Urban Teaching


Chapter ___

Urban Teaching, Urban Education

The task calls for creative innovation all along the line. No society has as yet made the most of the potential of their children. Yet, the increasing role of technology in our society, combined with the ideal of optimal development for all youth, demands that we do better than others have done or than we have done in the past. …To commitment to help the culturally deprived needs to be accompanied by an appropriate strategy that frees teaching from unrealistic assumptions, expectations, and sacred cows regarding what subject matter must be covered when and how. (Taba and Elkins, 1966, p.16.)

I play it cool

And dig all jive.

That’s the way I stay alive.

My motto as I live and learn,

Is dig and be dug in return.

Motto by Langston Hughes

I learned about teaching in a program that was especially designed to produce teachers for urban schools. Most of us thirteen were graduates of liberal arts programs. We were fairly balanced gender wise. We were fully white save Annie. We hailed from a variety of large and small colleges and universities. And had all made it through the interview process.

I had wanted to stay at Rochester and do graduate work there. I’d graduated with a major in Psychology and a minor in American History. I had been fairly active on campus playing one sport (football), participating my freshman year in the last year of Quilting Club, a riotous all male musical review called One If By Land, Two If You’re Lucky, a spoof of Paul Revere and his famous ride. I played Paul Sigafoos, the goofy, hapless hero and my good friend John Denison played Agatha Warlump, a barmaid for whom I was smitten and ultimately betrayed. I think this was the only time I ever received a standing ovation and we did that three nights running. Heady stuff for a first year student. Interesting in retrospect that I was so successful playing a dolt!

I’d been really scared by the Missile Crisis and unlike some of my good buddies, felt no particular desire to put my life on the line for my country. If we’d have been attacked on our home territory, I’d have been there in a flash, but somehow Cuba, or Viet Nam, for that matter, seemed hardly home territory to me. The problems we needed to be confronting and that needed my direct attention seemed much more immediate and much more local. So when graduation time rolled around, I was actively seeking ways to stay at home and make a contribution to the larger good.

My officer candidate school assessments had identified electronics communication and teaching as occupations for which I had special skills. I had applied to OCS in the Air Force reasoning that bad eyes would keep me out of direct combat. But pursuing electronics communication would have meant eighteen months of training in Biloxi, Mississippi and the images of bombed churches, Bull Connor’s police dogs, and the disappearances of Schwerner, Goodman, and Cheney were enough to sway me away from prolonged residency in the American south in the summer of ’64. I decided to investigate teaching on my home turf.

Rochester, Cornell Univ., Syracuse Univ., and Buffalo State worked collaboratively on a fifth year teaching program that would enable me to teach social studies (I’d loved American history – oh, those Landmark Books) and coach football, another occupation I thought I’d be good at. And if I entered the program at Rochester, I’d be near my college sweetheart and whatever future that might bring. Seemed like a good plan to me. There was even some talk that teachers might be granted a draft exemption, just in case we got to that point. So I was crushed when Dean Corrigan, the Director of Project 1 at Rochester, told me I was ineligible for admission to their post baccalaureate teacher education program. My cumulative average was too low.

I’d had a disastrous first semester, my sophomore year. I don’t know what was really going through my head when I’d thought about college. I think after the Harvard debacle, I just didn’t care very much. Rochester was a bit familiar (my brother had gone there), it had a great academic reputation, the campus lay-out was striking to me (even then), and Coach Bitgood was very anxious to have me come and play football for them. And that seemed all good to me. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I’d wanted to do academically. I’d done well in high school but clearly my passions (and talents) were music and athletics. I’d liked my history courses and my earth science course. Those teachers had really made that content live for me. My history teacher seemed just had a passion for history and that, combined with her uncompromisingly high standards meant as a student, I got some of the ways history connected to my life although like college, it was about as non-multicultural as you could get. In seventh grade, I’d done a big study of medicine as part of an occupations unit. When I showed it to my family, my Dad was remarkably discouraging about my pursuit of that field. He’d remarked it was no fun any more and you couldn’t be the kind of doctor you wanted to be anymore because of the meddling influence of insurance companies in the profession. That put medicine on the back burner for me although I continued to flirt with the idea of it over the next twenty years. I think I’d have been a pretty good doc. Outside of school, I amused myself with fossil digging and collecting. I lived in a glacially active portion of New York State and I was forever looking for and finding ancient crinoids, fantails, and sandstone bivalves. I don’t know why I didn’t select music or geology as a major field of interest. I suppose I didn’t know how anyone could earn a living pursuing those fields and certainly, no one had ever told me. It seem so, well, stupid, now that I didn’t have that all figured out way back then. But, I didn’t and no one helped me with it, so when I went to Rochester, I selected industrial management as a major because I’d figured out that’s the way you came out of college ready for the world of work and that’s what college ultimately was all about. I can’t believe I’m writing this now but in fact, that’s the way my first career choice happened for me. IM was awful. I couldn’t understand anything about economics, calculus was likewise a mystery to me, and my industrial design course was so disconnected from the reality towards which I thought I should head (personnel work) that my motivation plummeted. I studied hard and was totally unable to get any big picture of any of these courses. I stumbled on memorization and got something like a 1.3 that semester. UofR took my honorary scholarship away from me and two years later, I paid the price for reaching my academic nadir.

