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The School of Hard Knocks

By Steven Law

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 26 2013 8:00 p.m. MDT

Third graders are different than you and I, by whom I mean adults who have learned society's rules, terms, conditions, and symbols of power. Certain societal norms that adults take for granted mean nothing to them. Credentials do not impress them. They're immune to power ties.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News

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Third graders are different than you and I, by whom I mean adults who have learned society’s rules, terms, conditions, and symbols of power. Certain societal norms that adults take for granted mean nothing to them. Credentials do not impress them. They’re immune to power ties. They don’t understand subtlety. Nor, apparently, do they understand direct instructions given in plain English. Third graders haven’t yet learned about sarcasm, which is actually a good thing, because later in the day when I said, “Oh that’s beautiful. You’re very talented,” both Cindy and I felt better.

I’d actually 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. I had a background check. I faxed in my college 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 told, “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.

But now when I look back, I laugh at the part where I laughed.

The reason I laughed when they said “don’t try to be their friend” is because I had worked as a waiter for the last 12 years. I can make friends with complete strangers in less than five minutes. Your eggrolls are cold? No problem. I’ll fix it, with a smile, a subtle compliment, and some deftly wielded wordplay. Your steaks tougher than vulcanized rubber? Of course it is! You ordered a New York Strip cooked well done, you idiot! But I’ll say, “Oh that’s terrible! Here, let me take that back. We’ll get you a new one right away.” I’ll return a minute later with a fresh diet Coke and your own personal ramekin of lemons. “New one’s on the way. Hey let me tell you a little joke while we’re waiting. Have you heard the one about the Pirate King and the red shirt?”

If I can calm an irate 55 year old banker with a rubberized steak and still get a twenty dollar tip and a handshake when he leaves, I can certainly handle some third graders.

So sure, you’re going to tell a group of Padawans not to jump into a nest of Gundarks but that same advice does not apply to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

It all comes down to words. More precisely, word usage. I like words. I like them because they’re so malleable. And like anything else they can be used for good or bad. Words can be shaped into anything you want. Words can be formed into the softest probe that delicately feels out the chinks in your frenemy’s armor. More words can then be sharpened into a dagger and plunged through the chink and deep into their heart.

They can, of course, be used for good too. Words can be swirled into magic that can create miracles out of thin air. They can be woven into the warmest blanket for your friend who has had a hard day.

And after twelve years in the customer service industry I can wield them better than most. I can form them into a carmel-flavored seratonin lollipop and before it dissolves in your mouth you’ll be picking up the tab. I can form them into a mirror that shows you your greatest feature, or your greatest flaw. I can form them into a Charisma Bomb that takes down the whole room at once.

So 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.

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