Just in case you though Florida was part of the 21st century

By Phil Plait | May 6, 2008 12:00 pm

Chalk this one up to hard-to-believe: a substitute teacher in Florida lost his job in part because of a magic trick.

As reported by Channel 10 in Tampa, Jim Piculas did a magic trick where he makes a toothpick disappear and reappear. What happened next? The principal called him up to the office and told him he was being accused of — wait for it, wait for it — wizardry.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Now, to be fair, this looks like an excuse on the part of the principal or other Powers That Be to get rid of Piculas, whom they accuse of breaking other rules (accusations, Piculas claims, he never heard previously). But let’s be clear: they were still using wizardry (wizardry!) as an excuse to ditch the guy.

Teh stoopid! It hurts!

At first I was having a hard time thinking this story was true, but then realized it happened in Florida. I’m surprised they didn’t burn him.

And someone better tell Randi. They might have to nuke his whole house from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Science

Comments (62)

  1. Bas Timmerman

    If I remember correctly there were some very concerned people in the Vatican during the Harry Potter hype. They were afraid that the youth would all turn to black magic, driving them in the hands of satan…I thought I couldn’t laugh any harder when I read that…until I read this.

  2. (Darn. Beaten to the Harry Potter connection.)

    BTW, the Google ad that I got for this page is for “EvolveFish.com — products for evolved people”. I wonder how Google made that connection? :-)

    I’m glad I went to school in New York, where they had no problem with a chemistry teacher showing what happens when you douse a Barbie Doll with alcohol and then sprinkle some phosphorous on it. (An experiment which, after [mumble mumble] years, I still recall quite vividly.) I suppose today that would be some sort of “terrorist activity”?

  3. Spiv

    just one more reminder that this state is littered with these little collections of whackos. Fortunately I don’t seem to live in any of them, though occasionally bits and pieces of the stupid seem to migrate into my area.

  4. Bill

    I’m sure he was given a due process hearing in which he was weighed on a scale and proven beyond a reasonable doubt to weigh less than a duck (or a very small rock).

  5. debaser

    Think of the children! Those poor minds warped forever… Wasted souls, doomed to be in the clutches of any toothpick-un-and-re-conjurer who comes along and channels their gullible minds into the foul chambers of the darkest of minor magic.

    The kids in the classroom at least might still be reached saved. But those poor pathetic overgrown children who run the school, oh man, they are doomed.

    Careful, he’s got a bedeviled hankerchief! Playing cards of the devil! Demonic Dove! Cursed hares! Balloon animals of the occult! Run for your gullible fool lives school board, before your souls are forfeit

  6. Calli Arcale

    Oh good grief — now that really is pathetic. I can only imagine there was something actually *bad* in the stuff they didn’t let out. It could be a case of a spineless board that didn’t want the world to realize what sorts of things they’d been blissfully ignoring until now. My high school band directory got away with actual *crimes* before finally being fired for the minor technicality of failing to renew his teaching license. He was a moron and a creep, but he had this big cult of personality among the band parents. The school board was scared of them. But to fire him for a magic trick — that just seems too stupid. It’s not like slight of hand is illegal, in and of itself. I guess I could see it if the context was really inappropriate, but then they’d be firing him for that and not for “wizardry”.

    Wizardry. That’s just nuts. And in the 21st Century no less. Oh well; gives us another reason to poke fun at Florida, I guess.

  7. BicycleRepairMan

    On the bright side, he is eligable for the million dollars from Randi. I’d keep the toothpicks for the trial.

  8. Jason

    If the news story is accurate (and it almost defies belief to the point where, when I first saw it last night, I had to stop and remind myself of the journalistic standards that go into local newscasts across the country), then bring on the global warming that will swallow up Florida.

    But — and here is the key point — I haven’t actually heard the full story from the school’s side. It’s possible that the “wizardry” charge was never officially made at all. Maybe we could all take a deep breath and wait for the facts to come out before we get our panties all bunched up.

