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Parents' Tales: John, Mary, Alex and Brittany

Chapter I - A Problem Child

As many parents do, John and Mary Johnston first considered enrolling their son Alex in The Gold Star Academy of Discipline after a period of behavior issues and academic stagnation, to put it mildly. The problem wasn't so much that his grades were stalled, but the level at which they were stalled.

You see, as many parents do, the Johnstons were under the impression that Alex was going through a temporary educational doldrum that had begun on entry into middle school, in the sixth grade. That was certainly when his teachers began mentioning the fact that Alex rarely paid attention in class, almost never did assignments, never read anything, and was generally disruptive. As always, John and Mary would repeat to each other that "boys will be boys" and assume that Alex would again start working on his classwork when he entered high school, with college looming four years ahead.

They never had made any such assumption about their daughter's achievements. It was not just that they encouraged her, but they followed her progress closely, monitoring homework completion and structuring her time to make sure that she did her schoolwork first.

Of course, this was really not an issue for Brittany. Girls tend to be more mature on entering middle school than boys, and she was more ready to sit and study. Finding success, she was encouraged and took the initiative to study and work even harder.

Unfortunately, the net result of John and Mary's exclusive attention to Brittany's work was that they were unaware that Alex was not only not learning, but was forgetting much of what he had learned up until that time. The freedom they gave Alex to play on the computer, listen to music on his mp3 player, and hang out with his friends was time during which he was learning to be a slacker, expecting his parents to buy him everything he wanted or needed for the rest of his life.

The unfortunate policy of the middle school to give good grades to all students whether they actually learned anything or not - in order to avoid crushing their little psyches - led to the Johnstons' mistaken conclusion that Alex was only a little behind Brittany academically, when in fact he entered high school with academic skills at approximately the 4th grade level.

So John and Mary spent much of Alex's freshman, sophomore, and junior years - that is, after the first quarter progress reports came in - tearing their hair out and alternating between begging, threatening, and trying to bribe Alex. Alex played it for everything he could. He saw no reason to work on anything, not ever. Besides, it was too hard. That he wasn't supposed to have to work on anything was about the only thing he had learned in middle school. Studying, doing assignments, and reading were things that people who were talented did. Alex wasn't talented, so in his mind there was no point in even trying. Why bother?

So when Mary heard about the Gold Star Academy of Discipline, a residential school about 2 hours from her home, she was intrigued. It seemed to be exactly what both her children needed. It had the reputation of taking boys who should be entering their senior year, but probably had been held behind at least once - complete slackers with disciplinary issues - and bringing them up to the level of a college freshman in two years' time. Far behind and with no intention of keeping abreast of the material that they were supposed to be learning, boys like this created distractions that bored girls like Brittany to tears.

More intriguing, there was an advanced leadership program for high-achieving girls like Brittany who were ready to go to college but wanted some time off after working hard for four years in high school. She would have the opportunity to take self-directed independent college credit classes online while completing that program.

Mary knew that John, an easygoing hands-off father, would be willing to consider anything she presented to him. Things had reached the point where it was going to be necessary to make changes. Mary resolved to research the school and contact the Administration in the morning.

Chapter II

Finding the Academy

It turned out to be a typical morning. Mary got up early to send John off to work with a hot cooked breakfast. As always, Brittany was up preparing for school, ready to eat with her parents, while Alex lay in bed trying to find new lame excuses not to drag his body out of bed until the very last minute.

Mary pressed a button on the kitchen wall and spoke into the microphone. "Alex, time to get up," she called out through the intercom. She heard a groan coming from the other end.

"Mom, I don't know why you won't let me convert that into a radio," complained Brittany. "We can blast public radio into his room. I'm sure he'll get up quicker if he's hearing classical music."

A thought came to Mary's mind. This time of the morning news was playing on public radio. Perhaps Alex would do better in his civics class if he woke up to news and current events, or at least he couldn't possibly do worse. "Let's talk about that when you get home from school, sweetie," she said to Brittany.

