The School of Hard Knocks

The author takes a gig as a substitute teacher and he's given a couple tough subjects of his own.

    I’d been thinking about being a substitute teacher for a while and I signed up well ahead of time, in the middle of the summer. I got fingerprinted. Got a background check. I faxed in my transcripts. I attended the Substitute Teacher Orientation for first time substitute teachers with about a hundred others professionals where we learned what to expect, best practices for the classroom, and Things Not To Do, which included things like, No Hugging, No Spanking, No Swearing. High fives are okay.

    “And don’t try to be their friend,” we were warned, “or they’ll walk all over you. Be authoritative. Earn their respect first, and perhaps as time goes by you can become their friend.” I actually laughed at this part.

    When the instructor tells us not to be friends with the students I just chuckle. Not only will I be friends with these kids, by the end of the day I’ll be their best friend. They’ll wish their regular teacher would never come back. My picture will be hanging in the teacher’s lounge under Employee of the Month after my first week. I’ll be known throughout Canyon School District as the Kid Whisperer.

    But it didn’t work like that.  You know how there are certain species of creatures in the universe (Hutts and Toydarians) that are immune to the Jedi Mind Trick? It’s the same with third graders regarding adult authority and charisma. Before my day was over I expected one of them to stand up and say “We’re third graders. Your Adult Authority and Charisma don’t work on us.”

    I was excited and optimistic about my new little side career as a substitute teacher. I went to a nice men’s store and selected a $120, red silk tie. Now that’s a power tie, I thought to myself.

    I wore fresh, crisp khakis. French-cuff shirt with dagger point collar. My favorite cufflinks. The red power tie. Sportcoat. My lucky Doc Martens.

    I arrived at Dante Elementary twenty minutes early to give myself time to settle in before the kids arrived. I walked into the room and paused in the doorway to take it in. Gray October light came in through the windows. The classroom was cool, and quiet. The quiet of an empty classroom has a resonance of silence that’s unique to it. No other silence sounds like the silence of an empty classroom. It’s a tangible silence. All the voices and activities of the room’s former students cast a shadow, an echo that your sixth sense can detect. Teachers, you know what I’m talking about.

    The students’ desks were arranged into rectangular groups of six. It smelled like some industrial cleaner I hadn’t smelled for nearly 25 years, and smelling it zoomed me back to memories of my own school days. I flipped on the fluorescent lights, which flickered a couple times and popped on.

    I walked to the teacher’s desk, and placed my attaché case on the floor beside it. To demonstrate just how naïve I was, I had actually brought my laptop with me because I assumed that I’d get the kids started on a project and they’d sit quietly at their desks doing their assignments and I’d get out my laptop and get a little work done on that novel.

    Mrs. Awesome had left for me a list of instructions and a schedule on her desk. I read through it. 


  • 8:15: Class begins. Welcome the students and introduce yourself.
  • 8:20: Read “The Politically Correct Spider Befriends a Fly.”
  • 8:30: Social studies. Hand out materials from the folder labeled “Social Studies.” Teach from the transparencies in the same folder.
  • Et cetera
  • Et cetera
  • Et cetera


     Next, I walked to the white board and wrote my name on it: Mr. Law.

    The students started arriving around 8:00. “Are you our teacher today?”

    “Yup. I’m Mr. Law.”

    “Where’s Mrs. Awesome?”

   I shrugged my shoulders. I would be asked those two questions, “Are you our teacher today?” and “Where’s Mrs. Awesome?” 23 more times as the rest of the students came in.

   Having a substitute teacher really filled them with delight.  To third graders, a day with a substitute teacher is like Amish Rumspringa.

    When the bell rang I walked to the front of the class room and officially introduced myself. “Hi everyone. I am Mr. Law,” and, as a touch of emphasis, I underlined my name on the white board. I’d seen this done before in movies.

    “Hi Mr. Law,” they chorused back.

    “I look forward to being your teacher today. And I’m sure I’ll learn something from you as well.” Yes, I know: to you and me it’s a rather trite thing to say, but third graders don’t yet know this.  

    “Alright,” I said. “Let’s get started.”

    I walked back to Mrs. Awesome’s desk. “We’ll start by reading “The Politically Correct  Spider Befriends a Fly that Can’t Fly.”’   