    Of course, where’s the fun if we can’t show our superiority, with or without the facts . . .

  9. Daffy

    Florida has a long, proud history of wackos…going all the way back to Anita Bryant (although she later publicly apologized for her hate speeches against gays). The state seems to be graced with a rather high percentage of very, very frightened people.

  10. Dan

    How is it possible that they can launch space shuttles and rockets from there?!?

  11. Dan:

    How is it possible that they can launch space shuttles and rockets from there?!?

    Because mission control is in Texas?

    Oh… wait… :-)

  12. @Dan: launching space shuttles and rockets requires some serious wizardry.

  13. Jason:

    It’s possible that the “wizardry” charge was never officially made at all.

    I’m not sure that it matters that much if it were “officially” made or “unofficially”. It’s still darn scary in this day and age to hear someone accuse someone of wizardy, especially over what’s clearly a fairly low-grade magic trick.

  14. Cello Man

    Suppose you meet with the Devil to sell your soul. He asks what powers you want in exchange. Would you really want the ability to make toothpicks disappear? Do some people really see the above as a perfectly plausible scenario?

    There really isn’t a word for this kind of idiocy.

    P.S. Although we’ll never know, I’m willing to bet good money that the person who fired this teacher voted for Bush.

  15. My first inclination was stop by Randi’s office when I heard the story this morning. My wife called me, having heard the story on the radio.

    However, I think Jason is on to something. There is more to this story than several news outlets are reporting. I have read, subsequent to hearing of the interesting headline, that there were several complaints about the substitute teacher that had nothing whatsoever to do with the magic trick. The school district denies that “wizardry” was a factor. The trick in question may have provided a kernel of truth, but it may have been made into a main point or the headline to capture audience attention.

    This is a “he said – they said” situation. The guy being fired says the firer has been frivolous and the firer says the firee was fired for legit cause and not for the reason the firee cites.

  16. Kaptain K

    FWIW, as mentioned in the article, Florida considers substitute teachers to be “at will” employees. That means they don’t even need a reason to fire one!

  17. rob

    crap. the story was already linked!

    me is teh stoopid!

  18. To respond to Cello. Would I sell my soul for powers to make toothpicks disappear? My response would be… YES!!!!!
    Sure.. making toothpicks disappear is nothing. What if I can cause a toothpick shortage, or better! Make large inanimate objects disappear. Just kidding.
    Seriously… Is this occurrence at Florida school reverting back to a Salem witch trials style/movement?

  19. Stupendous Man

    Love the little nod to “Aliens (1986)” in your closing remark.

  20. Wolfe Masters

    Hey, I have done that trick before, and that requires a very high level of magic to perform. Usually only arch-mages can perform that spell properly, without destroying everyone who has bared witness to it. He should be commended for not killing everyone.

    It makes perfect sense now why Bush won the election. Someone cast a spell on the balot box. It must have been Political Blunder spell. I am still unsure as to whether or not the spell backfired though.

  21. Have read the article and watched the video. However, this line from the reporter is telling.

    She says:

    “I spoke with the Assistant Superintendant of the Pasco County school district who said it wasn’t just the wizadry.”

    Let me repeat that. “It wasn’t JUST THE WIZADRY.” This means that, according to what the reporter says on the tape, WIZARDRY WAS A FACTOR.

    Now, if that’s true, that’s stupefying.

    Ok, so maybe there were other things the teacher was doing wrong. But the school district should have, and needs to, deny the Wizardry charge flat-out.

    The school could still argue that the magic trick was inappropriate, because it didn’t have any educational value.

    It’s possible that the news station may have misrepresented the response from the Assistant Superintendant. We never hear a direct quote from them, only what the reporter summarizes from the conversation. But the way it stands right now, it sounds like Wizardry was on the table for reasons to fire the guy.

    Yech.

  22. Calli Arcale

    FWIW, as mentioned in the article, Florida considers substitute teachers to be “at will” employees. That means they don’t even need a reason to fire one!