Once again John drove off and Brittany stood, leaning on the car and watching, rolling her eyes as Alex whined and made excuses. Mary and Brittany often discussed the fact that Alex put more energy into avoiding what he was supposed to be doing than doing it in the first place. But finally the battle was won for the day, the drive was over, and the kids got out of the car and walked up the steps into the school. Mary breathed a great sigh of relief.

Mary had gotten accustomed to driving the kids to school, if only to make sure that Alex arrived at all. Too many days he had not shown up, and she had gotten a call from the attendance office checking on his whereabouts. Of course, that didn't mean she liked driving them to school. She considered it a colossal waste of her time, and Alex was a master at wasting people's time until they were ready to tear their hair out.

John and Mary had been expecting that she would be back in the workforce at this point. Their plans had to be changed, based on the fact that Alex seemed to need constant supervision to keep him out of trouble. The family trip to Europe had to be canceled - although it was almost a relief to Mary, knowing how embarrassing Alex's behavior was likely to be - and the second honeymoon was probably pushed back five years. John was even considering getting a second job to help them catch up on their finances.

Mary knew that tuition at a boarding school like this was going to be more than she and John could currently afford, but without Alex around to supervise, she could probably go back to work full time. Hopefully the tuition would not be more than her new job would earn her. But on the plus side, working full time would seem like being on vacation all the time without Alex around.

Mary had been waiting impatiently for the day that Brittany would be old enough to get her driver's license, so she could drive the two of them to school. Somehow the time never came for her to take driving classes, as there was never enough time with her school projects and activities. And now, suddenly, Mary could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and she felt herself approaching it rapidly.

Home again, Mary fixed herself a cup of tea and started surfing. While the Academy was easy to find on the Internet, there wasn't very much information on its web page besides a photo of the main building and contact information - a phone number and a street address, no email listed. Mary dialed the number and was surprised to find that the Principal picked up the phone on the first ring.

"Principal Quattrano speaking."

"Oh, hello. This is Mary Johnston. I live in Boundsville, near West City. I heard that your school has a good program for boys who have fallen behind on their schoolwork, and I was looking for some more information."

"Yes, that's true, it is a specialty of ours. First I need to ask you some questions to know what information to send you. You have a son who is having academic issues?"

"Yes, my son Alex hasn't been doing his assignments or paying attention in class. It looks like he's just completely given up. I don't think he's going to pass this semester, and then he'll be a year behind his classmates."

"When did you first notice he had started to slack on his work?"

"I know the teachers have been telling us for several years, but I really thought they were exaggerating. He wasn't having any problems with his grades, and we thought for sure he would shake it off and get back to work."

Principal Quattrano gave a sigh. "You do know that most middle schools have a policy of giving good grades to almost every student, whether they do their work or not, don't you?"

"Do they really? I heard that but I didn't think it was true." Darned. Mary had been hoping that the Principal would start giving her some sage advice, telling her that there was some little thing they could do to help Alex snap out of it.

"So they started telling you this in the sixth grade, right?" "What is his basic skill level for the three 'R's?"

"He's behind."

"Does he ever read anything?"

"No."

This was something Principal Quattrano heard all the time. It was a classic sign of denial. Here was a student who clearly was learning nothing.

"And his friends...how are they doing in school?"

I really don't know. I haven't asked them." Mary was starting to worry. Maybe this was something she should have considered.

"How many friends does he hang out with, and how much time do they hang out together?"

"I think he's got about a half dozen friends he hangs out with, not all at the same time."

"Alright. We're going to need to do a little assessment first. I will send you to a web address where you can find it. Print up a copy, then fill it out to the best of your ability. Follow the directions as far as answering the questions is concerned. Then, you will go back to the website, enter the information, and submit it to us. I will review it and get back in touch with you."

"So you think we can get Alex turned around?"

