A Dramatic Proposition

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Author: Scott Ervin
Date: 2022
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 13
Content Level: (Level 5)

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A Dramatic Proposition

Fifteen minutes into my first day of teaching, blood splattered across my face.

The day had started peacefully enough. I arrived to substitute in a 5th grade classroom. School started at 7 a.m., and my students for the day appeared to be sleeping. I began teaching, even though no one was listening. Things were going better than I had anticipated.

Then it happened.

While standing, chalk in hand, next to what we called a “blackboard,” I heard a commotion somewhere outside the room. I turned quizzically toward my newly acquired students, and one boy in the front row rolled his eyes, exasperated with my slow comprehension, and explained the situation: “It’s a fight.”

I sprang into action, sprinting full speed out of the classroom and leaving 25 5th graders to educate themselves. Following the noise, I ran into a small, smelly room. I, a male substitute teacher on his first day, had just run into the girls’ bathroom. So far, so good.

I immediately came upon two 6th graders. One girl was fully on her back, her legs furiously attempting to pedal-kick a long-limbed girl who had maneuvered around the kicking action and was enthusiastically beating the snot out of the first girl’s face. Blood was flying everywhere, and as I grabbed Punching Girl’s shoulders to pull her off Kicking Girl, an inexplicably large amount of blood flew from the fist of Punching Girl, landing on my face and neck.

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Once I had separated Punching Girl from Kicking Girl, a female staff member walked into the room and yelled, “What the hell are you doing?!” Looking back, I think she might have been talking to me.

As I remember it, the staff member walked with the girls to the office and I went back to the classroom. I wiped the blood off myself with a dry paper towel and attempted to teach. I was never asked about the incident.

As it turned out, my adventure in the bathroom went only slightly better than the rest of the day. Strangely, my heroics in the girls’ restroom did little to impress my newfound class. Mostly asleep before the fight, once I returned from my adventure, they had all woken up. A majority of the students refused to sit in their desks, or work, or be quiet, or be pleasant to each other, or not swear at me. Breaking up another fight in the classroom immediately before dismissal bookended the day nicely.

When I received the 4:30 a.m. robocall for a kindergarten substitute position the next morning, I gladly accepted. Fifth and 6th grade bathroom fight club officiating would have to wait, at least for a day. Kindergarten: how hard could it possibly be? Kindergartners were what, 5 years old?

My second day was going to be so much better than my first.

Like the previous posting, the school for day number two was in a rough part of town. Dilapidated homes and boarded-up storefronts surrounded a sturdy but aging school building. I checked in with an unenthused school secretary.

While the neighborhood and school office staff were less than welcoming, the kindergarten room, my home for the day, was like a scene from a Candy Land board game. It was fantastically colorful and well decorated. The space was perfectly clean and nicely organized. Exhaustive, detailed lesson plans were laid out neatly. They expressly described each moment of the day: how to turn in work, where to sit, how to line up for lunch. The day’s materials were arranged at right angles on the teacher’s desk and reading tables. Most important, there were clearly stated rules on the board next to a color-coded, card-based behavior chart, with each student’s name printed neatly on a transparent plastic pocket holding three cards.

I had hit the substitute teacher jackpot. This was going to be a piece of cake! They had tested me the previous day, but the Gods of Education were smiling down upon me now. With every possible angle and loose end already taken care of by what appeared to be the best teacher in the history of the world, I casually perused the day’s lesson plans before confidently leaning back in my chair and waiting for the day to begin.

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Things began as I had hoped they would. Three rather timid small souls wandered through the door, wondering who I was and what I was doing there. This was a welcome, healthy reaction to seeing a substitute teacher in the classroom.

It was also the last normal event of the day.

A guttural yell worthy of a battlefield charge rang out as a child with an angry, furrowed brow barreled into Candyland. The complete lack of a reaction from the other students to this feral lunatic should have tipped me off as to what I was dealing with, but I immediately walked into the hallway and asked a teacher, whom I had not yet met, what had happened in the hallway to have triggered this student into exhibiting such rage. The teacher, looking confused, peered into my room and said, “Oh, that’s just Robert.”

I stared at the teacher, stunned.