    That’s true in most states, actually. Substitute teachers aren’t exactly regular employees — they’re more like independent contractors whom the school district can call on in times of need. It is totally at the district’s discretion whom to call, and at least in my home district, it was commonplace to allow teachers to request specific subs. (My mother was on the sub list, which is how I know this.) You have to go through something like a hiring process to get on the list, but after that, the district is under no obligation to actually use you.

  23. Well, Hogwarts usually has an opening for Defense Against Dark Arts. :D

    (Yes, I know that curse was lifted… if you still don’t like that, they need a new Headmaster, too. :D )

  24. Paul Koeck

    I live in the district, and in fact my daughter will be attending this school next year when she enters sixth grade. Charles Rushe Middle school is brand spanking new. The current crop of kids is the very first to go through. My daughter and I took a tour of the facilities a few weeks ago, and it’s quite a big place. Fairly typical design, but lots of large, cavernous spaces. The main atrium is three floors with large balconies. Far better than the schools I attended, that’s for sure. I did manage to engage her science teacher and found out she was quite excited about the new standards and that evolution was now an open part of them. That reassured me a lot.

    But then this nonsense happened. I sent the following letter to the entire school board and various officials of the district:

    ——-
    Gentlemen and Ladies,

    My daughter is a fifth-grader at Denham Oaks Elementary school. She will be leaving soon and entering the much larger world of middle school at your new Charles S. Rushe facility. We’ve all been looking forward to this as an opportunity to learn and expand her horizons. She and I are both understandably nervous, of course, as the switch from elementary to middle school is always a bit jarring.
    Unfortunately, I’ve recently come across this little story about her new middle school:

    http://www.tampabays10.com/news/local/article.aspx?storyid=79533

    This is a story about a substitute teacher at Charles S. Rushe middle school who was apparently accused of “Wizardry” for performing a simple sleight-of-hand trick with a toothpick, and subsequently lost his job. Now from the story, I understand there may have been other issues with his employment, but that’s not really the point to all this.

    Wizardry!

    Just out of curiosity, I checked my calendar, and it says the year is 2008. The 21st century. The mind boggles.
    I don’t know where this accusation originated, nor do I care. What bothers me is that any school official could possibly have taken it seriously enough to do anything except laugh in the face of the person who made the accusation. This is a complete and utter travesty. How can I possibly have any confidence that my daughter will receive a sound education when this kind of nonsense occurs at her school?

    Wizardry! Seriously?

    Why does the supervisor of substitute teachers at Rushe still have a job? Anyone in the chain of command at the school who could possibly even consider this should be fired, and possibly remanded for psychiatric evaluation. Their jobs, and yours as school board members and district officials, is to educate our children, not to engage in vapid, superstitious nuttery.
    Wizardry! What’s next? Will you start teaching astrology? Numerology? Creationism? Geocentrism? Expanding Earth? Velikovskyism? Larmarckian evolution? PI = 3? Will you ban students from reading Harry Potter or similar fluff? Maybe you think roleplaying games leads to occult practices? Will you start comparing the weights of children and ducks to determine who’s a witch (obligatory Monty Python reference)? Perhaps you believe we didn’t go to the moon?

    Honestly, I really can’t wrap my head around this incident. If any of you folks think an accusation of wizardry is legitimate, I humbly submit that you should resign from your position. Anybody who could possibly take it seriously is utterly incapable of being responsible for such an important task as my daughter’s education.

    Please, do something to reassure me and every parent that Charles S. Rushe isn’t being run by a pack of raving lunatics who think Ouija boards are direct links to Satan.

    Thanks,

    Paul Koeck
    Concerned Parent of an upcoming Charles S. Rushe student.
    ——-

    I perhaps wasn’t quite as temperate as I should have been, but I think I’m understandably upset by this.

    Somebody on my mailing list forwarded my email to a Ms. Renalia Smith DuBose, who sent the following response:

    —–
    Mr. Poeck, we work very hard to ensure we hire high quality personnel. When
    we find personnel who do not do a good job, we terminate them as we did this
    sub.

