From the Foreword
Sean said I was a “student teacher”. He made the comment out of the blue. We weren’t discussing teaching, or me. It was just an observation Sean made.
And it really ticked me off. I’d been teaching for a 15 years, I was comfortable now with my subject. How was I a student teacher?
Sean explained that he meant I was there for the students. I wasn’t there just because I loved the subject, but because I cared about the kids.
So Sean was right. I was a student teacher. I had gone into teaching because I wanted to have the positive impact on students’ lives that a small number of teachers had on me. I grew to love chemistry, but I always loved interacting with the kids.
From Notes to a Beginning Teacher
I worked for three years with people who were training to be high school teachers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I was often shocked when these highly intelligent and accomplished folks treated ideas I shared with them about functioning as a teacher as if it was wisdom handed down from on high. So maybe some of what experience taught me could be useful to a beginning teacher.
When I was getting ready to begin teacher training at Stanford, I read everything I could that might guide my teaching career. Books by Jonathan Kozol, Bel Kaufman, John Holt, and Herb Kohl helped shape and direct the fervent idealism with which I entered the profession.
That idealism was long gone by the time I left the profession, after 26 years in the classroom.
But I’ll save the reasons why until the end. I’m not trying to drive people away from teaching, although I do think a little forewarning is probably a good thing.
There’s a line from a great song: “I wish that I knew then, what I know now, when I was younger.”
What I’m doing here is recording some of the wisdom and insight, or lack thereof, from my teaching career. If time travel is perfected, I’ll take this manuscript back to my 1973 self.
I came from a family of educators. My father and both brothers started out as teachers. All three left the classroom and went into management in public or private schools. By the end of my career, that vertical career movement would seem like crossing over to the dark side.
But, when I started my career, I expected to make the same move from classroom to administration, and the quicker the better. Fortunately for me, I found enough joy in the classroom that I never left, until the day I left school behind me.
Families of fireman and cops tend to produce new generations in the same profession. In my family, the success of my father and brothers was something to guide my aspirations. When my father talked about moving into administration, he said that he had felt as a classroom teacher that he had to be able to do a principal’s or superintendent’s job better than the people he saw in those positions.
I don’t know if I got the same attitude from nature, nurture or experience.
Humility is highly over-rated.
Teaching is energizing and enervating, uplifting and depressing, stimulating and boring. A self-impressed math teacher I knew used to say he told his neighbor that the two best things about teaching were July and August. Teachers like that do nothing to elevate the profession in the eyes of those subjected to hearing them.
I probably wasn’t good at pacing myself, but I needed summer vacations to recover. The first week or two was decompression. Following a tough year, the last week of summer was depressing, as I contemplated returning to an arena.
The first year of teaching is brutal. Beginning any new job is hard, but given the evolution of any curriculum over an academic year, you are guaranteed to be continually experiencing new material right until school lets out.
Some routines do become familiar over that first year. However, the continuing revelation that teaching a subject, and knowing it, are different orders of thinking will continue to stagger you.
On top of the thrill, and abject terror, of newness, is the way schools treat beginning teachers. Since those creating schedules have developed relationships with those who they are scheduling, the classes assigned a new teacher tend to be what no one else wants to, or is willing to, teach.
My first year, when I was exclusively a chemistry teacher, I taught five classes in a seven period day. I was the only newcomer in the department, and everyone else taught four classes. Everyone else had their own classroom, and I taught in three different rooms, in three different wings of the building. Each room “belonged” to someone else, with all the territoriality that implies. Each room had a teaching aide, whom the teacher in that room treated as theirs exclusively.
By that June, I was exhausted. Having failed to leave time for exercise, my back was killing me. It is not hard to see why so many people leave the profession in the first three years.
After seven years in science, I got laid off from that department. I had the option of bumping my way into the English department. I was so pissed off at being bumped out of science that I took a year’s leave of absence.
Having no kids, and a wife who as a public school speech pathologist , I could afford the time off. It rejuvenated me, allowed me to spend months with my father as he recovered from an amputation, and gave me the energy to wade into the English department.
While I did get my own room, I also got the journalism course, a grammar/vocabulary course, and a course for seniors who needed an English course for graduation requirements.