“He’s always like that.”

It felt like the wind had been kicked out of my chest. And it was about to get worse.

“Just wait until you meet David.”

You’ve got to be kidding me.

I didn’t meet David right away. We started without him, which was a great relief, since Robert was walking around the room punching people, grabbing things out of their hands and throwing them. At one point, he and another student squared off, prizefighter style, in the corner of the room. I separated them. Keep in mind, I had not yet had time to introduce myself to anyone. I was too busy running around stopping kids from injuring each other or destroying the room. Robert’s entry into the room seemed to have caused a switch to be flipped in the minds of the previously inert students. I had heard horror stories about teachers having to run around “putting out fires.” I wasn’t putting out fires. I was in the middle of a fire … and burning.

One boy kept yelling that he was about to “lose his mind up in here.” One girl was crying hysterically for a reason that I could not begin to understand. It is possible that she had been punched in the face. There is a very good chance that I would not have noticed. There was too much going on to be able to know what happened. One boy acted as Robert’s sidekick, walking next to him as he whispered excitedly in his ear. Robert was still yelling at the top of his lungs and still throwing things and punches. The well-crafted lesson plans lay neglected as I ran around the room and dove across desks to prevent child-on-child violence and property destruction. The secretary came over the loudspeaker to ask for the attendance that I had “forgotten” to send. I remember thinking, “If I turn to find the attendance paper, one of these kids is going to be killed.”

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Then David walked in.


I will never forget how he walked into the room with a bizarre smile on his face, looked at me, then, like a moth to flame, still smiling broadly, went immediately to the only person doing her morning work in the room, took her paper, crumpled it up, and threw it in the garbage.

I began using both of my behavior management skills: screaming and yelling. Neither had any effect. David and Robert wandered around the room. Robert hurt people, and David took their stuff. Kids continued to cry, threaten, bait each other, and run out of the room. I tried pulling kids’ cards. No one cared, except for one boy who, when I pulled his final card, quickly evacuated the classroom. Thank goodness, David was kind enough to go looking for him, even though I asked him to please, please God, not do that.

I called the principal to remove students four separate times that day. I could have called 30 times. By the third removal, she was not pleased. Each student would come back a half-hour after they left, and immediately go back to doing whatever it was that got them sent to the office in the first place.

I didn’t get to more than 30 minutes of the beautifully crafted lesson plans that had been left by the teacher—a teacher for whom I now had a lot of questions. I believe that 15 of those minutes of instruction occurred during the brief period of time when both Robert and David were in the principal’s office.

After seven of the worst hours of my life, the children were gone. I cannot fully express the amount of helplessness that one feels after attempting a job they always wanted to do and failing completely. The profound defeat was overwhelming—and was somehow made worse by the fact that the people who just defeated me were 3 feet tall.

I slowly shuffled out of the classroom and down the hallway. Tired, dehydrated, and done, I turned the corner into the office as the school secretary spoke. “Here’s your sub now,” she said to a woman with her back to me.

The leader of the class that had just ripped through my soul turned around. My first thought was that she looked like I felt. She was a young, tired-looking woman. I guessed that she was around my age. Her eyes looked sad and anxious as she clutched a water bottle while saying words that I didn’t expect: “I’m so sorry.”

She wasn’t trying to be funny or flippant. She was expressing sincere empathy for what she knew I had just endured.

“What in the world just happened to me?” I exhaled. I put my hands on the counter between myself and the school secretary and slowly collapsed on top of the Page 5  |  Top of Articlelinoleum, extending my outreached arms across the counter. If I had not still been in shock, I think I might have started crying. “They were completely out of control. How in the world do you control those kids?” I asked.

She laughed a slow, sad laugh. “Who said I can control those kids? Your guess is as good as mine. I took today off for a mental health day. I’m just here for an Intervention Assistance Team meeting.”

“How do you stay sane? Is it really like that every day?”

“I wasn’t in there with you, but I am guessing it is pretty much the same. I’m sorry you had to deal with them today. I just needed a break. And I don’t stay sane. This is my last year teaching. I’m quitting. I’m done. It’s my second year. I have no idea how I’m going to make it to the end of the year. I taught 5th grade last year and it was horrible. I thought kindergarten would be easier, but it’s not.”