    Here is the full story

    http://suncoastpasco.tbo.com/content/2008/may/05/substitute-teacher-says-wizardry-accusation-cost-h/?news-breaking

    —–

    I sent a response saying that my objection was with the firing. He may very well have been a poorly-performing substitute. If he was terrible, then I’m glad he’s no longer employed there. The basic problem is that a school official, with a straight face apparently, accused him of wizardry and suggested in person that it was one of the complaints against him. In fact, even more serious, is the sentence where he was told that a student had been “traumatized” by a disappearing toothpick, and that the father then complained.

    The appropriate response should have been psychiatric evaluation for student and father. At no point should any school official have mentioned the word “wizardry” as if it were anything but a hilarious joke. Hopefully they understand how disappointed I am, as a parent.

  25. Paul Koeck

    Oops. I meant to say “…my objection wasn’t with…”

  26. justcorbly

    OK, magicians. Don’t book shows in Florida.

    I think we need to organize a national campign of the Not-Deluded to avoid spending any money in Florida. How about we boycott Florida orange juice and Disneyworld until the place comes to its senses?

  27. Nice Aliens quote there Phil :)

    Hudson: Let’s just bug out and call it even, OK? What are we talking about this for?
    Ripley: I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.
    Hudson: F***n’ A…
    Burke: Ho-ho-hold on, hold on one second. This installation has a substantial dollar value attached to it.
    Ripley: They can *bill* me.

  28. RL

    Hopefully, in the next few days the real facts will emerge. I have a suspicion that this is mainly a local TV news person looking for ratings by hyping a story. In most firing situations, the former employer can’t or won’t say much while the former employee can allege whatever.

  29. “Now, to be fair, this looks like an excuse on the part of the principal or other Powers That Be to get rid of Piculas, whom they accuse of breaking other rules (accusations, Piculas claims, he never heard previously). But let’s be clear: they were still using wizardry (wizardry!) as an excuse to ditch the guy.”

    Retrospectively deciding the sum total of someone’s undefended prior behaviour is justification for taking action against them in the present, is a total violation of civilised legal philosophy, and that’s the real archaic thinking going on here.

    Since any person could accuse you of anything at anytime based on their own stupid/false, (but possibly genuine), beliefs, it’s important that the process of determination be fair.

    Something is either an actionable violation of rules, or it isn’t. In a civilised society, you can’t justify action against someone based on the idea that they somehow, “deserve it anyway”, because of non-actionable, (or non-actioned), infractions in the past. That would be like saying several previous unproven accusations – or worse yet, suspicions – of murder in the past, are justification for a conviction in the present.

    It’s not an uncommon fallacious way of thinking. It’s the same reason that I used to kinda sorta believe in, (alien), UFOs: ‘All’ the sightings can’t be wrong/hoaxes/misinterpretations/lies/fakes.

    I find it easy to believe that this guy had never heard of these accusations before, since all someone need do to create the impression that he’s a, “trouble-maker”, or otherwise an “undesirable” is throw enough accusations at him, (in this case retrospectively), while proving none, and/or effectively denying him due process on those past accusations.

    The past accusations make the present accusations “more probable” and vice versa. It’s witch-trial justice at its worst.

    The inherent stupidity of having to stand against a single charge of “wizardry” pales by comparison. Against that at least, you have a hope of defending yourself against in a fair system. But this flawed manner of introducing supposed prior infractions into the equation changes the system itself to tip the balance against you.

  30. Jason

    Let me make a series of predictions (that, sadly, will not qualify me for the JREF $1 million prize):

    1. The facts in this case will come out and wizardry will have had nothing to do with this man’s dismissal.

    2. Like the rest of the MSM, the BA blog will ignore that the school district acted appropriately.

    3. Nobody, least of all anybody reading this thread, will apologize to the folks in charge of the school district for accusing them of this idiocy.