On top of knowing nothing about journalism, it was also the course that produced a weekly school paper, which was distributed in the local newspaper, for all to see and critique. There was no extra stipend for this responsibility, and it was more work than any other course in the department.
But here’s why teaching can be great- I loved teaching journalism. It was constantly stimulating, I had complete latitude in the curriculum, and the successes of my students were publicly visible, so that my competence as an instructor was not subject to adolescent whims or subjective administrative analysis.
I taught journalism for three years, and stopped because I was officially back in the science department, and the journalism had drained me.
Which brings me around to a key bit of advice to a new teacher. There is always something more you can be doing. If you have any imagination, and a desire to be better, there is always something that can improve your classroom, or your lessons, or your content knowledge. (This is well known to evaluators who feel they must justify their existence by finding “suggestions” for your improvement.)
Resist the temptation to run to a horizon you can never reach, and save room for yourself. If you run yourself down, your teaching is going to decline anyway, and, if you get sick, and you will (as Petri dishes, schools need defer only to commercial aircraft), then you’re running uphill to make up for the time you have lost.
A very bright and driven teacher I knew created a great debate program, then found community funding to build a radio station within the school. He told me that the superintendent had words of advice for him when he had lamented how hard he was working. The superintendent said to him, “One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself.”
While it sounds like a recommendation for self-gratification, it is important advice for the beginning teacher.
The hard charger who got that advice was out of teaching within a decade, working in a bank, then a funeral home, then car sales.
One hand for the ship, one for yourself.
 Death at an Early Age I’m not going to identify books with the traditional information. In this day and age, author and title are enough for you to chase down a book at the library or on the Internet. Better yet, purchase them at a great independent bookstore. I recommend, and Dan Brown would concur, Water Street Books in Exeter, New Hampshire.
 Up the Down Staircase
 Why Children Fail
 36 Children
 “Ooh La,La” by The Faces
 Note to self- Leave order with broker for Apple IPO.
 My first day on the job as a busboy, struggling to carry a tray up on my shoulder, I slipped in the kitchen and wedged my ass into a barrel of pickles.
 When I went to a doctor for an analysis of my back, he said I would need back surgery, and that I could probably never play basketball again. I spent the summer doing hundreds of sit-ups daily, and the back problem dissipated. I did, in the process, so strengthen my back muscles that, under great stress, my back would tighten up and kill me.
 which sometimes seems to be the only domain in which some administrators exist.
From Testing 1…2….3…..
My personal understanding of test anxiety came courtesy of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. I had never had test anxiety, partly because I usually didn’t care all that deeply how I did. I truly believe that everything has been recorded in my memory, and that finding a deep enough level of relaxation will always allow the correct answer to come forth.
I’ve always known that trying too hard could effectively block my memory. Sitting around with friends, we would labor over something truly important, like who sang “Purple People Eater”? Great effort would produce no results. So, an hour later, when I was not thinking about it at all, I would blurt out, “Sheb Wooley!”
The first day of the teacher preparation program at Stanford, we stood around chatting informally before we were called together in a large circle of desks. The head of the program introduced himself, and told us a little bit about himself. Then he had us go around the room, repeating the process he had modeled for us.
When we finished the circle, he said, “Now, if you can’t remember the name of every person who just introduced themselves, you probably shouldn’t be teaching.”
I was struck by a panic exceeded only once before in my life. I looked around the circle at people who had just said their names. The names of those I hadn’t chatted up before we started raced from my mind at light speed. That created a partial vacuum, which then sucked out the handful I had met before we sat in circle.
There may have been ten people around that circle. There may have been thirty. For any number between two and infinity, I had no names. I probably could have retrieved them all, but only under hypnosis.
I thought, “I’m so screwed.”
And, ever since then, I’ve been very poor at names. Which, of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
So, I fully understand test anxiety.
 Impressed? I knew you would be. Now, if I could just find my reading glasses.
 When my Dad, who was supposed to be in Chicago, came around the corner of the refrigerator, as I stood at the kitchen sink, holding a beer in my tenth grade hands.
“Dad, you’re supposed to be in Chicago!”
“Well, I’m NOT!”
 Which would have dredged up those memories of being probed by the aliens.
 My first year, I photocopied student pictures from the school yearbook so I could create a photographic seating chart for each class. After that, my anxiety abated enough that I just used the traditional names on seating charts.
