him was a “worthless drunk who got what he deserved” according to my grandfather.)

I was a natural, executing my first shakedown at age eight when I kneecapped a 12-year-old and took his lunch money. Soon, I was doing everything from running errands for the consigliore to fixing the recess kickball game. I was a made man when I was still a mere boy of 17. I knew how to wield a tire iron and a 9mm with equal skill, and under the tutelage of Lenny “The Cipher” Lamon perfected a method for fraying the brake cable on any car so as to cause an “accident,” if you know what I’m saying.

I had everything, a Cadillac, a nice apartment, and fantastic and supportive co-workers who would (literally) die for me. I was on my way to a lifetime of material comfort: marrying a woman named Gloria, and having affairs with women named Shelia, Adriana, and Lucianna. But one day a single picture changed my life.

One morning, a squad of FBI agents surrounded me at the Mickey D’s drive-through as I was picking up some McMuffins for the fellas. Several hours later, as I sat handcuffed to a chair in an interrogation room, the picture was placed in front of me by one “Special Agent Smith.” It was a still from a security camera, a little dark and pretty grainy, but unmistakably showing me wielding a meat cleaver over the head of a particular bar owner who had been properly and many times warned about what might happen to someone who was unconscionably late on his payments.

Special Agent Smith gave me a choice: I was either going to be sitting in a witness chair inside a federal courtroom, singing my heart out, or be strapped to another kind of chair, where I’d be fried more thoroughly than anything on the McDonald’s menu.

“Don’t worry,” Special Agent Smith told me. “When it’s all over, I’ll make sure you get a real cushy deal in the witness protection program.”

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts enacted during the early days of the Bush presidency, those of us in the witness protection program are no longer treated to a lifetime of comfortable living in an undisclosed location courtesy of the federal government. (Only Vice President Cheney retains that deal.) Now, we are required to work for our safety, so after my turn as a stoolie was over I found myself inside a second-grade classroom at an elementary school that will go unnamed for obvious reasons.

Just like that, I was a teacher.

But of course, we all know that there’s more to teaching than just showing up, and that first year I often wondered if I wouldn’t have been better off taking my chances in the penal system or with the inevitable retribution I’d have coming if the family ever found me. Every day I returned home, beaten and drained, paste in my hair, chalk smudges on my fingers, the children’s whining ringing in my ears. Nights, I would bolt upright in bed, soaked in sweat as each day’s debacle replayed in my dreams.

Special Agent Smith was right. I do have the tools to be an effective teacher. I understand intimidation and threat. Special Agent Smith was not sympathetic. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “I saw what you did to Harry ‘Big Halibut’ Haltosky. He couldn’t stop weeping like a little girl for like a month after you were finished with him and that band saw. He wigs out if you even flip past This Old House on television. Are you telling me you can’t handle a bunch of kids?”

Special Agent Smith’s words stung, and I would’ve liked to shove them right back down his smug throat, but unfortunately, assaulting a federal agent isn’t a plea-bargainable offense.

But the more I thought about it, I knew that Special Agent Smith was right. I do have the tools to be an effective teacher. I understand intimidation and threat. I have a stare that could bore a hole through Kevlar. I know how to put just the right amount of pressure on an ulnar nerve to make a man’s arm go completely and helplessly numb so he can be unobtrusively escorted out of a public place and into the trunk of a car.

I realized kids were meant to be controlled, not coddled, and control was something I definitely understood. I began to implement all of the things that I’d learned during my years working with the family, and soon things inside the classroom began to change.

Once I stopped treating my students like unique individuals in the process of developing their intellects and identities and started to turn them into mindless soldiers who existed to obey my every order and whim, my classroom got a lot quieter and more orderly, and those night sweats were replaced by the dreams of a contented man who gets four months of vacation a year.

More importantly, the kids began to learn… to learn that in life, someone is at the top while others are at the bottom.

I don’t think I have to tell you who was at the top. I now had 25 seven-year-olds referring to me as “Godfather,” and I wasn’t at a single one of their baptisms, and some of them are even Jewish, if you get my drift.

Over the years I’ve polished my classroom techniques, and at the urging of my colleagues and Special Agent Smith, I have collected them here as “The Indispensable 56” in the hopes that other teachers may find them useful.

Some of you may be thinking that you can pick and choose from among my nuggets of advice, that you can use those that seem right for you and discard the others. You would be thinking wrong. “Indispensable” means “necessary or essential.” The title of my book is not the “Maybe These Would Be Helpful 56.”