    Remember presumption of innocence people. Too many of us on this blog are ready to convict these folks based on “facts” gleaned from A LOCAL TV NEWS REPORTER. Local TV news should stick to what it does best: reporting the haunting of local police stations, lotto results and weather predictions that make Sylvia Browne look psychic.

    We’re supposed to be the critical thinkers. Shouldn’t we wait for the facts before weighing in with our holier-than-thou opinions? Like I said before, however, where is the fun in that . . .

  31. Doc

    Jason,

    Let me make some alternate predictions:

    1. The facts in this case will come out and there will be no “paper trail” of any kind to show this teacher’s performance was not acceptable, and there will be no documentable reason for his dismissal – the school district will simply rely upon “we don’t need to show cause”.

    2. After a brief flurry on the local news, the MSM will attempt to sweep the story under a rug, because all indications will show the school district to have acted irrationally but a number of parents in the district support the action.

    3. No one in the school district will apologize to the teacher for firing him.

    Remember the presumption of innocence, Jason. Too many people on this blog are willing to convict the teacher of poor performance based on “facts” gleaned from what A LOCAL TV NEWS REPORTER was told by a school district representative. Shouldn’t we wait for the facts before weighing in with our holier-than-thou opinions? Like you said…

  32. Jason

    Doc:

    Not a lot of people on this board are defending the school district’s actions. Even I am not defending them, I’m just defending the district’s right not to be smeared before the all facts are in.

    Ooops! Looks like I was too late.

    As for the prediction, I hope (a) that the school district did, in fact, act appropriately (because it would speak poorly of public education otherwise); and (b) that it turns out I’m a terrible judge of human nature.

  33. Helioprogenus

    Poe’s Law at work in Florida

  34. Pop

    The responsible party – TV newscaster, School District, or Principal – making a claim of wizardry should not look too hard at one of the state’s golden goose money sources (Disney World)or they would completely lose their mind (s).

    Old Walt was well known for his repeated claims of wizardry in the many displays, interactive rides and mechanics of how it’s done. If any burning at the stake was to be done, Disney World would be first on the list.

    I say we non-Floridians boycot the state by no believing in Florida hurricanes (talk about wizardy – whooo). Admit nothing, deny everything.

  35. Just let your Florida (non-crazy) readers know about a week before you saw off the state and set it adrift.

    Magic Kingdom, real mermaids at Weekee Watchee, Fountain of Youth, Miami…

    Nothing strange here, move along.

  36. Utakata

    Makes me wonder what they think of the likes of Chrono Crusade:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chrono_Crusade

    Hint: Catholic church working with demons to overthrow Hell.

  37. Tervuren

    The important thing is we need to determine what kind of Wizard is he. Is he more like Ron, bumbing but good, or Snape, confused, or Malfoy, greedy.

  38. Scott Hamilton

    OK, here’s the thing. A local blogger figured out what Jim Piculas’ e-mail was and looked for it online, and well, I don’t know if we want to be using this guy as a skeptical cause. Apparently, he thinks he is a wizard. Or at least, an expert in erotic tarot.

    http://stpetersblog.com/2008/05/tarotica-erotica/

  39. Ad Hominid

    Phil, keep an eye on your e-mail. Have I got one for you, similar but much, much worse (and it happened in Texas).

    The e-mail is entitled “UFO debunking off-limits in Texas school.”

  40. When I was kid the local catholic priest used to come to class (catholic school) and do magic tricks and play the trumpet (the brass instrument). He was actually pretty good. Even as a 10 year old I don’t think any of us thought there was anything supernatural going. He didn’t even say anything about god helping him to do tricks. He was just performing.

    Makes the whole “wizard” thing seem even more ridiculous.

    Actually it reminds me that Falun Gong’s founder has written that David Copperfield performs real magic, especially his trick of walking through the Great Wall.

  41. Jason, in my post I said that there were other accusations made, and that wizardry only played a part in this. Now, we do only have the story from Piculas himself, but that’s clear in the linked story. If it does turn out that this was totally made up by Piculas, or some other mitigating circumstance, and I heard about it, then I would certainly follow up the story.

