The Key to Success

In my class, Friday was THINING- OUT –OF –THE BOX DAY. I used Out-of-the-Box day to approach curriculum from a different angle and usually opened the session with a few brain teasers like:

With four straight lines connect all of the dots with four straight lines. One caveat.

You can’t take your pencil off the paper!

. . .

. . .

. . .

Usually they would try something like this and realize they lifted their pencil off the paper. This is fun. Try it.

. . .

. . .

. . .

Occasionally, I had the class use their collective genius to solve a logic problem.

The Crustaceans were spending summer vacation at their cabin near Lake Almanor. One morning the man told his wife that he was going fishing and then for a swim. “I’ll be back around 4:00,” he told his wife. The man never returned. Six days later they found his battered body in a forest 57 miles away. What happened to Mr. Crustacean?


Jennifer Lee was a criminal attorney in Oakland, California. After a day in court, she returned to her apartment to find Thor, her pet German shepherd, lying unconscious on the floor. Jen carried the 70 pound dog to her car and sped to veterinarian Dr. Brenda Chan, who told Jen that she would work on Thor and suggested that she go home and rest.

Upon returning to her apartment, Jen heard the voice of Dr. Chan screaming from her answering machine. “Jen, get out of your apartment! Get out of your apartment.”

Ten minutes later, San Francisco police broke open the door to Jennifer Lee’s apartment and discovered her dead body in the closet. Two weeks later, Ignatius Simpleton was arrested and later convicted for Jennifer’s murder? Why was the trial so open and shut?

One of the favorite Out-Of-The-Box games was MAP ATTACKS. Depending on the field we were studying, I would make puzzle problems out of cities, countries and continents usually combining all three, which brings us to young Mr. Sopheap, a recent immigrant from Cambodia. Sopheap is an old name meaning proper and gentle. And this young gentleman could not have had better moniker.

Arriving in the United States only months earlier somehow in the wisdom of the San Francisco School district, he was NOT placed in an E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) class. Bright, industrious, impish and kind, when the powers-that-be finally acknowledged that Sopheap belonged in an E.S.L. class, he didn’t want to leave my class and I wouldn’t let him go.

As the class melded into Map Attack, Sopheap approached my desk for a little assist. We spread out a map of Africa and read the first question.

“If you were going to go fishing in the largest lake in Africa, what country would you be in? There are three of them. BONUS: What is the general longitude and latitude of the lake?

Sopheap studied the map for a minute and put his finger smack in the middle of Lake Victoria. (You knew that didn’t you??) Quickly, be pointed to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. (You didn’t know that did you.)

It was my BONUS QUESTION that set off the explosion. .

“How find the longitude and latitude thing? He asked.

“Just use the key,” I explained.

There was an immediate change in his persona. Uncharacteristically, Sopheap rapped the side of my desk with his the side of his fist. Veins in his forehead and neck pulsed. His gentle demeanor turned to mild rage. “English is stupid,” he said under his breath. “Where’s key?” This question came a bit louder and with a definite air of frustration.

Some of the students near my desk, who were supposed to be actively engaged in my engaging activity, became more engaged my current engagement. I laid my fingers on the longitude and latitude keys at the side of the map. “Here are the keys.” I pointed.

“English stupid,” he repeated more lividly. Mr. Kind, Proper and Gentle was losing it. More kids disengaged themselves from my assignment. A wave of muttering as a new interest spread across the room. Frankly, I was as dismayed as they were. Angry, frustrated behavior was not the norm for Mr. Sopheap.

“Why is English stupid?” I asked in a low voice.

“I hate English.” Came a voice from the rear of the class.

“Mrs. Weitmeyer hates me,” said a female voice.

“Mrs. Weitmeyer hates everybody,” another added.

Feeling the class’s support, Sopheap did a little Cambodian version of the Michael Jackson ‘Moonwalk.’

“I hate gerunds.”

Deep inside I felt a sense of dread.

“Yeah and prepositional phrases.”

I was losing control.

“And what about adverbs?”

“Yeah, what about adverbs?’

A full scale revolt was near.

“Okay, okay, at ease, Marines.” I brought Sopheap to a halt. “Why is English stupid?”

Apparently I’d just passed the baton, because Sopheap sucked in a big gulp and was off and running. “I go to music class and Mr. Brehend told me the piano thing keys.”

“Mr. Brehend’s cute,” one of my female seniors whispered.

“Then we get music sheet,” Sophead continued. “Music is in the key of A

with the little…” He grabbed a piece of chalk and made a little


on the blackboard. “One of da ticky tacky toe game tingies.”

I felt his frustration, but he kept right on. “I go gym class. Coach person call for attendance roll. Everyone quiet. He say to some of us ‘go stand on key’. I look all over for piano or keys. Everywhere look. No piano. No keys. Nothing. I don’t know what he wants to stand on? Then I see he has a big lot of keys on his belt so I go stand next to him. He gave me a look. I smiled. He gave me a push and told me to go stand on the key.

My students had abandoned my assignment. There was a general sense of mirth.

I knew and I realized thinking out of the box was over; I was trapped like a rat in a maze. I knew my students want to watch me get out of the box. Sopheap wasn’t done.

He grabbed a piece of chalk from my desk and at the blackboard drew:


Using the chalk as a pointer he made an x on the foul line. “You see a key here?” He looked directly at me. I thought about explaining how that key was designed after the old skeleton key, but then I would have had to explain skeleton keys and why they were called skeleton keys and would a skeleton need a key in the first place, so just dropped it right there. Besides Sopheap wasn’t finished.

He shuffled to the giant map of the United States hanging on the wall of my classroom. He pointed to Florida. “What’s this?” There was no smugness in his voice. This was a simple question. “Miami, Florida,” came a voice near the door. Sopheap nodded, and then ran his fingers along the black dots that trailed southward from Florida. “What’s this?” Suddenly my 32 Double Jeopardy candidates went silent...

“The Florida Keys,” I offered lamely.

Non-pulsed, he reached in his pocket, extracted a ring of house keys and jingled them above his head, “and these?”

“KEYS” the class shouted as one.

He folded his arms across his diminutive chest and gave a triumphant I-rest-my-case head bow. My students broke into collective laughter and Sopheap and I exchanged high fives.

I waited until the din subsided into a gentle roar and challenged, “Everyone on the team that comes up with the most examples of the way the word key is used before the bell rings gets one free homework.”

I put my arm around Sopheap’s shoulder. I knew he was a gamer so I murmured in his ear, “May you be the key to your team’s success.”

He may have murmured English is stupid, but I’m not sure.

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