On the way out of Dean Corrigan’s office, one of the most seredipitous events of my life occurred. I was shocked and in despair. My head hung low and because of that physical stance, the contents of Corrigan’s waste paper basket came into view. An orange and blue brochure for Syracuse University’s Urban Teacher Preparation Program topped the pile of discards. I paused, thought for a millisecond, bent over and plucked it out of its ignominious receptacle. Here was another way I could pursue my major interest in staying alive through the next several years and pursue my still nacient curiosities about teaching and doing something about the awful situations of race relations portrayed constantly now in the news media. I was still thinking the problems with race were a southern issue but wherever they were, taking them on and doing something about them now moved to my radar screen as something I could do. And something I probably should do. Maybe teaching could be the way I showed my Black brothers and sisters that though I was white, I was not one of the whites in that awful picture from so long ago. I was not one of the white devils I’d begun to hear a Black minister named Malcolm X give speeches about.

The interview process was a big clue about what was to come for me. I arrived at 410 Comstock Avenue probably a week or two after graduation. I was greeted by a smiling face and informed that there were two parts to the interview: one would be a brief conversation with the Directors of the Urban Teaching Preparation Program, and the other would be a teaching situation. We’d do the teaching first. I was handed a college oriented political science text and told to prepare a fifteen-minute lesson on the system of checks and balances. They gave me a pad of paper, a pencil, that book, and a desk, and said in fifteen minutes, I’d be taken into a small seminar room and there would be four staff members playing urban 8th graders. I was teaching them social studies and I was to teach them about the system of checks and balances built into our federal system of government. And then the staff member left me alone to plan. I hadn’t ever formally taught anyone anything before in my life.

At least I knew the content. My college minor and my high school history teacher had made sure I knew that very cornerstone of our democratic process. What I wasn’t prepared for was the four adults who seemed like an entire class of twenty. Or thirty. They did everything to get me off topic. They chewed gum, they got out of their seats, they asked me if I was married, they wondered why they had to learn this stuff, two of them even started to get into a fight, one flirted openly with me, a fact noted just as openly by another. Well, I was able to stop the fight and I was able to make a connection between the idea of checks and balances and something one of them said about the priest in his church but the rest of it was chaotic and strange. My suit coat was soaked through with sweat by the time I left the building on that sun soaked very late Spring day and as my Mom’s ’53 Packard sputtered away from that Comstock Avenue residence/office building, I was certain I’d just earned a one-way ticket to Viet Nam. Three days later my acceptance letter came in the mail. I was an MEd. Candidate in Syracuse University’s Urban Teacher Preparation Program (UTPP), a program designed to prepare a new generation of teachers for America’s schools.