From Making the Grades
In my less-than-stellar academic career in high school and college, I only got one grade below a C. That was a D+ in Calculus at UNH.
Two semesters of Calculus were required for my Chemistry major. The instructor in that first semester of Calculus was well into his dotage. His hearing was bad enough that students stopped asking questions after the first few classes, since he never heard the question as it was asked anyhow.
So the calculus kinda lost me- more even than anything in my chemistry courses, where C’s were pretty common on my record.
The D+ came first semester of my sophomore year. So I hatched a brilliant proposal for my parents.
I would go back to Minnesota for the summer, take that second course at the U of M, and then I could really focus on improving.
Of course, I had an ulterior motive. My high school friends from Minnesota were having a grand time. They were slowly dissipating the potential their lives held, occasionally getting arrested for annoying the authorities in any number of ways, and living together in a house that was probably somewhere below Board of Health standards.
This sounded like a great time to me, although I think I was wise enough that I agreed to stay in a dorm at the U. Probably at my parents insistence, in fact.
And I wouldn’t have a car, so seeing my friends in St. Jay when the U was in Minneapolis would be more problematic.
As soon as I got to my room at the U, I found a place where I could purchase a bike that I could sell back at the end of the term.
I found out that first day that it was a really long ride to see my friends, but it was certainly worth it for the cultural enrichment.
The first day of my calculus class, the instructor walked in and may have initially gone unrecognized, because he looked the same age as the students, and had hair at least as long as most, and longer than many.
This was a promising sign.
As he spoke up describing the class, he said he wanted it to be an experiment.
Another promising sign.
He said he wanted to teach calculus the way we would find most useful. And that we should decide how the course was graded.
He really had everyone’s attention now.
We could choose whether he would use traditional grading, or we could assign our own grades, or he could give everyone an A.
The class voted, and, undoubtedly driven by principles of egalitarianism, we voted for everyone to receive an A.
This seemed too good to be true.
So class proceeded, and I started a pattern of heading over to St. Paul on my bike every afternoon.
Things didn’t really start to get interesting until well after dark, so I was spending many a late summer night pedaling back to my dorm.
And the calculus class wasn’t really clearing the fog of my understanding of the subject.
Of course, that may have been impacted by the fact that it began at the grueling hour of 10 AM, which was too early a start for someone participating in the Tour de Minnesota.
So, the summer wore on, and my attendance became rather spotty.
Then the course was over, and I returned to the family home in Exeter, hoping the instructor kept his promise.
When the grade report came, I intercepted it before my parents could see it.
And there it was: an A!
I showed my parents and let them shower me with praise for my summer’s efforts.
It was at least a decade before I told them the true story.
And I never saw calculus get used- not in any of my college chemistry courses, not in any of the many high school chemistry texts I examined.
And certainly not in my classroom.
So I don’t feel too guilty about that A.
 They included Marvin the car thief, Jay the pyromaniac, and Butch the petty thief. In the senior yearbook, they finished in a dead heat for “Most Likely to be Outlined in Chalk”.
From Classroom Decorum
As I pontificate about discipline, let me describe a situation I created that is instructive- in what not to do.
Many of the years I taught, I would start the day at 4AM with an hour or more of weightlifting. On one particular day well into my career I arrived at school to find I had to cover a homeroom for another teacher. I normally started my day in this teacher’s room for first period, so I was aware that he didn’t run a really tight ship. I was particularly aware of one diminutive special needs student who would flutter around doing whatever he wished.
I was pretty jacked up after the workout, so I decided the homeroom was going to run right, if only for this one time. I worked at getting students into their seats quickly after the bell rang, since they were supposed to be seated and attentive during announcements.
Everyone was seated- except that one little twirp, who stood twitching behind his chair. Standing on the other side of the lab bench from him in the front of the room, I asked him to sit down.
He ignored me.
I repeated my request, changing it into a directive.
He remained standing, behind his chair, not making eye contact with me. I could see the other students watching the confrontation develop.
I ordered him again to sit down.
When he again ignored me, I vaulted over the lab bench, landing directly behind him. (Stuck the landing, too.)
Did I mention that I was jacked up?
Placing my hands on his shoulders, I forced him down into his seat.
