The School of Hard Knocks

By Steven Law

For the Deseret News

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

But it didn’t work like that. Not quite. 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 high end men’s store and selected a 120 dollar, 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 “Treasure Map X” cufflinks (they’re awesome)! Red power tie. Sportcoat. My lucky Doc Martens. I combed my hair. I even put some gel in it.

My roommate leaned against the counter waiting for his toast to pop from the toaster. He looked at me, then looked at his watch. “You’re going on a date right now?”

I arrived at Dante Elementary twenty minutes early. I wanted to give myself time to settle in before the kids arrived. I reported to one of the aids in the office. “Hi! I’m Steven Law. I’m substituting for one of your third grade classes. I know I’m a little early but it’s my very first time doing this. I thought I’d give myself a little extra time to get situated.”

“Of course,” she said. “So just continue down this hall and turn left at the end of it. Take a right at the next hallway you come to and just look for the door that says Mrs. Awesome on it.”

I found my way to Mrs. Awesome’s room. 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.

“Hi Mr. Law,” they chorused back.

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