HAVERHILL, MASS. — It's after 5 p.m., and in Leo Sakellarion's social-studies class, Jesse, Melissa, and Sara are trying to decide whether to adopt a legal system for "Aquarian" - a nation they are creating.
In Aquarian the wealthy must teach the poor for free. All automobiles have been "dismissed." And those who injure wildlife are in big trouble.
For instance, the three-person Aquarian legislature seriously considers simply executing the fictitious culprit who fictitiously killed a fictitious deer in Aquarian. But after some debate, they decide to be "responsible" and vote to adopt a legal system.
"That's good," says Mr. Sakellarion - or "Leo" as he is called - as he strides among nine students in a narrow classroom in the Richard Milburn High School in Haverhill, Mass. "I like the way you used your head on this one. But why not just execute him? This legal system is going to cost money." The Aquarians resume debating the issue among themselves.
Sakellarion - who has a master's degree in education and is a certified teacher - almost mutters, he is so low-key. He wears an out-of-fashion thin tie - his sole symbol of authority - in a classroom where most students sport baggy bells, cocked baseball caps, or pierced lips or tongues.
But low-key is the right key, he says, since many of the students "have problems with authority." He is there to challenge the logic of their decisions as he parries with them - helping them love to learn.
It isn't easy. Many of the students use expletives so routinely in their responses that they really do not notice - except when Sakellarion reminds them it is inappropriate and continues, or ignores the milder ones.
Like a Jeopardy game, he also fires off questions, tallying points for each correct answer by the "country" that responded.
"Name two types of democracy - and which is the US?" he says. Then: "What are four of the six goals as stated in the preamble of the US Constitution?" "List three of the five delegated powers of Congress?"
A lot of these students, Sakellarion says, could not stay in high school because large class sizes prevented the extra attention they needed, or because of their poor attitudes toward learning. But it was not because of their innate ability.
"The vast majority of these kids are very bright," he says. "They just have emotional or other problems. It can be exhilarating and frustrating - but never boring."
School runs Monday to Friday, but starts at 3 p.m. and runs to 9:30 at night, with a dinner break and two 15-minute breaks between three-hour classes. This allows many students to hold day jobs - something they may need to keep food on the table or clothes on their back, says Dianne Tevanian, the school's principal.
Even with those demands, however, students must be punctual and must attend classes. If they are late or miss class, they must make up the time. "A lot of these kids came here labeled 'at-risk,' " Sakellarion says. "They had begun to see themselves that way and related to that - or rebelled against that label. I tell them I expect each and every one of them to go to college."
Some say they can't do it. But the more he talks about it, the more they think it really can happen, he says. Out of 13 graduates last year, nine went on to two-year or four-year colleges.
"I'd like to think I had something to do with it," Sakellarion says. "But these kids had the goods. They just didn't know it."