I was stunned.

“But your room, it’s so perfect … you’ve got the rules up … and the cards … doesn’t that stuff help?”

“It worked great for the first morning on the first day, and then all hell broke loose in the afternoon. I’ve been in hell ever since.”

“What happened? What happened at the end of the morning that made them act like that?”

I got the idea that this question would have offended her if she had any kind of respect for me or my opinion. She let out what could be described as a cross between a sigh and an exasperated chuckle.

“You mean, what did I do to mess them up in my first three hours with them? Look, what you saw today—they came in like that. A lot happens to these kids before they show up on the first day of kindergarten.”

I felt bad for asking the question, but I pressed on. I needed help. I wanted answers. “Can you tell me anything that actually works in getting these kids to do what they’re supposed to do?”

She picked up a box of files and started walking toward the door as she spoke. “Look, I really am sorry to put you through what you went through today, and I don’t want to be this negative. This isn’t the person I want to be, which is why I’m getting out. But I have to be honest with you: nothing works.”

“Nothing Works”

Those words haunted me, and with every day of the several months that I continued to work as a substitute teacher, they proved to be more and more correct. Every day, Page 6  |  Top of ArticleI failed to get students to be cooperative, no matter how much or how loudly I yelled. Every day, I saw the teachers and principals around me failing in very much the same way. Even the most experienced educators were often no better off than I was. Even those who were doing all of the right things to elicit positive behaviors—clearly stating rules, using consequences, having good lesson plans, praising positive behaviors, and having routines set up for how to manage the room—even those teachers had rooms that were out of control. It seemed that nothing was working for anyone.

During my master’s program observations of different kinds of schools, suburban, rural, and private, I saw a similar dynamic. Students may not have been as difficult to control, but in every class, there always seemed to be at least one, but usually a few, “tougher” students for whom traditional discipline strategies were ineffective, and they often seemed to make the class’s general behavior worse. These few students appeared to be able to take over most classrooms, leaving their teachers at a loss as to what to do.

“Nothing works.” Even in the face of the mounting affirming evidence, I still wondered, how could this be true? After all, students had been around forever, teachers had been around forever, teachers who teach teachers to teach had been around forever, and the problem of having to get students to use positive, prosocial behaviors had been around forever. How could educators not know exactly how to get students to act in a way that made the classroom better, schools better, society better, and the students themselves better?

During the several months I spent in perhaps 20 different school buildings as a substitute teacher, and then the two years I taught in my own classrooms, I was determined to figure out what worked. To be clear, my open-minded curiosity had no impact on my own behavior management deficits. I continued to yell and attempt to intimidate my students, and every day I drove home defeated, exhausted, and distraught.

“These Kids …”

What made the situation more frustrating was that, almost every day, I was asking for advice for how to manage behaviors, just like I did on that second day of my teaching career. And when actual advice was given—something beyond “nothing works”—it was almost always the same, and it often started with the same two words:

“These kids …”

I was searching for how to manage the behaviors of all kids, but the answers I received to my questions were answers for how to manage a certain kind of student. Page 7  |  Top of ArticleAs I was in a district that served a very high percentage of students who were poor and members of minority groups, what was being communicated was clear, and the advice was almost always similar: “These kids need to be dealt with sternly…. They don’t get a lot of love at home, so they won’t respond to it well at school…. Show them who is boss…. Get up in their faces…. Don’t give them an inch…. They won’t take you seriously unless you yell…. They only respect strength…. You have to be tough, or they’ll run all over you.”

In my interviews for teaching jobs, two years in a row, I was told by two different principals to “never smile in front of students.” It was made clear to me that this was a condition of my employment.

Even then, I knew that these instructions on how to deal with “these kids” went directly against what we know about how human brains work. The human brain cannot effectively work, learn, and function when faced with fear and threats. The human brain cannot function until the organism in which it is vested has been able to establish a functional environment whereby the organism can have all safety, control, and love needs met.

Even then, I knew that this advice about “these kids” was classist and racist. I think we all did.

But we took the advice anyway. We took this advice for the same reason someone wandering for days in the desert will eventually drink the sand: there was no alternative.