Can you think of anything that might be indispensable in your life? Like maybe your kneecaps? Or perhaps your entire circulatory system?

You’re probably also familiar with another teaching guide with a number in the title that has proved popular over the last several years. Rest assured that mine is better. For one thing, my book has 56 tips, not 55. For another, I could kill the dude who wrote that other book with a single blow to the windpipe.

Let that be our first lesson.

Excerpts From The Indispensable 56

Rule 8: When you are trying to persuade someone to change their behavior, whispering is more effective than yelling.

During my first year of teaching, my classroom always had a “noise problem” after lunch. Hyped up on Twinkies, fruit punch, and PB&Js—and over-stimulated at recess—the kids would inevitably return to the classroom and be bouncing off the walls.

My blood pressure would rise with the volume of my voice as I yelled for quiet, and soon I’d be hoarse, but the kids would still be going strong, singing, chanting, and banging their little fists against their little desks.

Sometimes it would get so bad that Principal Peters, all 5'6", 115 pounds of tweed sport-coated authority, would have to come in and restore order.

It was shameful.

One day, as I was yelling and stomping my foot for order, I caught a reflection of myself in the classroom window and realized that I was the spitting image of Jimmy “The Screamer” Scambelli.

Jimmy Scambelli was the least effective enforcer in the entire outfit. Let’s say you made a bet on the Patriots-Colts game, taking the Patriots plus three and a half, but the Colts won by four on a last-second Peyton Manning touchdown pass. That is known as a “bad beat,” but it is a beat nonetheless. People who make bets like that must pay up. If they don’t pay, they get a visit. The problem was that when Jimmy Scambelli made his visits, he would come out of the gate screaming and threatening all kinds of things, like cutting off heads and crapping down necks, things that clearly Jimmy could not and would not do. Jimmy was a joke, a cartoon, like something out of those mobster movies that we would all watch and laugh at. Jimmy was capable of shaking down only the most easily frightened customers, high school drug dealers or Social Security grandmas.

Kneeling down to his level, I looked him in the eye and smiled and very quietly asked him about how much he loved his puppy. I, on the other hand, employed a different method. I would walk up to the non-paying person in question and smile. I would speak in very low tones that would force the listener to lean forward to hear me. Once he had leaned far enough forward, I would grab his collar so as to pull his ear close to my lips, close enough that the heat of my breath would collect moistly on his skin, and I would explain slowly, calmly, what would happen to him if he did not pay as promised. No one else in the room would even know that the soon-to-be-paying person was now wishing he’d put on some Depends adult protective undergarments instead of his usual Jockeys that morning.

Looking over my class that day I saw that there was one student in particular who seemed to be the noise-generating ringleader. His name was Mitchell, and he bounded around the room, moving from group to group singing a song of his own invention about his new puppy, “I love my puppy… he is cute… his name is Barney… I love my puppy,” over and over again. At each stop, another student would join in the song, until a good three-quarters of the class was singing the praises of Barney.

I zeroed in on Mitchell and managed to grab him on one of his trips around the room. Kneeling down to his level, I looked him in the eye and smiled and very quietly asked him about how much he loved his puppy.

“Very very much!” he yelled.

Now don’t get me wrong—I love animals, and would never do anything to harm one unless it was absolutely necessary.

I smiled and leaned in closer and asked how he’d feel if his puppy was lost, maybe at the bottom of a lake with his paws encased in little concrete booties.

“Wouldn’t that be sad, Mitchell?” I said.

Mitchell looked at me and began to sniffle. Soon, he was back at his desk, docile, quiet, wiping the tears away with the back of his hand. The other children began to notice.

“Why is Mitchell crying?” asked a little girl named Suzy. I waved her forward to the front of the room and, again, very quietly so the other students couldn’t hear, told her a little story I like to call “Suzy’s Hello Kitty Meets the Industrial Press,” and sure enough, she returned to her desk to silently contemplate life without her favorite doll.

Over the next couple of weeks I managed to have a private moment with each of my students, and after that, the return from lunch was an orderly exercise of students filing silently to their desks and staring straight ahead with blank looks on their faces.

Even Principal Peters noticed. One day he stopped by the classroom just before I started that day’s history lesson and said, “They look lobotomized. Great work.”


TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner