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The Substitute - A Commentary

By Brent Flynn, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – "Why is the substitute sweating?"

It was a legitimate question from the second grader since I was clearly sweating. But something in the tone of his voice made me want to put the fear of God into this little truth-seeker.

Unfortunately, I was too busy trying to figure out how to make the wall-mounted, pull-down map retract. The backseat teachers were in full chorus: "You have to pull it really fast," "Don't pull it too far down," "I think you broke it."

I turned to face the toddling troubleshooters and said in my most authoritative yet restrained teacher voice, "OK, I need everyone to sit down and get quiet so I can pick someone for the quiet game."

The quiet game always shuts them up. You pick the quietest kid in the class, who then gets to pick the next quietest kid in the class, and the cycle continues ad infinitum or until they forget what they are doing.

I gave up on the map completely, unhooked it from the wall and threw it aside while emptying a box of Kleenex to sop up the sweat pouring down my face.

The problem of being a substitute is its fundamental irony. You're supposed to step into the teacher's shoes, assume a leadership role, and conduct the class with as few disruptions and deviations from the normal routine as possible. But even though you are the only adult in the room, you are the least qualified to lead the class.

That's why I announced that, "Today things are going to be a little bit different. But just because it's different doesn't mean that it's wrong. Right, class?" But despite this disclaimer and the class's unanimous verbal agreement, students throughout the day still reminded me that, "You're doing it WRONG."

I got the class under control and appointed a student to be the calendar leader. The morning calendar is an inexplicable mental obstacle course of counting exercises, hidden patterns, and songs with familiar melodies, but all of the words changed to make the substitute look stupid.

The calendar leader got to pick a fellow student to guess the day's date. I say, "guess," because I've noticed that kids often throw out two or three stray responses in the hopes of triangulating an answer.

So anyway, the kid finally got the date and then tried to divine if the date was an even or odd number. He guessed incorrectly this time, and was berated by the calendar leader.

Intoxicated with power, the calendar leader dismissed him and informed the class that the date was even.
At this point, I was beginning to feel a little threatened by the calendar leader.

"How can you tell if a number is even," he asked. And the only answer I could think of was, "You can tell that it's an even number because?well, it just is." That kind of circular reasoning got me through college, but you actually have to know the reasons why, in elementary school. He didn't get an answer from the class, either, and referenced some obscure axiom about dividing even numbers by two equally.

OK, I knew that.

Next, they counted the days remaining in the school year. I was shocked by the answer: 80. Eighty full days of school with these monsters. I was about to be overthrown by the Lord of the Flies and I hadn't even made it through one morning.

The rest of the day was pretty normal. The second graders went to lunch and recess, and the calendar leader tried to slam his locker door on my head. But through all of this I managed to retain possession of the conch.


Brent Flynn is a reporter at the Lewisville Leader and is the publisher of the online publication,