And, as you might expect, he leapt up and attacked me.
Which was fairly comical, given an enormous size differential.
Realizing my stupidity, I backed off, and talked him into walking down to the assistant principal’s office.
Discipline is an area where good relations with colleagues can really help you. This incident came at a time when I was in relatively good favor, so I never heard anything about being so stupid as to put my hands on a kid.
Well, actually, I did hear something. Within a fairly short time, the little jerk was in front of the superintendent for a hearing to expel him. When the superintendent listed his attacking me as one of the charges, the kid responded, “That guy jumped over a lab bench to get me. He was crazy!”
The superintendent just laughed. In future years, he would have used that incident to fire me. But, by that time, some sort of statute of limitations had expired, so he had to find fresher material.
By the way, the kid’s analysis of my behavior was absolutely correct.
The same issues that arise in doing demonstrations occur in choosing labs for students. Only now, instead of just watching over yourself, you are watching 20, 30, or 40 places where things can go wrong.
People say “kids love labs”. One of the reasons kids love labs is the extra potential for socialization they represent. So students don’t waste lab time, you’d better prepare the hell out of them.
First, and foremost, is safety. I always told students that, from the moment they entered the lab until they returned to their desks, they were to have an apron and goggles on. Raising glasses to look at something more closely, or write something down, produced an immediate detention.
If a student was acting out, I removed him, or, less likely, her, from the lab.
Second was lab cleanliness. I wanted the lab as clean after the lab as before. A professional-looking space might produce professional results.
I would always spend lot of time before students went into the lab, talking about what they were doing. We’d talk about where they were most likely to get injured (cuts and burns lead that list), how to handle equipment and chemicals, disposal of wastes, and techniques specific to that lab. When I discovered that the voluminous Handbook of Lab Safety had gruesome colored pictures of eyes injured by acids and bases, I shared them before appropriate labs.
I’d have students read the lab beforehand, and we’d discuss the objective in the lab, and what concrete, and gradable, products they would be producing.
And then, fingers crossed, I’d send them into the lab.
From Getting Organized- Professionally
In learning about the history of American education while at Stanford, I learned about people like John Dewey, who had helped shape the education system. In the early 1970’s, it seemed that the country was in need of a new visionary, for a system to evolve with rapidly changing times.
At the same time as I was in college and graduate school, that visionary was emerging.
His name was Albert Shanker.
Shanker had led teachers’ strikes in New York City that made him a prominent local figure, while creating social turmoil throughout the city. As such, he inspired a joke in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” The film was about a man who awakes after a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep, to a future that follows a great war. When the character asks how The Great War began, he is told “A man named Al Shanker got hold of an atom bomb.”
That was kind of a New Yorker’s inside joke when the film came out. However, Shanker rose through the ranks of the American Federation of Teachers to its top. The AFT was more of an urban educators’ association, more likely to play the hardball of city politics. The NEA seemed to look down its nose at the AFT.
However, Shanker evolved as an educational reformer, and took the AFT along with him.
I read about Shanker in places other than the tedious publications I received as an NEA member. He worked with progressive local affiliates, including Rochester, New York, to promote ideas such as mentoring and merit pay.
Another of my agenda-driven story ideas that won a prize from the Globe involved South Boston High School. Early in my career, the court-ordered integration of the Boston Public Schools had been headlined around the world. South Boston High School had been ground zero for that cultural confrontation.
It was some years later when I began teaching journalism, and I wondered how things had changed at South Boston High School. The principal, Jerry Winegar, had been brought in by court order at the height of the busing conflagration. Winegar had been a principal in St. Paul just before he took the South Boston job, so I figured he would know of my dad, even if he hadn’t known him.
My idea was to have the students in my journalism class participate in a student exchange with South Boston. I knew how sheltered I had been from urban realities at Highland Park, and I thought suburban Masco students were even more sheltered and unaware. And, even though I was critical of Masco’s shortcomings, I wanted them to see how fortunate they were by comparison, and the opportunity that surrounded them.
We arranged for families to participate on each end, with students staying overnight with host families. I drove students in to Southie in the school van on the day the exchange began. I sat in on classes, and was saddened to see the state of education there. I saw a chemistry class where they worked on a lab on density. This was a lab that my students might have done in the beginning of the year, or might just as well have done as freshman. The Southie students were doing this in the spring. One student spent the whole lab wandering about, claiming someone had hidden his jacket. The teacher never made any significant effort to get him to get back in the lab.
