Failing Grade (Substitute Teacher)

It finally happened. One of the scrunched-paper balls launched whenever I turn my back to the class made contact.

Physically, the impact was minimal. I hardly felt the bounce off my leg. Symbolically, though, it has sealed my loss of control over Ms. Cooper’s Algebra 1 class.

"Hey!" I scream for what has to be the 17th time.

The noise — like the seat-finding din at a Dane Cook concert — no longer even bothers tapering off. High school students are no less frightened of me now than when I was one of them. One stands by his friend’s desk, chatting loudly about tonight’s volleyball game. Another heckles me by repeatedly inquiring if my last name is Levitate. Two have slid their seats together, without asking my permission.

"I’m Boo and she’s Boo," one of the pair offers, as though this explains something. "We’re Boo-Boo."

I would not call this behavior typical of the 127 students who attend Trinity High School. For two days I walked the halls and visited classes, and every one seemed well-mannered. The problem, rather, is a perfect storm of my inability to command respect from any group, and this particular group.

Originally, I envisioned teaching in a precarious public schoolroom. However, the Clark County School District insisted that a licensed teacher accompany me at all times. This didn’t seem like much of a challenge. So, like a city seeking more efficient trash collection and prison management, I took my search to the private sector.

Algebra I sprang effortlessly to Trinity Principal Thurban Warrick’s mind. He called it his "Lord have mercy" class. It’s not only his school’s most populated — at 32 students — it’s a veritable troublemaking hall of fame. (One student was suspended just the day before.)

"Good luck to you!" Warrick announced as I ascended the stairs before eighth period.

I began with a handout of 40 problems left by Ms. Cooper, which a third of the students acknowledged receiving. I called one to the board to solve 9x + 4 = -14 — because I couldn’t. (No gloating, Mr. Steger. This is the first time that the algebra you insisted was so vital to my career has ever come up.)

Three other students stood up at the same time as Eddie, however, and ignored orders to retake their seats. (All student names have been changed for legal reasons.) In addition, Daniel grabbed Amanda in a headlock.

"Within the first few minutes of class, you have to show them that you are the authority figure," I was warned before class by Kristin Gentry, who usually subs for Ms. Cooper. "Otherwise, they will totally take advantage."

Thus, it was probably not in my best interest to permit Mark to go to his locker 90 seconds into the 90-minute class. (I can’t remember the stated purpose, but it sounded reasonable at the time.)

"Really?" Mark asked, proving that not all tests in a classroom are administered by teachers to students.

After this carrot, no stick would work: not threatening a trip to Mr. Warrick’s office, not telling them this exercise will count for half their final grade and especially not yelling "hey!" 17 times.

"Their first mission is seeing how far they can go with you," said Gentry, 22, who has subbed regularly since graduating in May from Life Pacific College in San Dimas, Calif.

I understand such behavior. At Oceanside High School in Long Island, we persecuted substitutes, knowing that a) we would probably never see them again, and b) our insolence might not even get reported. (And when I say "we," I of course mean the kids who considered it their jobs to persecute me; I just sat quietly in the front, enjoying the fact that they were picking on someone else.)

"It wasn’t me!" Peter insists.

Reconstructing the paper ball’s trajectory, Oliver Stone style, suggests that the truth and Peter are not always closely acquainted. This makes sense, since his reputation as king of the troublemakers precedes him. (He even snagged an actual throne after strolling in late — a raised seat smack in the middle of the classroom.)

However, reasonable doubt does exist. Perhaps it was Mark or his brother, Billy, honestly trying for the wastepaper basket. A conviction would be unlikely to stick.

"Mr. Levitate?" Amanda calls out. "Can I go to my locker to get another pencil? This kind gives me goose bumps!"

The students seem delighted at what they’re getting away with. Ultimately, however, the joke is on them, because the true scope of what they can get away with probably includes overturning their desks, smoking cigarettes and tossing me into the Dumpster behind the cafeteria.

"I need help on number seven," says a member of the third of the class that’s working.

I show her the answer key and tell her she’s on her own. I’ve got a riot to quell.

"Shush, you guys!" Angela complains.

She’s not helping me out of kindness. Unable to enjoy the freedom from education provided by my presence, Angela actually despises me.

"We’re having a quiz Thursday, so you’d better teach us well," she warned me earlier.

Substitute teachers earn $100 per eight-hour day at a typical public or private school; about $130 for at-risk situations. (Surprisingly, Ms. Cooper’s Algebra I class counts as the former.)

A license, requiring a bachelor’s degree and a background check, must be obtained to substitute teach in the Clark County School District. (Private schools don’t require it.)

Sometimes, subs are notified in advance of an assignment — as Gentry was today. (Ms. Cooper is attending a leadership conference in Southern California.) Mostly, however, they’re phoned the night before, or at 5 a.m. for a 7:30 a.m. class. (To remain on the public school district’s active call list, Clark County’s approximately 3,000 substitute teachers must work at least twice a month.)

"I like teaching kids," says Gentry, who remembers helping out with her grandmother’s second-graders as a tot.

"But I don’t think I’d want to do it full time," she continues, citing love of the job on her business card over hatred of Algebra I classes. (She’s a youth minister at Northgate Christian Church in North Las Vegas.)

Silence suddenly overtakes Room 207. All my "hey!"-ing has apparently had some sort of cumulative delayed effect.

I hadn’t noticed Mr. Warrick glaring through the door’s window glass.

"Excuse me!" he says upon entering the class like a grizzly clawing open the flap to a tent full of horror-stricken hikers. He stalks the room for another 30 seconds as the silence grows more deafening.

"When are you guys gonna grow up?" he continues. "That’s the question!"

The students all slump down in their seats. My stance slouches a little, too.

"How’s your day, Mr. Warrick?" asks Peter.

He is ignored.

"Have you guys given this gentleman the respect he deserves as a substitute teacher?" Mr. Warrick asks.

He then calls out a roll of first names by heart. Each responds, "no, sir"– even Peter.

When my identity is revealed, most of the students are unsure whether to react with glee or embarrassment.

Angela, uniquely, chooses anger.

"That was not funny!" she seethes. "I really needed the review!" (I don’t have the heart to inform this poor girl that the real world is not run by the teacher’s pets who follow every rule expecting a fair reward, but by the Peters with the people skills — at least those Peters who manage to avoid incarceration.)

As the class recovers from my revelation, one question seems to occupy everyone’s lips (besides "Do you know Norm?").

King Peter himself speaks for the class:

"Does this mean we don’t have to do the homework you assigned?"

Watch video of Levitan substitute teaching at Fear and Loafing runs Mondays in the Living section. Levitan’s previous adventures are posted at If you have an idea for a Fear and Loafing article, e-mail or call (702) 383-0456.

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