The UTPP was one part of a multiple front effort to address the existence and effects of grinding poverty for people mired in the inner-city core of Syracuse, NY. Most who lived there were African Americans living in the projects of the Third Ward, two story brick row houses, shoebox after shoebox wedged between downtown Syracuse and the University Hill, sealed off from the Hill by Interstate 87, an elevated highway that cut through the eastern edge of the Black ghetto. On the edges of the ghetto were other poverty based ethnic groups, most notably the descendents of the Onondaga Iroquois who lived on the western edges and the poor Irish who lived on the northern edge. The Madison Area Project was an interdisciplinary community organizing effort to enable residents of the third ward to gain political control of their own lives so as to begin to affect their own futures in ways that could break the cycle of poverty. The UTPP was one part of these efforts. So at the time, I was aware that my learning to be a teacher was part of a much larger set of strategies that were put in place to address social justice issues, among them issues of housing quality and availability, political participation and power, street care, health care, early pregnancy, juvenile crime, high school dropout rates, integrating the police, fire, and public works departments, educational resource allocations within the Syracuse School District, and teacher education for urban schools. My learning to be a teacher was also learning to be a change agent. This is quite clear from the way we were asked to approach our relationship with our mentors. The following quote is from UTPP seminar notes I took on June 30, 1964.

“The seminar session resulted in a long discussion [related to] teacher-intern authority lines and the roles we must play. Basically, it seems that we have three roles: 1. A subordinate role to the teacher in whose eyes we are a green, inexperienced threat (if such is possible); 2. A responsibility to our own self to size up our teachers and extract from their discussions, comments expressions, and other such things which will be useful to ourselves in evaluating our roles as future urban teachers; 3. A role to be played before our counselors as frank, honest, critical individuals who have the ability to dissect the good and bad spots of #1 our teachers, and #2 ourselves. These roles require the intern to possess the ability to disagree internally, agree externally, and not be ambitious enough to force any decision upon a teacher – do not alienate. Important point: throw out an idea – don’t press it, and see if it later reappears under someone else’s brainstorm.”

The advice was useful. Clearly, Gerry and Mario wanted us to be in the schools but not “of the schools.” Good thing. I’m not sure which of my two mentor math teachers surprised me the most; Mr. C. when he called one of the kids “a little black bastard who was responsible for the condition his race was in” or Mr. L. who said he couldn’t wait to get out of school and “rough up some broads.” Having the seminar to process the change process being played out in the school was incredibly helpful. Making our way, learning how to be effective with the kids while at the same time not alienating some of the teachers at the school was to be tricky business. My education as a change agent was also enlivened university coursework and by living in the Madison Project area and participating in some of the community organizing actions taking place there. But mostly, I learned it working with the kids and teachers at Madison Junior High School and then reflecting on that experience-in-action in the program seminars.

The kids who attended the Madison Area schools were second generation children of Blacks who’d moved north from the American South during the years after World War One and Two. MJHS had become a de facto segregated JHS as white flight took hold in Syracuse. By the time I’d arrived there, the student population was largely poor and largely Black. The teaching staff was in its third or fourth year of working with MAP consultants and my year was the first year new teachers were brought into the school. The school had interdisciplinary teams headed by Bob Cullivan, a native Irish Syracusan who’d made his reputation with the kids by splitting the top of an inch think hardwood maple school desk when he banged on it for attention in his first day in the school as a substitute teacher. (He told us the desk was cracked but I don’t think he ever told the kids that.) Like a lot of the teachers at Madison, Bob was direct, he was friendly, he was street smart, knew these kids could learn because not too many years before, he’d been one of them, and he knew the key was to make intentional connections between what we had to teach and what the kids knew about. He was curriculum director in the school when I got there. He met with interdisciplinary teams of teachers a couple of times a week to plan curriculum and to make sure the teachers knew what each other was doing. He would give us lots of advice and clues about how to make our work interesting and he was a great resource for us coming off our intense summer of practice teaching in the district’s summer school. He also made sure we were able to make relationships with the other veteran teachers in the school. We were spread across all the teams so we also got to know them that way.

The principal at the school was Joe Bongo, an ex-Navy prize fighter who was like Bob, a long time resident of Syracuse only Joe hailed from Syracuse’s Italian enclave. Joe was passionate about what education could do for “these kids” and though a little rough around the edges – there were lots of rough but very human edges at that school – Joe was convinced “every bird could sing its own song” and he was damn sure he was going to make it happen in his school. He didn’t tolerate brutality of any form in the corridors, classrooms, and closets of MJHS. Once when a group of boys attacked another group of boys in the lavatory and held their heads in a flushing urinal, Joe called an all school assembly in the middle of the day, made the kids tell what happened and why it happened. He then addressed everyone in a voice shaking with his won concern and said in no uncertain terms that behavior like this was unbecoming a school who’s motto was “wings of the future” and that it simply would not happen ever again while he was principal. It never did. He also made sure that both groups of kids had follow up visits to his office over the next several weeks and that the school social worker was on the case immediately to follow up in the larger community. That’s the way lots of things happened at MJHS. Whatever happened within, got taken out and whatever happened outside, almost always seemed to come in.