  42. Hoonser

    Principal: He’s a wizard! He made a toothpick disappear!
    Teacher: It’s just a simple slight of hand trick, it’s not really magic
    Principal: If that’s the case then I invite you to demonstrate how it’s done
    Teacher: Well.. The magician’s code prohibits me from giving away the secret to how I did the trick
    Principal: Wizard! Wizard! Where’s your pointy hat wizard?!
    Teacher: I don’t have one? Anyway, if I was a wizard I could just use my magic to turn you into a frog or something making this ridiculous situation disappear!
    Principal: You heard him! He threatened to use black magic on me! *jumps out the window*
    Teacher: So do I still work here?

  43. Philip B.

    We asked Rev. Ted “We have found a witch, may we burn her?” Michaelson what he had to say…

  44. Hugo

    Well, so long as he wasn’t consorting with the Illuminati.

    Or teaching his students how to summon the alien mothership with a coathanger and tinfoil.

    Now, that…that would be crazy.

  45. Richie

    and yet another reason is added to the depressingly long list of “Why Never to Visit America”

    In related news, Satellite 5-TUP-1-D has performed its first run across North America and had detected lethal concentrations of the element Stupidium. Stupidium is reported to be highly toxic and can cause irreversible brain damage.

  46. TSFrost

    @ Scott Hamilton: After reading that link, I’m betting he got fired for being a pagan.

  47. Thomas Siefert

    They mostly come at night… mostly.

  48. yy2bggggs

    The first issue I have here is twofold. First, there is a lack of a direct quote from a district representative. Second, the indirect quote in question has a very interesting source–the fired employee:

    “She said, ‘You’ve been accused of wizardry,’ ” Piculas said. (From the tbo link above)

    Essentially, the information we have about the actual accusation is not only second hand, it’s from a biased source. This doesn’t mean it didn’t happen like that, of course, but it opens up a number of possibilities with the school district actually not doing this, and Piculas believing otherwise, being deceptive, etc.

    The second issue is that it’s being treated as if it’s true, and spread at an alarming rate, in spite of not knowing that it’s true. In this regard, it is in fact a hot off the press urban legend (which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false, but its popularity is certainly independent from its truth value).

    People who are fired are occasionally disgruntled (remember Expelled?), and I really can’t shake the suspicion, when putting everything together, that this is what it’s all about rather than medieval Floridian school systems.

  49. Grand Lunar

    Couldn’t he have got off the hook if he said he was showing an illusion?

    Sheesh, I do hope there’s more to it than a case of stupidity.

  50. firemancarl

    Yes, thats my home state. leading the charge into the 4th century.

  51. Surprisingly enough, in the 1980’s in Scotland, I was told by a preacher that sleight of hand magic was also condemned by the Bible as it had the “Quickness of the hand deceiving the eye”

    How could a Christian be involved in such deception when Jesus stood for the Truth!!!

    And no – I am not making this up

  52. Fran Schiavo

    And we thought the inquisition was history.

  53. redewenur

    This is beyond stupid. It’s bordering on the dangerously insane. That people of that mentality are allowed to hold positions of responsibility and authority is a sure sign of a degenerating society. USA…watch China…watch India…watch Europe…and consider what action is required to stop the rot.

  54. Arthur: “What manner of man are you that you can annihilate and reconstruct toothpicks at will?”

    Supply Teacher: “I… am an enchanter”

    Arthur: “By what name are you known?”

    Supply Teacher: “There are some who call me… ‘Jim’?”

    Arthur: “…greetings, Jim the Enchanter”

  55. Naomi

    “where they had no problem with a chemistry teacher showing what happens when you douse a Barbie Doll with alcohol and then sprinkle some phosphorous on it.”

    Aww, how come WE never did that? :( (We just did the piss-weak ‘drop the world’s tiniest sliver of sodium into a beaker’ one.)

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