    Twenty four hands instantly shot in the air.

    “What is it?” I asked.

    “First we fill out our lunch requests,” one of them informed me. Then a little mob of them ambushed my desk and opened the drawers on Mrs. Awesome’s desk until they found the lunch request forms.

    “Alright,” I said, “everyone take one and fill it out.”

    I then turned to a girl who hadn’t returned to her desk but was filling out her lunch request slip on my desk. She seemed to know what was going on so I asked her, “What happens now? Does someone come by and collect these, or do we take them to the office?”

    “We take them to the office,” she said without looking up. “Can I take them?”

    “Sure. Gather them up for us and take them to the office please.”

    “Okay you guys,” I said. “Get back in your seats and I’ll read the “The Politically Correct Spider Befriends a Fly.”

    Again, twenty-four hands shot into the air.

    “What now?”

    “We do story time on the carpet.” Some of the students pointed helpfully to the little island of carpet at the back of the room

    “Alright,” I said. “Let’s move to the carpet.”

    “You sit there,” Helpful Helen said, pointing to a black chair at the side of the carpet.

    I sat down on the chair and opened the book.

    “Do we have to sit in our assigned places?” a student asked.

    “You have assigned places on the carpet too?” I asked. That seemed like a bit much to me.

    I was informed that, yes, they had assigned places on the carpet too.

    I flipped through the book, (it was only ten pages long) and did some quick calculus. It would only take me three minutes at the most to read the story. If I let the kids sit wherever that wanted I would score some quick points toward being the cool teacher, and if things went bad—such as too much poking, whispering or whatever else third graders might do—it would all be over in three minutes anyway. How much can go wrong in three minutes?

    “Nah, go ahead and sit wherever you want,” I said.

    When giving instructions to third graders you have to be very specific. When I told them they could sit wherever they wanted to, in my mind that meant sit anywhere on the carpet.

    But to them that meant sit anywhere they wanted.

    This is where I lost them.

    It was 8:23.

    They sprang from the carpet like it was lava. A kid I’ll refer to as Maddening Max, ran to a gray garbage can and sat inside as far down as he could squeeze. His head and shoulders stuck out one side, his legs dangled out the other. This really raised the bar! Suddenly everyone wanted to outdo Max.

    Devious Derek, ran to the other garbage can and squeezed his butt down in it copying Maddening Max. I instantly lost respect for Derek on the basis of his lack of originality.

   “Whoa! Whoa!” I yelled. “I meant sit anywhere on the carpet!”

    But it was too late now, for third graders follow Newton’s Third Law of Motion which states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  But the third graders had met a force that was not equal to its own. It was the force of a china shop versus the force of a bull. I was the china shop. The realization, I must say, came as a bit of a surprise to me. So even though I protested and urged them to return to the carpet, my protestations went unheeded.

    There was only one garbage can left, and some kid made straight for it.  

    One kid climbed up on top of the stand-alone supply closet and sat there. There was room for three more up there so three more kids climbed up and joined him. The rest of the kids were running around in hysterics trying to find a place cooler than a garbage can or the top of a coat rack. Somebody hid under their desk. Another kid climbed to the top of the coat rack and sat on top of it.

    “Stop! Stop!” I yelled again.  “Alright stop! You guys are being crazy.”

    But they kept running around. There would have been no less chaos if I had released a colony of wasps in the room.

    “I’m going to count to five and wherever you are when I’m done counting that’s where you have to stay while I read the story! One . . .”

    This turned the whole thing into a new game. A teacher-sanctioned game! And the countdown was the cue for everyone to jump up from where they were and run around even more. The kids in the garbage cans jumped out of the garbage cans and looked for new places, the kids on top of the supply closet and coat rack jumped off and ran around looking for new places.

    “Two . . .”

    And now, with the garbage cans and top of the coat rack and supply closet suddenly available, other kids bolted straight for them and climbed into the garbage cans and tops of the coat rack, and supply closet.

    “Three . . .”

    One kid hid himself in the coats pulling them over himself.

    “Four. Find a place.”

    Last second of pandemonium.

    “Five!” I yelled, and everyone froze in their spot like we had been playing freeze tag. If they were in the motion of running, which most of them were, they froze in a running position.

    “Okay,” I said, “Now, stay where you are and I’ll read the story.”

    I opened up the book. Cleared my throat.  “The Politically Correct Spider Befriends a Fly.”

    My classroom shared a wall with another third grade classroom. I made it to about page four before the other third grade teacher poked her head in the door to see who was banging on her wall. It turns out that the four kids sitting on top of the supply closet were swinging their feet, and in the process they were kicking the wooden doors of the closet, which sounded loudly in the other classroom.

    She opened the door to see four students sitting on top of the supply closet, three students in trash cans, three on top of the coat rack, one hidden among the coats, two or three of them scrunched beneath their desks like an earthquake drill, and the rest of them frozen in a running position. Only Helpful Helen, Sweet Sara and Mindy Manners remained on the carpet. I was on a chair reading them a story.

    “What is going on in here?” she demanded. “Get off that coat rack! Get out of those garbage cans! Everyone go back to the carpet.”

    Everyone left their places and returned to the carpet. Two kids emerged from beneath Mrs. Awesome’s desk. I didn’t even know they were under there.

    “This is completely unacceptable,” she said. She was looking at the students but I’m pretty sure her remarks were meant for me. I was quite positive she was going to send me to the principal’s office.

    The students returned to the carpet and sat down cross-legged, facing me.

    “Thanks,” I said sheepishly to the other teacher.

    I never did regain control of the classroom.  Just as I had arrived at the realization that I was a force not equal to that of the students’, the students had made the same realization. If I had walked into the classroom and passed out Red Bulls and Pixie Sticks, the rest of the day would not have been any different.

    We made it to the end of story time, and we all moved back to our desks. I looked at the outline Mrs. Awesome had left for me. Time for social studies. I opened the folder marked “social studies” and found there handouts for the students and a transparency of the same for me. I passed out the handouts, and I placed my transparency on the overhead projector. I looked for the power button to turn it on but couldn’t find it anywhere. “Does anyone know how to turn this thing on?” I asked.

    Again, I expected the kids to behave like kids from the eighties and raise their hands, after which I’d choose one to come forward and show me how to operate the projector. Instead every kid got out of their seats and rushed forward to help me. Helpful Helen was the first on the scene. “It’s just right here,” she said, and flipped on the power switch which was in a very non-intuitive spot.

   “Okay,” I said. “Got it. Return to your seats please.”

    But returning to their seats proved to be a task equivalent to Odysseus returning to Ithaca. They were instantly blown off course by the terrible Winds of What’s Going on Over There? Calypso’s spell was no more powerful than the spell of the art station. And what third grader can resist the Siren song of the pencil sharpener?

    “Seriously,” I said, “go back to your seats.”

    They managed to go back to their seats. I placed the transparency on the glass of the projector and all the kids instantly started giggling. I had placed it upside down. I flipped it right side up and continued. But the students were still grinning uncontrollably, and others were laughing. Geez, it’s not that funny. But the giggling and smiling went on way too long. And now I noticed knowing glances being shot around the room. And Sweet Sara did not find any of it amusing. She was a serious student who was there to learn and she did not appreciate these petty interruptions. She sat there with a perturbed look on her face.

    “Okay, what’s so funny?” I asked.

    “Max and Derek switched seats,” said Helpful Helen.

    “Okay, Max and Derek go back to your seats,” I ordered. They went back to their seats and I returned to the lesson.

    You know how groups of animals and people have nouns of assemblage, like a Murder of crows, or a coven of witches? I can think of some good ones for third graders. A Microburst of third graders. Or an Aftermath.

    I think the best noun of assemblage for third graders would be a Pot, as in a Pot of third graders, because a watched pot never boils. But every time I turned my back on the class Maddening Max, Devious Derek and a few others performed a new shenanigan, which I would be alerted to when the other students laughed.

    The rest of the day was a tragicomic play in three acts titled Max and Derek’s Magical Chaos Engine. For a little while I remained under the illusion that I was the director of this play but it was soon revealed that Maddening Max and Devious Derek were the true directors; I was but a mere player.

    Act One consisted almost entirely of dialogue that went something like this: “Okay,  everyone look at the social studies hand out I gave you. Derek get off of there and sit in your chair. Today we’ll be learning about landforms and bodies of water. A landform is the shape of the surface of the land. Max stop doing that. In some places the land is steep. Be quiet everyone. Now really, that wasn’t even that funny. Knock it off Max. In such places we may find hills or mountains. A mountain is one kind of landform. Seriously, Max and Derek sit down! And be quiet! In other places the land is flat. Flat land is called a plain. Plains can be grassy, but they’re not always grassy. Hey kid! Stop sharpening your pencil. And be quiet. Let’s try to be quiet now. The Mississippi River and the Great Lakes are examples of bodies of water. Yes, you. Kid with her hand in the air. Do you have a question? No you can’t go pee. Geez, we’ve only been in class for a half hour. Derek sit down. Max, shut up.”

    The second act of Max and Derek’s Magical Chaos Engine featured some very daring stunts choreographed by Maddening Max and Devious Derek to the great delight of the audience. In this act Max and Derek rev the Magical Chaos Engine up to its ideal running speed of 10,000 RPMs. The Other Third Grade Teacher has a cameo in which she reprimands the students and suggests to The Teacher that he take away recess if the students don’t behave.  

    And indeed The Teacher threatened to take away recess if they didn’t stop talking and running around. Under this threat Max and Derek dialed down the Magical Chaos Engine to 7,000 RPMs, which was not enough to satisfy The Teacher, who indeed took away their recess. But taking away recess backfired on The Teacher as the kids became more restless and antsier than ever.

    The curtain opens on Act III with the students returning from lunch to find that The Teacher had made some critical changes to the configuration of their classroom, namely he had moved Maddening Max’s desk to a solitary corner by itself, a change The Teacher hoped would disable the Chaos Engine’s central dynamo.

   But isolating Maddening Max had the opposite effect, as the spotlight became directed more exclusively on him. And seeing the spotlight shifted so heavily on Max, jealous Derek amped up his deviousness in an attempt to steal some of the attention back to himself.

    One of the acts key dramatic moments came about halfway through the third act when The Teacher, addressing an unruly student, pointed to his red silk tie and yelled, “This is a power tie!”

    The Teacher threatened to take away afternoon recess, but he was informed by his students that they don’t have afternoon recess on Fridays. Upon hearing this The Teacher delivered a revelatory aside: “You don’t have afternoon recess? Well, that explains a lot. No wonder these dang kids are all a bunch of hyperactive troublemakers.”

    The Other Third Grade Teacher showed great comedic timing; always sticking her head in the door just when the Magical Chaos Engine was really humming along.

   With his primary tool (taking away recess) taken from him The Teacher attempted one last desperate ploy to destroy the Magical Chaos Engine and regain control of the classroom, when he ignited the Charisma Bomb.

    “Do you guys want to hear a story about the Pirate King?”

    But the Charisma Bomb turned out to be a dud.

    The final blow to The Teacher’s enthusiasm came when Student Number One says, “Since we’re not learning anything, can we just spend the rest of the day drawing?”

    “If you guys stay in your seats and stay quiet you can spend the rest of the day drawing.”


My daylong battle against Max and Derek’s Magical Chaos Engine had drained away the last of my optimism, enthusiasm and energy. I had been soundly defeated. I retreated to my desk and slumped in the chair with the weariness of a man who has spent the day as an unwilling participant in a mosh pit.

    Dear CIA: Forget waterboarding. Try third graders.

    The students attacked the art center taking markers, crayons, colored pencils and drawing paper back to their desks. “Can we work together in little groups,” a student asked.

    “As long as you can do it quietly,” I said. “But as soon as you get noisy I’ll separate you.”

    But the students knew I wouldn’t do anything. They would be as noisy as they wanted to be and I was powerless to stop them. All day long I’d been yelling and scolding and issuing warnings with stern voices, all with no affect on their behavior.  I could yell and wave my gun in the air all I wanted, but the kids knew it was loaded with blanks.

    I loosened my powerless tie, and slid it down to half-mast to mourn the loss of America’s future. I opened the drawer of Mrs. Awesome’s desk to see if by chance she had any Advil, aspirin or Tylenol. She had it all!

   I took two Tylenol.

    I must have been looking forlorn and defeated because Mary Manners walked to my desk and held out her arms to me. “Do you need a hug, Mr. Law?”

    I sighed. “I’m not allowed to hug anyone,” I said to Mary, which was too bad, because that’s what I needed most of all. “But we can high five.” So we high-fived.       