MJHS had floor to ceiling bulletin boards with huge black and white pictures of kids learning in classrooms, kids in the hallways, kids smiling. These weren’t just any kids, they were Madison kids and you’d see lots of kids bring their parents and brothers and sisters into school just to see the pictures. MJHS one year had an 18-Wheeler trailer filled with kids work, pictures of kids doing the work, and interpretive posters that described what was going on at school parked at different places in the Third Ward. If families didn’t come to school, then the school tried to go to the families. Harvey met with the gymnasics club at 630 am, the only time they could get the gym during the day. Frank met with a drawing club after school several days a week. Tom helped teach in the unwed mothers program, housed at Washington Irving Elementary School, just three blocks down the street. (That program was so good there were kids from the suburbs trying to get in.) And Mrs. Gilbert’s husband Willie helped every now and then put together the stage props for yet another play she would do with her social studies classes. It didn’t hurt that he’d show up in his full police regalia. Willie was one of the first black cops in the Syracuse Police Department. They were great people and she was constantly learning over our team meeting table saying how she’d go after a particularly knotty instructional problem with which we’d hit the wall.

Every Thursday night we’d all gather for our support seminar back at Comstock Avenue. Half of us were teaching then, the other half were taking a full load of University coursework but we’d all show up for seminar. (I ended up teaching both semesters along with my coursework. A reading teacher had taken sick and I was asked to be a long term sub.) These Thursday night sessions were intense. We’d put some of those knotty problems on the table. People’s frustrations would just fly. Frustrations with kids, frustrations with mentor teachers, anger at our own inability to change things, embarrassment at failed lessons, failed discipline, disrespect, long hours and little reward, the hard work of it all. Gerry and Mario, Program directors, and Bob and Dee, program graduate students would help to a degree. But they also wanted us to take hold of the systemic issues we faced. It seemed like every Thursday night was year long course in gender, race, politics, and culture. Frank Reissman’s The Disadvantaged Child was our grounding text and although criticized for it’s ethnocentric assumptions just a few years after publication, it was a ground breaking and eye-opening introduction to how cultures, communities, and school program inevitably clashed in the moment to moment interactions we faced as interns. We read Reissman cover to cover. We also read Charles Wiley, Kenneth Clark, Fritz Pearls, Harry Passow, Hilda Taba, Jerome Bruner, and John Dewey. We struggled to connect the abstractions of educational and sociological theory with the kids who showed up in our classrooms every day asking us, “What you gonna teach us today, Mr. Ratbone?” We’d end every Thursday night at one of the local watering holes, exhausted and wrung out, wondering what we were going to do to meet our kids on Friday. We always met ‘em. One way or another.

Most of the literature of the time referred to our kids as the “culturally deprived.” The texts acknowledged that while kids coming from economically depressed urban areas brought a unique life style and language with them into the schools, their modes of coping with life and communication were at odds with the rituals, requirements, rules, and regimens of public school life. While some texts admonished teachers to firm up their discipline, be explicit about the orderliness of their classrooms, and break their curriculum down into manageable bites, that was not the tact Gerry and Mario took with us. From their point of view, curriculum was useless unless it made “contact” with the kids, and contact took on experiential, affective, and cognitive dimensions. It was later in the year that I finally did my first reading of Dewey. I noted at the time that Dewey might be a philosopher to read more extensively because he echoed so much of what I was learning in the program. My awareness came later that I was being steeped in rich, progressive doctrine, urban style. After reading Dewey (Schools of the Future), Montessori (The Absorbent Mind), and Rugg and Schumaker (The Child Centered School), I knew we were standing on shoulders of giants.