In contrast, I went to a Social Studies class, where they had a guest speaker. He actually was more of a guest interviewer. Jonathan Kozol, whose first book I had read while at Stanford, was interviewing students for a project he was working on. I was so impressed to find someone like him at Southie. Winegar told me that the notoriety of the school made it easy to get involvement of committed liberals, whether personally or through financial contributions.
I left my kids at the school, to stay overnight in Southie and Dorchester. The Southie kids came out to Masco the next day. I had contacted all the Boston TV stations about the exchange. The only one that chose to provide coverage was the PBS station, which sent a camera crew to film the story. I had warned my kids to be careful about what they said on camera. When Chris realized he had been asked a question meant to make the education at Southie look bad, he intentionally stammered and responded in a manner that rendered the question unusable.
On a follow up, students went into Boston, on what happened to be St. Patrick’s Day, to interview principals from the busing story. Tiffany came back shaken by the depth of emotion of one of the busing opponents, Pixie Palladino, who cried at having her kids’ neighborhood school taken away. Although Tiffany saw Pixie’s opposition to busing as largely based in prejudice, the depth of her feeling registered deeply.
Jennifer, who had become the first highly committed and competent photo editor, went to the St. Pat’s Day breakfast in Southie. A highly political event organized by Whitey Bulger’s politician brother Billy, it drew all the movers and shakers in Boston. Jennifer met the flamboyant (and racist) long-time City Councilman Albert “Dapper” O’Neill. Dapper proceeded to squire her around, introducing her to all the big names like she was his daughter. She invited him to come to Masco for a class interview. He accepted, but not without putting a scare into her by telling her that he carried a gun wherever he went.
My kids got material for essays on their college applications, as well as a great story. We won another prize from the Boston Globe. And maybe a few kids’ lives were changed, at least for a while.
 Common Ground, by Anthony Lucas, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning story of those years.
 I did worry that the exchange would make the Southie students resentful, but that didn’t seem to occur.
 Dapper lived all his life with his mother. Jennifer was probably not his only surrogate child.
Not all meetings are soul-numbing, and faculty meetings could sometimes be interesting. But it didn’t help that they would come at the end of the day. Usually, they would be in the library, where the late day sun streaming in tended to have a soporific effect on participants.
As did the sonorous tones of most principals. Worse, they would sometimes want to demonstrate that they had been to a conference, or actually done some professional reading. This would be readily evident once they used a “magic word”. These were buzzwords that were intended to show that they were very familiar with the cutting edge of educational innovation. To fully display their magic, these words would need to be repeated numerous times in the course of a single meeting. It became tradition to start counting number of usages in a meeting once any word was used more than once. There may have been some wagering involved.
For Richards, as a former typing teacher, he tended to obsess over the magic word “technology.” I remember sitting next to a young teacher who had just been told that he was being laid off. Richards commented on how unfortunate that staff would have to be reduced.
But he brightened considerably when he described how the new copy machines we would be getting would be a huge step forward for the school.
This was little consolation to the competent math teacher next to me.
Tony was a brilliant, intense English teacher. He also was more interesting than most of my colleagues. He would be the first male teacher at Masco to get an ear pierced, although he never drew any attention to it. He particularly avoided drawing attention to his interest in the paranormal. He shared with me, however, that he used to do hypnosis for MUFON, to gather information from people who might have been abducted by aliens.
I was grateful that Tony was on the faculty, because he was very demanding of his students, which kept me from being a singular lightning rod.
Tony would get to school before most of our colleagues, and buckle down to work at his desk. He was demanding of himself, as well as his students.
Ironically, although Tony was willing to put in extra hours in the morning, the contractual end of the school day was sacred to him. Faculty meetings could drone on far past the contractually allowed time, but Tony would get up at the precise second and walk out.
All of his colleagues were grateful for this, since it did serve as a signal to the principal that a torture session was over. This meant we could escape the long-winded laments of Alvin, the social Studies teacher for whom whining was as autonomic as breathing. Alvin would stand up in the meetings and begin his recitation of a perceived injustice with a lengthy “Steeeeeeeeeeeeve……………..”