"Any student can be turned around. That's not the issue. The problem is that there generally is a family dynamic going on that goes counter to the changes you are hoping will happen. We have a lot of inquiries at our Academy from parents of prospective students. The boys who have the best chance of getting back up to grade level are the ones whose families are willing to participate in changing the family dynamic. We have an online family outreach program designed for this very purpose.

"Are you also aware that unlike public schools, we have no age limitation on our students? We are willing to keep them until they are ready to move on, to get accepted into the college of their parents' choice.

"What about other children?"

"We have a daughter who is a year older than Alex."

"So how is she doing?"

"She's doing really well, we have been helping her, but she's so into school that she's kind of gotten way ahead of us."

It was the same story the Principal heard over and over again. The girl was doing really well, with her parents' help. The boy was off raising himself with his juvenile delinquent friends, and the parents wondered why he had gone wrong.

"Here is what we'll need to have you do. Fill out an assessment form for both of your children. It will help us get a clearer idea of what steps we will need to take."

"Principal? What will it cost to send my son to your school?"

"It will cost less than you think. One thing you might want to consider is sending Brittany here as well. We have a wonderful program for academically gifted young women who are looking to broaden their experiences..."

Mary was feeling a little shell-shocked as she hung up the phone. She went over to the computer and opened her email, where the application link was waiting. She clicked the link.

Chapter III

The Application Process

The Principal sighed. There were so many potential applicants for her school, so many wayward young males having lost their way, with parents putting out feelers, looking for help. But at the same time, most of these parents were looking to have someone take over responsibility for them. Few were ready to admit that their own actions – or inactions - had played a major role in the evolution of their current dilemma and would continue to do so unless change came from within.

Only a small percentage of these parents would be willing to take the steps necessary to become full participants in changing their family dynamic. In fact, it was the women who needed to take responsibility for initiating and carrying out the changes that would support the school’s intervention and make any changes permanent. Research had shown that a mother’s full participation in the family behavior modification program was the single factor that spelled success for all family members, including the young slacker. Therefore, the program was designed around the mother’s cooperating to the fullest right from the start, even before a student began attendance.

Any information being gathered in the application process would be helpful to the school when setting up a program later, but it was not necessary at this point. The current educational level of a teenaged boy and his intellectual potential were immaterial. What was necessary was to determine the motivational level of the mother and begin her along the process of understanding what had gone before, so she could recognize that changes would need to happen.

Therefore the application process was primarily screening her, and not the boy.


Mary looked at the form she had printed out. With a sinking feeling, she realized that she didn’t have many of the answers required, and getting the information from the required sources was going to take some time. The website had told her she had 24 hours to complete this part of the admissions form and submit it for approval, so she started working.

Time elapsed was a required part of each answer. Each question demanded not only an answer, but also an accounting of how many minutes had been required to answer that question. Alex’s grade average for the past 5 years she had on file. To get his estimated grade level, she was going to have to call his teachers in each academic subject. To find out the grades of Alex’s friends and how much time they spent reading and doing homework, she was going to have to call their parents.

Then there was the issue of Alex’s computer usage habits. Unlike Brittany, who used the family computer for her work, Alex had a computer in his bedroom. Therefore it was necessary for her to copy down all the desktop icons, and then look at the browser history and write down the first 10 sites he had visited during the past 3 days. Mary had never been on Alex’s computer, so she was in for a bit of a shock when she saw that most of those sites were either porn or adult dating sites.

She pushed the form aside and picked up the other, the one she was going to fill out for Brittany. She knew the answers to all the questions, and for the ones she didn’t know, she had the information in her files. Brittany’s friends were getting good grades. They often studied or read together. Brittany was a year or two ahead in all her academic work, as were her friends. The teachers had made that clear. Mary finished up Brittany’s form and picked up Alex’s again.

Several hours later, the form was complete, and Mary began the tedious process of filling in the online form. Finally finished, she clicked the ‘SUBMIT’ button. A few seconds passed, and another screen came up asking to verify some of the data items. She went through her notes again, and found mistake after mistake. Finally the program accepted her submission, and a message “Please wait” appeared on the screen.