Discipline was a matter of being real, of being clear, and of working with firm and fair boundaries. Successful teaching was characterized by a blend of strength and sensitivity. That’s what the balance of powers interview task had been all about. Our responses to the cues the “kids” threw our way were actually tracking how we performed across these dimensions of strength and sensitivity. We were taught to teach to the person, to make contact with kids as individuals and as people with definite cultures, to allow them to connect with us, to show interest in their everyday lives, and to hold them to high standards. Our path to an instructional goal might be way different than a traditional teacher’s, but the ends were to be the same. School was seen as a major avenue out of poverty and the limitations (?) of circumstance at least as far as becoming successful in the world of privilege. While there was much to their world that was to be valued, they also had to learn the codes of successfully negotiating the worlds of those who held power. At least that was the way it was supposed to be. Reissman and others were soon to be criticized for their assumptions about culture. “Deprived” was a culturally loaded term although to us at the time, it connoted that our job as teachers was to teach the kids the keys to the kingdom so they could go on and successfully operate in a variety of power structures. And it was clear that institutionalized racism across the power structures would accede power stubbornly if at all. America would continue down the long hard difficult road of acknowledging its multicultural base and racist practices across the next quarter century to this very day. We are a long way from success. Economic circumstance is still the best predictor of negotiating schools successfully. But is isn’t as if we don’t know how to do it now. What we lack as a culture is the necessary political capital to force it to happen. With all that still before us, Reissman’s analysis of urban life and admonishments for educators were helpful to our little band of urban pioneers. At least that’s what it felt like to us.

Probably the best unit I taught during that period of time was called “What’s Good Money.” I’d overheard Moses and Ruthie and others arguing on day about good money, you know, the kind of money you’d need in your pocket to make it through the day, through life, in a way that was comfortable. I asked them how much they thought good money was and the answers I got ranged from $5 to $5million. “Enough” would have been the best answer, probably. They really didn’t know. And there was my “contact.” Straight from the kids’ mouths came these varied perspectives on money and living the good life! So I put together this unit of study that ran through two separate classes.

I was teaching math at the time. It wasn’t necessarily my area of expertise but we were paired as interns so we could fill one full position at the school. One on my UTPP mates was a math major during his undergraduate years. I was second on the list in terms of math credits so I was asked to team with Stan and lead off the year as a 7th and 8th grade math teacher. In January, we’d switch. I’d take the bulk of my University coursework then and Stan would be the full time teacher. The study I conceived involved taking the kids from a brainstorm about what was good money through a guided fantasy of themselves sometime in the future. Who were they, where were they, what were they doing. What was around them? What did they need to live? What did they want to live? They made lists. I subscribed to the local paper for two weeks and we searched out advertisements and read the classifieds to gain a sense of how much things cost. They began to shape a budget for food, clothing, shelter, car. They began to assemble costs per week, costs per month, costs per year. We did lots of good work with fractions and for some of the more advanced kids, decimal fractions. When we drew blanks for item costs we made a list of those, had phones installed in the room and did some phone calls during class time to see if we could find out actual costs in Syracuse.

Then we took a field trip to E. W. Edwards, a local Department store, to see how stores sold things and to complete our lists of wants, needs, and costs. The kids rarely got a chance to go on a field trip. Folks just expected them to misbehave and when store owners inquired about the sending school, there always seemed to be a reason the tip wouldn’t work out. Of course I was concerned. This was my first field trip. Again from my UTPP journal (January 11, 1965): “I am a little apprehensive about the trip. It could be a complete bust. We went over rules of politeness – the kinds know what is right, it’s only a question of whether or not they’ll act that way! Details: Class of 21 organized into three groups of seven per group. Groups will look for 1) prices of men’s clothing, 2) prices of women’s clothing, 3) prices of household appliances. Each group will be accompanied by one teacher and one salesman.”

How did it go? From my journal on January 12: “The trip was fabulous! The kids behaved, were intent and professed to “learn something.” The store was most helpful – they supplied Negro (sic) salesmen to take the groups around (something I’d requested) and this was important for contact. Also, the kids could touch and fell different weves and inspect the various sewing jobs to actually experience why some clothes were more expensive. They were dog tired from walking when they got back.”

I finished up the unit by having a teacher in the home economics program come by to help us with budgeting for the first year out of school. A car salesman came in to share how to buy a car. When we were done, the kids created tables, graphs, and charts to put in a visual display (along with pictures, of course) of what good money was to them and what it would do for them upon graduation from high school. The writing teachers gave us a couple of class days to help the kids write their unit up. Then finally, we investigated what kind of jobs would earn us the kind of good money we figured out we needed. I remember the kids talking about their conversation with Manny Breland, one of the science teachers at the school. He must have been right at the kids level, talking to them about how you get to be a scientist, what a scientist was, how you got to teach science if that were something you wanted to do.