Behavior management advice given in college either didn’t exist or was wholly inadequate to the point of being insulting. Write good lesson plans and there won’t be any misbehavior? Really? Have consequences for misbehavior? Great. What do those look like? Praise students? Huh. Why do the most difficult students act worse when I praise them? Have routines for classroom tasks and clearly define rules? Great. What do I do when students refuse to follow rules and procedures? What then?

The terrible trick that is played on educators is that this ineffective behavior management advice is not only ineffective with all kids, it is particularly ineffective with “these kids.” It is so unsophisticated, and so dismissive of the effects of trauma, that it is least effective with the students who need it the most! Tragically, this often leads educators to feel hopeless about their ability to help “these kids.”

The ugly truth is that when this advice causes you to crash and burn over and over and over, most people, in their desperation to do the job that most of us have been dreaming of doing since we were kids—will take any advice offered, especially when everyone around us has that advice reinforced by principals and fellow teachers every day.

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The truth is that we were all really good people doing very bad things to students. We had all voluntarily chosen to work in that district, where a very high percentage of our families dealt with high rates of generational poverty and our students experienced much higher than average rates of trauma. We wanted to help the students who needed us the most. Why were we yelling at them all day long? Why were we working ourselves to death in an attempt to scare and intimidate students into submission? Why? Because we did not know what else to do.

This horrifying way of working with students was able to exist in the vacuum caused by not having quality ways to manage behaviors available to us. Cumulatively, it turned the schools that I saw into machines that accidentally reinforced negative, antisocial behaviors. In this vacuum, these schools, through no fault of their own, systematically trained students to get what they wanted (attention, avoidance, or control) through negative behaviors. Of course, this is not the fault of the students, who depend on educators knowing how to manage behaviors. It is also not the fault of the educators, who depend on universities to teach them how to manage behaviors.

As I was working through my master’s degree program, I knew and socialized with teachers who taught in every kind of school with every kind of student. We often discussed a similar trend: the “these kids” phenomenon also enveloped schools that only had a small number of “these kids.” To be fair, students who grow up in generational poverty do tend to have more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These traumatic experiences give students a higher chance of having attention problems and a higher tendency toward behaviors that many consider “impulsive,” among a tragically long list of other negative effects (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014 ). Many of these behaviors have been reinforced at home, often before the child’s first day of kindergarten. What I noticed (and what I continue to notice now, years later, as a behavioral consultant) in these schools is that many teachers will subscribe to the “these kids” fallacy with students whom they know to have had multiple ACEs: “Johnny is just different, and I need to treat him differently. I need to intimidate Johnny into learning and listening to me.”

The irony is that this reaction to a student being perceived as more difficult is the exact opposite of what Johnny needs, and will be especially ineffective with Johnny because he has experienced more trauma than the average student. Students who have had several ACEs, no matter how much money their parents make or what color they are, need to have measures taken to make them feel more safe and less threatened, not less safe and more threatened.

The use of intimidation and fear as a means of getting students to be cooperative works the least with “these kids,” the ones who are in most need. This is yet another Page 9  |  Top of Articleterrible trick played on educators who, once again, may see their own failures as a sign that there is no hope for their most vulnerable students.

What I and other teachers accidentally took part in was a tragic one-two punch: many of these students had an acute sensitivity to these assaults due to their level of trauma, and we assaulted their brains with intimidation and fear. This misstep is a major contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline. Educators are not taught how to manage behaviors, so many accept the “these kids” fallacy out of pure desperation. They internalize the fallacy and attempt to scare and intimidate students into working hard and behaving. When such tactics predictably backfire, educators suspend the students. Tragically, this reinforces the negative behavior, because students who are intimidated and scared every day understandably enjoy getting a break from the intimidation and fear of school. Finally, to get more breaks from intimidation and fear, they use more and more negative behaviors, successfully getting suspended until they are expelled or they drop out. This is the essential motor that runs schools often called “dropout factories.”