After several minutes, the message changed to “Click here to continue. You will have one hour to complete the final portion of the application process.” Continue? Mary had thought she was finished.

She clicked, and a page containing a series of graphs appeared. She scrolled down to try to puzzle them out, then gave up and went back to the top to read the instructions. Finally she realized that the graphs contained the information she had entered about Alex and Brittany, their grades, and the time they spent working and playing. A trend line showed Alex continuing to slip while increasing the amount of time he spent on recreation, while Brittany’s allocation of her time remained the same, with her achievement trending upwards. Interesting. At the bottom of each graph, Mary answered a series of questions clearly intended to make sure she understood the implication of each graph.

Finally, exhausted, she hit the submit button, and found herself forwarded to a new page entitled “The Next Steps for You and Your Family,” a page which she had not seen previously.

Step 1. – Read this now.

You and your family have received provisional acceptance into the program. Should your child attend The Gold Star Academy of Discipline, he has the potential to catch up with his peers and get accepted into a good college by the end of the two-year program we offer. At that point he will be fully prepared to succeed in any college-level degree program. A large part of the responsibility for overseeing that this project is begun rests on your shoulders. We will be explaining to you what you will need to do. We will be providing you with information targeted to each member of the family. At this point it is very important not to discuss anything with a family member except what he or she is supposed to know.

We will be contacting you in the coming week to make arrangements for a school visit for you, then later for a visit for you and your husband together. If you have told anyone you were going to be applying today, tell them you will find out more information when the school gets back in touch with you.

What you need now is to bookmark this site. You will need to log in with your username and password each time. Please do not share these with anyone. If you chose something that would be easy for a family member to guess, please change it now. Whenever you are done with the site, even if only for a few minutes, close it.

Now was a good time for a break. Mary closed the window, pushed back her chair, and went into the kitchen to start cooking supper.

Chapter 4

The next time Mary logged into her Gold Star Academy account, she found waiting for her an email with three links. She opened the first two and from them printed up two different brochures, one each for Brittany and John. They were attractive, even given the cheap copy paper she kept in the printer. Mary sat down to read them, as per her instructions.

Brittany’s brochure spoke of the opportunities that would be available to her after graduating this program. It talked about leadership and management skills, of the luxurious on-campus living conditions for female students, and of the academic possibilities provided for taking online credit courses from many different colleges. One thing it didn’t mention was boys like Alex, even though they would be taking part in a program on the same campus.

At the end of the brochure, the reader was asked to go online to take a test to see if the Academy was right for her.

Mary looked at John’s brochure, which spoke of bringing Alex up to the same level of academic achievement as his classmates, who were probably going to be accepted into the college of their choice in the fall. It talked of realizing his potential, of physical conditioning through exercise, of developing a work ethic through strict application of schedules and supervision. It said that at the end of the program, Alex would probably be able to enter the college of his parents’ choice for a successful four years, while Brittany would be able to graduate from a university after only two and a half years.

The information given clearly was slanted in different ways. She looked back at her account, and saw another message. This one told her not to mention the school to Alex yet, that it was not time yet to inform him that his parents were considering putting him in a boarding school and that she inform John and Brittany of this.

Going back to the original email, Mary opened the third attachment. It was an e-book entitled The Order of Things – Tools for Fulfillment. What an odd title, she thought. The blurb on the cover recommended that the contents should be read in order. She glanced at the table of contents:

  • Chapter I – Introduction: Why, What, and When?
  • Chapter II – Biology: Is Anatomy Destiny?
  • Chapter III – Gender and the Brain
  • Chapter IV – Animals, Humans and Instinctive Behavior
  • Chapter V – Humans – Social Behavior and Influences
  • Chapter VI – Male Behaviors
  • Chapter VII – Female Behaviors
  • Chapter VIII – Why Control the Male?
  • Chapter IX – Family Groupings Part I: The Diversity of Human Family Units
  • Chapter X – Family Groupings Part II: Management Implications
  • Chapter XI – Family Groupings Part III: Structured Design
  • Chapter XII – Family Groupings Part IV: Practical Techniques for Modification
  • Chapter XIII – Family Groupings Part V: Application
  • Chapter XIV – Family Groupings Part VI: Maintenance Phase
  • Chapter XV – And Now What?