We were schooled to organize our teaching around three affective concerns during this eighteen month experience: power, connection, and identity. We had to keep these concerns in mind with very lesson we taught, every unit we planned, whether it was in mathematics, social studies, language arts, english, or home economics! I had to make sure the unit on good money addressed a world that held an actual familiarity with my kids. Not some kind of hypothetical authenticity but actual, personalized curriculum. To put it another way, I had to be sure that what I was portraying in the pages and books and activities and pictures of my good money curriculum had an honest, apparent and pragmatic connection for these kids. Most of the time, the media and visual world that surrounded their lives portrayed a way of life way beyond the dreams of someone coming out the third ward. The history they read about in school was someone else’s history, until Madison, that is. Our work had to connect.

I had to make sure that once the unit on good money was over, my kids felt more in control of their lives, that they understood how life worked better than before, that they had strategies and explanations and roadmaps to get from a place that they were to a place that they wanted to be. I had to make sure that what I taught them was empowering, that it assured them more control over their lives. Most of these kids lived lives where people – usually white people – did things to them, especially the bureaucrats who worked the offices and front desks of the agencies that my kids parents were increasingly dependent upon. The Madison Area Project was trying to counter that dynamic in the lives of my kids and my curriculum had to do its part.

Finally, I had to make sure that one the unit on good money was over, that my kids could identify with what they had been learning. I had to make sure that I taught in such as way so they could actually see themselves in what they were learning. That’s way Manny Breland was so important. That’s why I made sure the workers they encountered at the department store field trip were African Americans. That’s why I combed newspapers and magazines for pictures of ginger and peach and cocao skinned people so my kids would see that people like them were doing the things portrayed in the lives they were imagining themselves into.

Connection, Power, Identity. They remain with me today as critical hallmarks of making learning live, regardless of the learner. If as a teacher, I can engage my students in activity that makes a connection, enhances power and self control, and communicates that what we are doing is as much yours as anyone else’s, I’ve done a pretty good job. I’ve addressed the affective concerns of being feeling disconnected or alienated from the immediate context. Planning and teaching in this way is not particularly easy. Its even more difficult given my own white, privileged cultural background. But it’s not impossible. What these kids taught me during these years was the importance of relationship as the crucible within which teaching and learning occur. The exchanges that are central to the construction of relationship are all about trust, and trust is built through the affective inclusiveness that is obtained when connectedness, empowerment, and identity are very much a part of the action. What worked so well at Madison, was the relationships that were the wings of the future. It’s what Joe Bongo knew when he intoned every bird must sing its own song because he meant everyone must respect everyone else’s song. It’s what Gerry and Mario meant when they told us our curriculum should be guided by the kids’ affective concerns, not interests, and that it was a “concern that contained more durable potential for a relevant curriculum .” Every child there had something to say and to give and to share. Every teacher there had something to say and to give and to share. And in the coming together of teacher and child, content transferred from the page to the person. I was transformed as a new educator in that place and for me, our work together remains the purpose of schooling.

Madison Junior High School closed one year after I graduated from the Program. Internal politics with the school district meant that the amazing staff of teachers were dispersed throughout the Syracuse system. All the communcal power of the MJHS faculty disappeared in an instant. Joe Bongo moved on to Newark, New Jersey and as part of his job was ferried from school to school in a bullet proof limousine. Control of the Madison Area Project had passed from an independent community board to Syracuse’s City Hall. Things were working a little too well. A year later, both Gerry and Mario were gone, one to a city superintendancy and one to a college faculty. I was teaching at Roosevelt Junior High, a three story rectangular brick monolith on Syracuse’s South Side. This was a place where the Irish and the Blacks barely existed together without conflict on any given day and where the scolding Principal’s corkscrew path through the hallways of the school foretold not much good would happen for anyone, any time soon.

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Charles Rathbone

Retired. Emeritus. UDL consultant, FIrst UU Racial Justice Committee, photographer, married, four children, five grandchildren. Embracing life, all of it. "Today is tomorrow's past."

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