Saturday, January 13, 2007

Returm of the prince of Egypt

Mills of the gods

Just when you think that all news is bad, Robert Nuranen of Hancock, Michigan returns a book to the local library which had been due since June 2, 1960. He had checked out the book, "The Prince of Egypt" out for a school assignment back then and lost track of it when "his mother misplaced it". I would have blamed it on my mom too. Nuranen (who never finished the book) says that the family would run across it every few years and set is aside, "meaning to do something with it". That is the most believable part of the story. That makes it not a lost and found story, but a record of 47 years of procrastination. Something that I can relate to.The most amazing thing about the story is the fine he paid. It was only $171.32, or, as I figure it, about a penny a day.

A long time ago, I talked my way into a teaching job for a semester at a Houston high school. I was waiting to go to law school, and to this day I am amazed that I got that job. The hardest part of the job to me was not the teaching, I knew a good bit about English literature, it was the bureaucratic stuff that you had to do. I was always in trouble with the Assistant Principal for something. Not covering the halls in the morning, not ever turning in my attendance records, dismissing class early, you get the picture. But the scariest moment came about a week before the semester ended.

The Assistant Principal was in charge of the text books that were checked out by each teacher to their students each semester. He explained to me that at the end of the term that I had to turn back all of the 105 books that had been checked out to my students before I ever got the job. Failure to return a book meant that I was responsible for obtaining payment from the student who lost the book. The idea of one of those students coughing up any money to me for any reason, except for maybe a lid of marijuana was laughable. I had not seen more than a dozen students even use the text book over the course of the semester. They had not used it because of one of my other weaknesses, following the state prescribed curriculm. Since I tended to teach what I wanted, we seldom used the text in my classes. The Assistant Principal made it clear to me that if I could not get the money from my students, it would be withheld from my rather meager pay. That got my attention. I had one last thought though. Since I had not been the one who checked out the books to the students, I did not have any record the "book numberts" stamped into each book and so I told him that I could not guarantee that I would return the same books that were checked out. This was somewhat of a lie, I did have a bunch of index cards with each students name on them, followed by their book number that I had found in my desk. But I planned on throwing those away as soon as possible, so the the lie was only temporal in nature. As the Assistant Princiapl smiled and looked me in the eye, I knew that we were on the same wave length. "Mr Porter" he said, "all I am concerned about is quantity, you just get me 105 books."

I decided to forgo teaching that day for a series of class meetings. As I had guessed, over half of the students did not know where their books were "their mothers had misplaced them " . So I explained to the class that I needed 105 literature books, and I did not particularly care how I got them. I told them that if I had 105 books by the end of the week that we would have a big end of school blow out party. I then dismissed each class to let them go "search" where ever they needed to.

By the end of the week, I had 112 books. I learned that some not so subtle methods had been used in gathering the books, but I was focused on going to law school and so morality was far from an issue for me at the time . One of the students, a football player, a huge fellow who never studied, but always came to class, took pride in returning more than a dozen books. I was told by another student, with some awe, that he had actually seen the big fellow tear the door off of a locker to procure a book. I was gratified at the loyalty I had managed to inspire in such a short time.Good bye Mr. Chips, I remember thinking to myself.

The Assistant Principal was proud of the job I had done in turning in all the books, he never mentioned the extra ones, and I never got into any trouble for dismissing my classes for the book search.

All of that was more than 30 years ago. A lifetime ago. Yet some of those kids who came to my rescue, had just been born the year the "Prince of Egypt" was checked out in Hancock, Michigan. That, my friends, is some impressive procrastination.

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