   The Magical Chaos Engine had been throttled down to a steady hum of 4,000 RPMs with most of the students gathered in little pockets collaborating on art works. This level of chaos was very similar to every newsroom I’ve ever worked in about an hour before deadline. I actually found it kind of comforting. But it only made me further lament the demise of my former profession as journalist before the industry evaporated into the Cloud.

    I gathered my resolve, and walked around the room checking on students, making teacherly comments on their art. “That’s really good. Is that a cat?”

   Sweet Sara was sitting at her desk sobbing. “Sara, what’s wrong?” I asked her.

   Talking just made her cry harder. She too was exhausted from having spent the day in the vortex of The Chaos Engine. “It’s just so much confusion!” she said, and she put her head down on her desk and kept crying. Sara will never be a reporter, which is just as well since by the time she’s old enough to be a reporter all news will be gathered by search engines, compiled by algorithms, written by artificial intelligence uploaded directly to a chip embedded in your cerebral cortex. 

   One of the students raised his hand and asked, for the twentieth time that day, “Mr. Law can I go pee?”

    Another student said he had to pee too.

   Geez, why do third graders have to pee so much? Do they each drink a six pack before class starts?

    “Okay, I said, “but you have to go one at a time.”

   The other third grade teacher poked her head into my room again, just to see how things were going, and saw that my students were pretty much doing their own things. Most were drawing, cutting, and pasting. Some were talking on their cell phones—probably to their moms. She gave me another Medusa-grade cowering look; the same kind of cowering look I had been trying to give to my students all day. “What are you guys doing?” she demanded.

    “Mr. Law said we could spend the rest of the day doing art,” said Helpful Helen.

    I think she was about to say more but then she saw my loosened tie, my slumped shoulders, my look of severe annoyance. “Well, try to be a little more quiet.”

    At 1:10 one of the students asked me if they should start cleaning up. “School ends at 1:15,” she said.

   The list that Mrs. Awesome left for me said that school ended at 2:55. I went back to Mrs. Awesome’s desk just to double-check the schedule. The list said 2:15 – 2:55: science. “This list says that school doesn’t end until two fifty-five,” I said.

   In my head I was thinking, “Nice try kids. You almost got me on there.” I can just imagine the scowl the other third grade teacher would give me if she popped in to see how things were going and discovered that I had dismissed the kids two hours early.

    “But at least it’s finally quiet,” I’d say.

    The surest sign that perhaps school really did end at 1:15 was that Jacob, a nice kid who had all day ignored the shenanigans around him and read, now stood up and started packing his backpack. But after a full day of trickery and deceit I needed more proof than that. I walked out into the hall and peeked into some of the other classrooms. All the classrooms were cleaning up, shuffling their backpacks on, saying goodbye to their teachers and each other.

    I walked back to my classroom and all the students were putting on their backpacks, getting ready to leave. But the room was still a huge mess. Paper, colored pencils, markers, glue, scissors were scattered about on every desk. Paper scraps and cuttings were strewn about on the floor. 

   “Hey we need to clean this up before you leave!” I announced in my most authoritative voice. A few of the more obedient students cleaned up the art supplies from their desks and took it back to the art center, but most just eyed me with a sort of annoyance and left the classroom.

    “Will you be back on Monday, Mr. Law?” one of the students asked.

    “Yes, I’ll be back on Monday.”

    “Oh good!” she said.

    Yes, your little Rumspringa will continue.

    And just like that, like a swarm of locusts that had eaten clear the field, they left, leaving me alone in resonating silence. I began cleaning up the paper scraps off the floor. I took the discarded markers back to the art center. But I didn’t get very far in my efforts to clean up before the custodian came in, pushing a large gray trash can on wheels. She surveyed the damage and gave me a dirty scowl. Man, everyone but me is super-good at the mean, dirty look. I need to learn that look before Monday. I’ll go home and practice in the mirror. But I wouldn’t be coming back.

    By the time I got home twenty minutes later I had already received an email from Canyon School District that read, We realize you were scheduled to teach two days at Dante Elementary. This email is to inform you that we won’t need you Monday after all. Thanks.

    That was a nice way of saying, You’re terrible at this. Don’t come back. We’ll find someone else.