There are surely other factors contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, such as the conditions that cause traumas outside school in the first place, but this ubiquitous dynamic is a significant one. The data are clear:

Students with high ACE scores are failed by ineffective, incomplete, or nonexistent behavior management techniques. These techniques accidentally encourage negative behaviors, causing vulnerable students to repeat, explore, and heighten their behaviors, which leads to suspensions. Suspensions often lead to expulsions or dropping out. Dropping out often leads to prison.

I believe I knew all of this at the time. Still, I continued in my ways for lack of any other ideas. Hurting the students that I wanted to help was destroying me, not to mention destroying them. I knew something had to change.

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Approaching a Breaking Point, and Then, a Breakthrough

After having my own classrooms for two successive years, teaching 5th and 1st grades, I knew I was reaching my physical and emotional limit for hurting kids no matter how badly I wanted to help them. As I prepared for another year, this time at a different school with the same set of challenges, I knew one of three things was going to happen. Either I was going to quit after a nervous breakdown, or I was going to get fired for having a nervous breakdown in class and hurting a student, or I was going to learn how to do my job. Since no one had helped me in the first two years of my teaching career, I was skeptical about my chances of avoiding possibilities numbers one or two.

The next year, I began teaching at a school that had just been founded. As a brand-new school, it had a highly advantageous student-to-teacher ratio and a school culture that was carefully and thoughtfully curated. Even though it served a neighborhood that actually had a slightly higher rate of generational poverty than the school in which I had served before, I was able to just barely find my footing as someone who could be successful in getting students to cooperate. Through careful trial and error, as well as some conceptual professional development, I started to notice and act upon new insights: students used slightly more positive behaviors when I was able to build relationships with them, were nicer to me when I was able to share control with them, and decreased the frequency of negative behaviors when I stopped them from getting what they wanted using such behaviors. I started to be able to handle students better than other teachers. Still, what I was doing was sloppy and only somewhat effective: I was having to think too much about “behavior management” while I was teaching. I started to dabble in creating procedures that did the relationship building and control sharing for me, while I was teaching, and I started to create strategies that I would later use habitually, without thinking, that would do the same. I felt like I had the necessary foothold now to be able to someday become the teacher I always hoped I could be—though I still had a long way to go.

Up until now, I have given you very few, if any, reasons for why you should be reading this book. After all, at this point, all you know about me is that I was very aware that no one had the ability to manage behaviors very well, that I wanted to Page 11  |  Top of Articlefigure out how to do it, and that I asked a lot of questions about that while suffering through the worst two years of my life.

Here are a couple of other things to know about me that may also discourage you from continuing to read this book:

  • I am not patient, and I have a bad temper. This may seem like a strange thing for an author to admit in a book that is supposed to teach teachers how to be nice to students.
  • I was not a “good teacher.” My lesson plans were weak. I couldn’t write student learning objectives (SLOs) or reading improvement monitoring plans (RIMPs) to save my life, and I couldn’t map out curricula. I was disorganized, forgetful, and unable to effectively enter grades into the database on time, monitor progress, or be a good school employee in general.

But here is why you should keep reading: I look at life through a certain kind of lens. I respond to problems by thinking, “This is terrible; I have to make it better.” This comes from my innate hardwiring. I was born this way. It’s who I am, and it is very annoying to be around—or at least, that’s what my wife keeps telling me.

The benefit for you, the reader, is that every single day of my teaching career, I have thought, “This is terrible; I have to make it better” while looking at every aspect of my teaching. The reason I was so hopelessly bad at the aforementioned activities was because I knew that there was no way I could even begin to teach until I could get students to be cooperative and hard-working, let alone have the time and mental bandwidth to be able to do the mountains of work that educators have to do. I knew, almost instinctively, that I couldn’t come close to being able to do everything I needed to do to be a “good teacher” if I couldn’t create a positive classroom environment where my students could learn, I could teach, and students would consistently use positive behaviors.

With every day, no matter how successful I was, I thought, just like during the initial dark days, “This is terrible; I have to make it better.”

So I did. Every day, I would work at making something that would improve the situation: effective strategies and procedures for building relationships, sharing control, and holding students accountable. And every day, I reviewed what I had made and thought, “This is terrible; I have to make it better,” and so those strategies and procedures became more tested, durable, and effective every time I used them.