We always hoped he would keel over from a lack of oxygen at that point, but he seemed to have some sort of rebreathing technique to sustain him.
But I digress.
So, one day, we arrived before the meeting to see a workman leaving after having installed a new system intended to detect the theft of books, or magazines, or, once a year, the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated.
The head librarian at the time was young, and pretty hip. She proudly showed us how the bar inserted into a book could be demagnetized at checkout, and students would exit through a metal detector without setting off a shrieking alarm.
Andy was probably the person who first saw the potential this represented. We hatched a plan, and the librarian gleefully agreed to participate.
When Tony came in, the librarian indicated that she had some new books to show him. While she took him off into the stacks, Andy grabbed Tony’s briefcase and hid one of the new security rods within it.
Then we sat back and waited.
Word spread through the faculty as the meeting proceeded. One could tell someone had just received the word when an individual rose up out of their normal slouch, looked over at Tony and grinned broadly.
Perhaps Alvin was not there, but as the contractual witching hour approached, the unexpected happened.
It appeared that Steve was going to wind things up early, and let us leave well before the time when Tony would make his very public stage exit.
Just as Steve was about to dismiss us, I leapt to my feet.
“Steve, how can we interface the new technology with our curriculum?”
As Steve began to launch into a stem-winding answer, sighs of relief were audible. Some may actually have been gasps at my having executed an elusive triple magic word score.
Eyes shifted from the clock, to Tony, and back again as the magic moment approached.
On the second, Tony stood up. People moved to the edge of their seats as he approached the metal detector.
Then he passed through it.
And nothing happened.
Steve looked puzzled as groans arose from all parts of the room.
Tony looked back over his shoulder, equally puzzled, but never broke stride as he raced out the door.
I turned to the head librarian, threw up my hands and exclaimed, ”Suppose he’d been a terrorist!”
This time, colleagues followed Tony’s lead and got up and headed out the door, looking greatly disappointed.
Faced with the exodus, Steve quickly wrapped things up and dismissed the meeting.
Attendance was up at the next faculty meeting.
 When they ran their first ever topless model, it was out the door in a heartbeat.
 This was not a high bar to get over at Masconomet.
Barry was an extortionist. The custodian for my room came to me, and told me that there was a big football player who was asking junior high kids for money during their lunch. The cafeteria workers had let him know, and he thought I was most likely to put a stop to it.
The school year was barely underway. However, I knew Barry because he was in my chemistry class. So I asked him that day to stay after class, and asked him if he had been taking money from junior high kids.
He said he wasn’t taking the money; they were giving it to him willingly, when he asked for spare change.
I explained that, because of size and age differential, his requests for spare change were going to be fulfilled, whether the kids really wanted to give him money or not.
I told him to stop, or there would be more trouble for him to follow.
The next day, the custodian came to me during the junior high lunch, and said he was doing it again. I walked across the hall to the cafeteria, and there he was.
I was so pissed I didn’t want to deal with it, for fear my emotion would get the better of me.
So I told him to report to the assistant principal’s office.
Don, the assistant principal, didn’t have a hard-ass reputation- that was why the custodian had come to me.
When I saw Don later in the day, he told me that he, too, had been unable to persuade Barry of the error of his ways. So he told Barry that he was to go home and tell his parents what he had been doing, and discuss it with them.
The next day rolled around, and there was Barry in the cafeteria again.
That evening was Parent’s Night, and, to my delight, both of Barry’s parents were there.
This time, I asked them to stay after class.
“Are you aware that your son has been taking money from junior high school kids?”
“Yes, we are,” responded his dad. “We told him not to do it last night.”
“Well, he was doing it again today.”
The mother looked chagrined, but the father just shook his head, and even seemed to have the beginnings of a smile.
Now I wasn’t holding back.
“You know,” I said. “If I had ever done that, and particularly after my parents told me not to, my late father would still be alive today, just so he could be kicking my ass!”
The father blanched, and left saying little.
I figured this would end up a parent complaint that could be used against me, but I didn’t care.
The next day, when Barry came to class, he looked somewhat chagrined, and somewhat annoyed with me.
I never heard anything about a complaint, and Barry wasn’t seen in the junior high lunch again.
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