“Uh, I don’t know, I’m not sure. I was sick yesterday so I didn’t do the homework.”
“Okay, you get a free pass, one day only.” Chris smiled, like the Cool Teacher. “Anybody else?” A bunch of girls raised their hands, and Chris glanced at his roster. “Sarah Atkinson? Sarah, why don’t you tell us?”
“It was the Mayflower Compact.”
“Correct, and why was the Mayflower Compact a social contract?”
“Well, the people on the Mayflower decided to get together and they said that they would make an agreement on how they were going to govern themselves.”
“Right.” Chris noticed Evan and Jordan hunched over their notebooks to take notes. Raz was doodling a picture of a pilgrim. “In 1620, the Mayflower made its way to the Boston area with a hundred and two passengers. On November 11, 1620, forty-one of them—only the men—wrote and signed a document that created a system of self-governance, because they had to start a settlement, plant crops, and harvest them.”
Chris could see that Evan and Jordan took more notes, and Raz kept doodling. He continued, “The Mayflower Compact was a first example of popular sovereignty. Does anybody know what popular sovereignty means?”
Sarah’s hand shot up again, but Chris pointed to an Asian girl behind her. “Yes, hi, please tell me your name before you answer the question.”
“Brittany Lee. Popular sovereignty means that the political authority is with the people, like the citizens, and they can do what they want to the government. They can start one or they can even overthrow one.”
“That’s right, Brittany. The notion is that individuals have rights, and that the government has power only because it comes from the people.” Chris wanted to get to the exercise he had planned, with an ulterior motive. “Now, you were supposed to read the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. These two documents embody what is unique about American government, which is that the Constitution sets the structure of government and the Bill of Rights sets the limitations on government. In other words, the Bill of Rights protects the rights of the individual. Let’s do an exercise that will help us think about what it was like to be setting up a government.”
Chris moved to the center of the room, and Raz turned the page, hiding his doodle. “Imagine you were one of the founding fathers, the actual people who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Which document would you write, if you had the choice? Are you the authority, the person who wants to set up the government and establish rules that everyone can live by? Or are you the person who wants to set forth what rights belong to the individuals, so that they can never be taken by the authority?”
Sarah’s hand shot up. “Like, do you mean are we Republicans or Democrats?”
“What about the independents?” called a boy in the back. “My brother’s an independent!”
Raz turned around. “Your brother’s an independent geek!”
Chris shot Raz a warning look, wondering if the boy was too much of a loose cannon for him. “Everybody, stand up, right now.”
There were moans, giggles, and chatter as the students rose by their desks, some reluctantly. Evan stood up quickly, and Jordan rose, hunched, without making eye contact with Chris.
“This unit, we’re going to write our own Constitution and our own Bill of Rights. We’re going to set up the government we would like and then we’re going to set limitations on that government. So you need to decide if you want to write our Constitution or our Bill of Rights. Regardless of whatever political party you might be, or your parents might be, I want you to think about this for yourself.”
A few students smiled and started talking among themselves.
“Don’t do what your friends do. Pretend you were one of the founding fathers. Would you have been one of the people to set up the government or one of the ones to limit government? I’ll give you a moment to decide. Close your eyes and think for yourself.”
The students closed their eyes, giggling. Evan obeyed, and Jordan bowed his head as if it were a moment of silence. Raz closed one eye, then the other, making faces.
“Okay, the people who want to write the Constitution, walk toward the wall where the door is, with your eyes closed. And the people who want to write the Bill of Rights, walk to the side where the windows are. But don’t open your eyes.”
The class burst into chatter, and Sarah called out, “How can we walk with our eyes closed? We can’t see! We’ll bump into the desks!”
“Just do it, Sarah!” Evan called back. “You’re not going to die. If you bump into something, go around it.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t let you hurt yourself.” Chris watched as the students took hesitant steps, walking with their arms outstretched, jostling each other, bumping into desks and backpacks, chattering and laughing. He kept an eye on Evan, Jordan, and Raz, as they were choosing sides.
“Keep your eyes closed!” Chris called to them. “Constitution or Bill of Rights? Up to you, people!”
There was more giggling, and one of the girls almost ended up walking out the door, but after a few minutes, the students sorted themselves into their noisy sides.
“Okay, everybody open your eyes!” Chris said, having accomplished his mission.
Chris entered the faculty lounge with his lunch tray, looking for an empty seat. Teachers sat eating at tables of fake-wood veneer with blue bucket chairs. Their animated chatter filled the air, which smelled like an outlet perfume and tomato soup. The lounge was windowless, ringed by oak cabinetry and builder’s-grade appliances, with walls painted Musketeer blue. An old blue couch sat against one wall underneath a mirror, and the far wall held a watercooler with backup water bottles.
Chris headed for a table that still had empty chairs, and one or two teachers flashed him friendly smiles, undoubtedly having gotten the memo with the subject line, Give CHRIS BRENNAN a Warm Central Valley Welcome! He’d met some of them in the cafeteria, when they’d introduced themselves and told him that the double-decker grilled cheese was on the menu, evidently a cause for celebration. Chris didn’t know if it was harder to fake being a teacher or being jazzed about a sandwich.
There was a table with a few empty seats, at which sat two female teachers in shirtdresses, one with short brown hair and one with long. The one with short hair motioned to him. “Come here!” she called out, smiling. “Join us!”