"Mr. Simpson Loses His Mind"
Chisembob Rears Its Ugly Head
It’s occurred to me over the years that I was a clueless child. My classmates too. Stupid. We missed overtly blatant signals that things weren’t quite right at times. For instance, my sixth grade “language arts” teacher, Mr. Simpson, had clearly flipped his lid for weeks but we didn’t sense that anything was wrong. We were simply pawns in his scheme. And we went right along with it, caught up in the game.
“Language arts” was 1970s education-speak for “reading and spelling.” School administrators kept trying to spice up the course titles to make our classes seem more exciting or important than they really were. This still happens, in fact: witness the change of foreign languages to “world languages.” Anyway, Mr. Simpson was our somewhat decrepit, extremely strict, decidedly old-school English teacher. To him, the Great Depression was recent event. This guy had warts that were over 50. Even though he probably weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet and wore orthopedic sneakers, he was fearsome. It was now November, and from the start of school in August, Mr. Simpson has been scaring us shitless. He would terrorize the unprepared, i.e. me, with a brutal verbal scalding. We quizzed each other before class over the previous night’s reading assignment to avoid his wrath. He would unpredictably call on a student-we never knew who in advance-and if he unmasked ignorance, he was merciless in his criticism. On the day that Mr. Simpson drifted across the south side of his sanity, we were to have read “Rikki Tikki Tavi.” I hated the name of that story and I hadn’t completely read it (i.e. not at all) so I entered the class tentatively and white-knuckled.
Imagine our collective relief when Mr. Simpson entered the classroom in an uncharacteristically buoyant mood. A brown-nosing female classmate who’d read the assignment asked cheerfully, “Are we going to discuss 'Rikki Tikki Tavi'?" Mr. Simpson said no.
“Instead, today boys and girls I have something very special, very important, to teach you.” Simpson continued, rubbing his hands together like a praying mantis. “I am going to turn you into a machine! A finely tuned calculating machine! You will become mathematical wizards. You won’t need electronic calculators. They will turn your mind to mush.”
Mr. Simpson wasn’t crazy about technology. Small hand held calculators had burst onto the scene the previous autumn. We liked them, Simpson apparently didn’t. But what completely slipped our grasp, because we were so happy that 1) we didn’t have to talk about “Rikki Tikki Tavi” and 2) none of us were getting verbally assaulted by Mr. Simpson, was that the guy was talking to us about math, not reading or spelling. This was “language arts,” after all.
Simpson continued to weave his spell over us. He held up his ten fingers, widely separated, almost like “jazz hands.”
“Your hands will become weapons!” He was getting more into this and so were we. Weapons! Like kung fu! No, Simpson said. “Your hands will become mathematical weapons. Your fingers hold the key.” The guy had clearly lost it in retrospect, but he forged on.
“There is an exciting form of math called Chisembob that allows you to add, subtract, multiply and divide using only your fingers, no matter how large the number is.” Chisembob sounded even more stupid to me than Rikki Tikki Tavi. Our teacher had gone over the deep end, but we were still drinking from his Kool-Aid. Simpson railed on about Chisembob actually being some ancient Korean form of math. He started flipping his fingers around real fast and we got excited again. He said we would do the same with our fingers in order to become “calculating machines.”
For the next three weeks, Mr. Simpson taught us the ins and outs, the do’s and don’ts of Chisembob. We never discussed another story or learned another spelling word. Any observer who passed by our third period language arts room would have witnessed 25 twelve-year-olds inexplicably flipping their fingers around in response to a number that Mr. Simpson would bark at us. Doing Chisembob was like doing sign language on meth. Fingers were flailing about spastically and Simpson was getting happier by the moment as our Chi-bob skills peaked. We all wanted to please him by having the fastest calculating fingers around. We wanted to become the mathematical machines he dreamed we could be. We never wanted to read anything ever again.
But this cat couldn’t stay in the bag forever. Simpson’s dream of worldwide Chisembob domination over electronic calculators began to unravel the day that Ms. Webb, our buxom, brunette thirty-ish math teacher, got wind of what we were doing. Again, it never occurred strange to us that we in effect had two separate math classes per day now, the actual one with Ms. Webb and the crazed finger farce with Mr. Simpson.
Ms. Webb was working a problem on the board when one of the girls nonchalantly said, “That’s not the way we learned it in Chisembob.” Oh shit. You’d have thought the girl just said Ms. Webb had the Chinese drip, syphilis and the Bubonic plague. Ms. Webb’s chalk abruptly stopped mid-number on the board. She then slowly turned to face us, ashen.
“Who’s been teaching you Chisembob?” Ms. Webb asked, darkly and slowly. The words dripped with sinister accusation. She made Chisembob sound truly ominous. It was then we first realized something might truly be amiss.
I spilled the beans, ratting Simpson out to Ms. Webb. When I gave up his name, she said coldly, “I see,” and walked away to make a call to the school office from her desk phone.
The next day when we got to language arts, Mr. Simpson was nowhere in sight. We had a new, completely inexperienced teacher named Mr. Stinson. Despite the name similarity, he was tall, young and goofy. Not exactly a dead ringer for Grandpa Simpson.
“Are you going to teach us Chisembob?” a male classmate asked.
“No, no,” Mr. Stinson said, laughing nervously. “This is language arts.” He said the words slowly like we were idiots. “We are going to read and spell like we’re supposed to.” Twenty-five kids groaned.
“What happened to Mr. Simpson?” Charlene Hussleman asked.
Stinson gulped. He hemmed and hawed. “Mr. Simpson has gone away, boys and girls.”
“Is he coming back?”
“No. No he’s not coming back ever. He’s gone to a good place.”
Holy shit. We thought they’d whacked Simpson for trying to make us calculating machines. Stinson clarified that Mr. Simpson simply wouldn’t be teaching us anymore. We decided he’d gone “upstate” to the “rubber room.” We were stupid but we understood now that Simpson had lost his marbles and was probably in a padded cell somewhere. The poor bastard.
When we got to Ms. Webb’s math class that afternoon she set us down for a “facts of math” talk. We started flipping our digits fast and showing her our mad Chisembob skills.
“Stop that with your fingers,” she snapped. “Never do that again!” She calmed down.
“Boys and girls, Chisembob, well it’s a discredited form of mathematics. Do you know what that means?” We were idiots. We didn’t know.
“It means that it’s not really math at all. It’s just sort of a phony gimmick.”
“But Mr. Simpson told us…” She cut us off.
“Mr. Simpson meant well, but he’s not a math teacher and he shouldn’t have told you anything about Chisembob. Now I want you to forget all about Chisembob and Mr. Simpson, okay?” She seemed a tad anxious about the whole topic and just wanted it to go away. And although we continued our references to Simpson having gone nuts, we eventually lost the ability to be “calculating machines,” as other knowledge took its place in our heads.
I never really thought Chisembob actually existed given what we were told. I figured Simpson had conjured it up in his state of dementia and added the “Korean” disclaimer for laughs. Then the internet came along with its vast stores of knowledge, which I found included several sites regarding Chisembob. Discredited or not, somewhere along the line Mr. Simpson had learned it and became smitten with it. I have to say, I’m glad he taught it to us, even though it’s completely useless and it looks stupid while you do it. It made him happy and it has to be better than “Rikki Tikki Tavi.”