As a result, I became better than any teacher I had yet seen at building relationships, sharing control, and holding students accountable. I went from relying on prayer as a behavior management tool (“Please, God, don’t let Angela be in my class Page 12  |  Top of Articlenext year”) to actually requesting that all of my grade’s most difficult students be put on my roster. I was asking for “these kids” be put in my class. Over the decade that I used these strategies and procedures, I did not have to appeal to an administrator for discipline one single time. Not one office referral. Not one suspension. Not one expulsion. The school-to-prison pipeline encountered a serious disruption when it attempted to run through Mr. Ervin’s classroom.

As my procedures and strategies became more and more effective, and I became more and more fluent in my use of them, I noticed something amazing: not only did my students use positive behaviors at an incredibly high level, but they were also learning! Both my behavioral and academic outcomes were excellent! Even though I was and remain naturally bad at all of the elements of teaching, like writing lesson plans and learning goals, I was able to pay more attention to them because I was no longer drowning in a sea of negative behaviors!

I now have the honor of traveling the country teaching educators these strategies and procedures. I get to hear how the use of these procedures and strategies has saved educators’ careers. I get to coach teachers in their classrooms and show them how, the more effectively they use their strategies and procedures, the fewer negative behaviors they have. I get to save educators from having to endure experiences like my first two years of teaching, asking but never getting the necessary means to do my job.

I get to tell them what I learned: that behavior management is impossible. It implies that you can manage behaviors that are out of control (you can’t). What is possible is behavioral leadership: the ability, through systematic use of strategy and procedural instruction, to change negative behaviors while simultaneously managing all behaviors. A leader creates function and oversees the management of it.

A leader must be able to model the behaviors they want to see in the people around them. Without behavioral leadership, it is difficult or impossible to act like the person you want your students to emulate, because you will have to deal with so many negative behaviors that you will not be calm enough to model the positive behaviors you want your students to use. Behavioral leadership allows educators to be the leaders that their students need them to be.

This is why behavioral leadership is a foundational necessity for successful classrooms and instruction. Without behavioral leadership, you can’t come close to doing everything you need to do and being the person you need to be in order to be the most effective educator you can be for your students.

Without behavioral leadership, students won’t be able to efficiently and sufficiently learn positive behaviors and responsibility. Without behavioral leadership, Page 13  |  Top of Articlethe school-to-prison pipeline will continue unabated. Without behavioral leadership, students will be spending their days in classrooms that are not as healthy, safe, engaged, supporting, and challenging as they could be. Without behavioral leadership, equal access to education will continue to be impossible. We will continue to use unsophisticated and hurtful behavior management strategies that trigger students with high ACE scores into using negative behaviors that will disrupt learning and lead to suspensions and expulsions. Entrance into the school-to-prison pipeline will continue to be the result.

It is not enough to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline; it must be destroyed. It is not enough that some students have access to behavioral leadership educators. All students in all schools deserve access to classrooms where the educators know exactly how to build relationships, share control, and hold students accountable for their actions and inactions without anger or haste. Educators who are trained in behavioral leadership can create classrooms where students feel safe and loved, and experience the healthy control they need to be able to function and learn. In these classrooms, students can learn the behaviors and habits necessary to be successful and happy in life.

We can’t control or know everything about what happens in the lives of our students when they are not at school. We don’t even know what will happen to them after they leave us in the afternoon and before we see them again the next morning. Therefore, we should treat all of our students as if, during that time, they were abused or neglected. Why? Because some of them were. We should treat all students, every day, with the care and love necessary to make sure their school days are as calm, engaging, and educational as they possibly can be.

Did you figure out the trick of behavioral leadership? While behavior management fails all kids—and fails “these kids” more than anyone—behavioral leadership is not only effective with “these kids”; it is effective with all kids! All kids benefit from a calm, kind teacher who builds relationships, shares control, and teaches positive behaviors.

All students—no matter who they are, what has happened to them in their lives, or what they experienced that morning—if treated this way, every day, will feel safe enough, cared for enough, and loved enough to be ready to learn and thrive while they are in your classroom.

All students belong. All students can succeed. The book you are holding is the manual for how to do this.

Let’s get started.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX8464800007