Mary opened it to Chapter I and began to read. It seemed as though the book spoke directly to her. She was unaware that she had received the version of the book intended to be read by a mother of both male and female potential students, and that this was the effect it was supposed to have on her.

The message in the chapter was straightforward. Teenage boys have been failed by their parents and by an education system that granted them freedom and cut them slack, when what they really needed was a structured environment, close supervision, and control. Respect, self-discipline, and good work habits were something that needs to be actively taught to young males, just as with females. After a boy has passed his formative years, more drastic action would be necessary to address problem behaviors he might be exhibiting.

There was a lot more there to read, but that was the gist of it. It was pretty technical, and after the chapter, there were two sections of questions that Mary would have to answer – the first based on the material, and the second on how she viewed this regarding her present family situation. Mary felt like she was back in college.

She submitted her responses, and received a set of instructions for discussing the school with Brittany. She read them carefully, then logged off the website and closed the browser.

Chapter 5 - Brittany joins up

Brittany sat at the computer and opened the brochure again. A boarding school for Alex she could see. They ought to lock him up and throw away the key, or send him to a military academy, she thought. Not nice, Brittany, said a little voice inside her head. But oh, so true.

Well of course it was true. It just made so much sense. Thinking about it now, she wondered why they hadn�t bothered to consider sending him off to a boot camp style school a year or two before. Immediately the answer came to her. She realized that they had always expected him to snap out of it on his own, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary that showed him to be in an downward spiral. What a con man he was! They lapped it up, believed his every word.

But what kind of a program would this place have that she would be interested in?

How curious that the brochure seemed to be personalized for her!

Brittany typed in the web address from the brochure and logged in, using her personal username and password as printed in the brochure. It brought her to a small website describing the school and its programs.

The website too was clearly personalized for her. Actually, it looked like the Academy would be a nice place to spend the summer. There would be plenty of time to relax by the pool or at the beach, even though she could be taking a couple of classes to get a head start on her college credits.

The dorms—well, they weren't even calling them dorms, they were calling them Residence Hotels—were luxurious. How could anybody like Alex get any discipline in a school like that? That question wasn't answered in the FAQ. Well, Brittany certainly didn't want to be hanging out with slackers like that. She would need to know that before she agreed to spending the summer there.

After she was done she pressed the CLOSE button. To her surprise, the page did not close. Instead, a quiz came up on the screen. It was an odd quiz, too. It asked questions about what she had read about the school on the website, as if to see if she had actually read the whole thing. It asked questions about But it also asked questions about discipline, self-discipline, and her opinion on the best way to handle boys like Alex (okay, it didn't actually name him there, but it was clear that it was exactly what was meant.).

She hit SUBMIT and up came another page, giving more details about the program she would be entering. Now it was clear that the boys were undergoing some sort of a disciplinary boot camp combined with a rigorous academic schedule. Brittany had the option of staying past the summer if she wanted to extend her stay, but Alex was probably going to be in that boot camp for two years. Too bad, thought Brittany. Not too bad for Alex, because by this point he had earned it. Just too bad he had worked so hard and long to get himself in this sort of a mess.

Again Brittany closed the page. This time a popup came up, telling her to login to the site every day to see if she had any messages or assignments to help her prepare for her stay at the Academy.

She smiled and looked over at Mary. "They keep you on your toes, don't they, Mom?" she said, laughing.

Mary looked back at her with a knowing glance. "That they do, Brittany. They certainly do."