    Don’t worry. I won’t be back. I’ll never be a substitute teacher again. Instead I went out and found myself a job driving shuttles from the airport to the ski resorts. Let me break this down for you: I would rather drive through whiteouts and blizzards, I’d rather share the road with drunk drivers, texters, and black ice than share another day subbing. I would rather risk the avalanches that come ripping down Little Cottonwood Canyon a dozen times a year than teach another third grade class.

    The truth is, 22 of the 24 kids were great. They were quiet, calm, and well-behaved. They stayed at their desks, they were prepared to learn. They raised their hands when they had a question. But once Maddening Max and Devious Derek got their Magical Chaos Engine running at 10,000 RPMs the other kids were inevitably pulled into its vortex.

    But the most troubling revelation of the day came when I saw myself, the me of thirty years ago, in Devious Derek. Which makes me want to add this real quick: Sorry Mrs. Winget. Sorry Mr. Curtis. Sorry Mr. Sitterud. I too had been a devilish little class clown. Well played Karma, well played.  


A year and a half since my terrible day as a substitute teacher I went back to Dante Elementary and sat down with Mrs. Awesome to ask her how she did it.

    Mrs. Awesome’s real name is Marcy Hadean. She has been teaching elementary school for 22 years. She was in college pursuing a different major when one day she realized that she wanted to be a school teacher. “Oh no, I started out wanting something a lot more glamorous,” she told me. “But somewhere along the way I realized that I wanted to do something that was fulfilling.”

    Mrs. Hadean, like all school teachers, spends many of her nights and weekends grading papers, and preparing lessons plans. But that’s okay, she says. For the Mrs. Hadeans of the world teaching isn’t a job, it’s a calling, taken up because they believe they can make the world a better place by teaching and shaping tomorrow’s leaders, thinkers and innovators.

    Most of the kids come to class ready and eager to learn, said Mrs. Hadean. They’re bursting with thoughts and ideas that sometimes need some gentle shaping and direction from their teacher.

    Typically a teacher is the second most influential adult on a child’s life, second only to the child’s parents, due to the sheer volume of time the teacher and child spend together. This puts teachers in a unique position of influence. It is often a teacher who first observes a gift or ability that the child possesses. Quite often the teacher recognizes a student’s gift before the student does, and it is often the teacher who shows their student that they possess a unique talent, and it is often the teacher who nurtures the newly-discovered gift and talents.

    And for some students, it’s a sad fact that their teacher may be the only adult in their life who’s taking an active role in their interests and their well-being. Their teacher may be the only adult who asks about their day, who cares about their dreams, who helps them envision a brighter future, who helps them formulate goals. Their teacher may be the only adult who offers them support, and encouragement.

    Teaching is only one of many roles that a school teacher plays in a day. In a typical day a teacher will be a psychologist, cheerleader, detective, and exploration trip leader. And bee.

    Each student is like a tiny little tree covered with hundreds of blossoms, each blossom a potential idea that may or may not grow into an apple of knowledge, and only parents will germinate more of those blossoms than the teachers in the child’s life.

    And every germinated blossom will grow into an apple of knowledge, an important skill, or a useful talent that the student will go on to share with the world throughout the rest of their life. And inside each apple lie the seeds of greatness.

    But this isn’t accomplished by showing up with a power-tie and a pirate joke. “It’s all about developing a genuine relationship with them,” says Mrs. Hadean. “During the course of the school year they get to know me and I get to know them, and they open up. They share a lot. They learn that their teacher cares. They learn to trust us. There’s safety in that. And everything else grows from that.”

    How many ships of discovery have teachers launched? How many dormant seeds have been awakened under their sunshine? How many of today’s great leaders, scientists and thinkers can point back to a specific moment when one of their teachers noticed, and pointed out, that they had a gift for what they went on to do? I’ve always liked writing and I like it even more and took an even greater interest in it when my Fourth Grade Teacher, Mrs. Winget, pointed out to me one day that I seemed to have a knack for it.

    It has been said by many, and repeated by many more, that our children are our greatest resource. What then, should we call the resource that cares for, educates and nurtures our greatest resource? A teacher, of course.

    And what’s more they’re willing to give their entire adult lives to it, with little fanfare, and a small paycheck. That is the very definition of dedication, devotion, and love.

    And there’s just no substitute for that.


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