From Mr. Killstudent’s Lethal Bag of Teaching Tricks: Freedom Watchers

May 21, 2010

Let us revisit the four essential duties of a professional substitute teacher:

1) Put your name on the board.
2) Take attendance.
3) Hand out the worksheet or push play on the VCR
4) Shushing

Today we will be focusing on the second part of duty #3.

“Hey Mr. Killstudent,” a friend of mine asks.  “You’re a teacher, kind of.  What did you think of Freedom Writers?”

I’ve seen it ten times!  Well, kind of.  I’ve seen the first half of it ten times – but I’ve never seen the ending.  Right around the time they visit the Holocaust Museum, the bell rings (non-spoiler alert).  Then I have to rewind it and watch it again.  I’ve gotten this ‘lesson’ twice as a sub.  Both times, I had to show the first half, over and over.

By 5th hour, I can move my lips to mimic each line of dialogue, even the poorly developed subplot with Patrick Dempsey as the needy husband.  By 6th hour, each scene has been chiseled into my brain, wallpapering my daydreams, and voicing each thought with a indignant Latina accent.  In between putting out little flare-ups of conversation, I think about how my job is to be a teacher who struggles to get kids to pay attention to a movie about a teacher who is struggling to get her kids to pay attention.  I think, if only the script for Freedom Writers demanded that Ms. Gruwell show Dead Poets’ Society to her class, and that Mr. Keating had his students watch Stand and Deliver…I’d be the outer layer of a Chinese box of scholastic motivation, with smaller and smaller boxes inside it, that inevitably leads to nothing, except maybe Kevin Bacon.

We tell the students to turn off the TV, and to read instead.  “TV isn’t educational,” we reason.  Except when it’s us telling them to watch TV, in school – that makes it educational.  But then they don’t watch it; they talk instead.

“Shhhh!” as subs tend to say: “Watch the movie!  She’s about to inspire someone.”

The craftier talkers know the trick is to include me in the conversation:

“So Mr. K, are you trying to some day be, like, a ‘real’ teacher?”

“No way.”  I cut them off without hesitation.  They laugh, and the noise, for some reason, doesn’t bother me.  I now have their attention – a self-evident virtue of teachers everywhere, just like Robin Williams proved by standing on his desk.

I used to be a ‘real teacher’.  I was half the math department at a boys’ detention center.  Much like the movies, I sometimes imagined my troubled students’ hardened exterior masked a dormant potential which, nourished with my idealism, was ripe for a collective epiphany that would transcend our cultural differences.  But after an initial burst of energy, a leaden inertia took over, and after a year or so, being a real teacher was a job just like any other.  Sure, there would be little moments of triumph, realization, and pleasantly unexpected bonding, but without a screenwriter or editor, there was no bell to conveniently ring at just the right time for maximum dramatic impact.  Instead, the classes trudged on, six hours a day, five days a week, the whole year (no vacation; they lived there), much of it spent in a sort of dull standoff:

“Do your math.”
“No. I ain’t doin nothin.”

The urgent strings and ghostly choir of “Gangsta’s Paradise” can only loop so many times.

Freedom Writers was released toward the end of my real teaching career, just before my verbal resignation.  I mentioned to another ‘real’ teacher friend of mine – who also taught left-for-dead students – that we should check it out.  We planned to see the movie so we could go hate it together, and scoff a sour grapes “yeah right” at every contrived emotional breakthrough.  After all, our students weren’t ‘freedom writers.’  They were just brats.  And sure, we could be great teachers, too – maybe if we had a script that cued the kids exactly when to learn big life lessons.

We never did go to the movie, and soon after, I quit being a real teacher, and went back to being a substitute teacher who pushes play on the VCR to introduce the real teachers:

F. Murray Abraham the science teacher, narrating a PBS documentary about monkeys;

Ricky Schroeder the English teacher, with turn-of-the-century mutton chops in a made-for-TV “Call of the Wild“;

and even – once – an episode of “Friends” (“the one with the innocent misunderstanding”).  The six of them were, somehow, Communications teachers.

Again, if this is confusing some of you out there who are not trained as real teachers, here is a quick guide to help you:

Educational Not Educational
TV movie adapted from a novel TV movie from an original screenplay
“Friends” DVD w/ accompanying worksheet “Friends” DVD with no worksheet
Lab “experiment” Isaac Newton already figured out in 1690 Discovering for yourself the pressure tolerance of a Coke bottle
Drawing in art class Drawing in math book
Origami Making a paper football
Computers at school Computers at home
Talking in response to a teacher’s question Talking about anything else

Anyway, I know there was supposed to be a lethal teaching trick in here somewhere.  But honestly, videos are the worst.  They usurp the sub’s role as performance artist and hog the kids’ attention.  Once the lights go out, the sub becomes the virtual teacher’s unskilled assistant, whose job is to maintain silence and continually direct attention back to the video, to be the stern, anonymous usher that spoils the spectator’s fun.

There is one thing I make sure to do, however.  The “Call of the Wild” copy I got was VHS, taped off CBS circa 1992, complete with static lines treadmilling over the picture.  Whoever recorded it skipped over the first couple sets of commercials, but then seemed to forget to keep doing it, and the rest were intact.  When they appeared, the kids all told me how to do my job: “fast-forward it!”  But I wanted to see previews for “Knots Landing” and the Kraft cheese commercial where they show the oil and water that the other brands use, compared to the milk that Kraft uses.  I mean, the latter was a demonstration that became an essential piece of how I now view this world: when making cheese, use milk, not oil and water.  I never read Call of the Wild.

Never skip the commercials!  And sometimes it doesn’t hurt to throw in some commentary.  After the Kraft commercial, there was one for Alpo, with a well-groomed collie running in from the back yard for some freshly spooned-out dog food, then letting out a healthy bark of approval:

“Awwww!” the girls agreed.

“That dog must be dead by now,” I reminded them.

They gasped and looked at each other, mouths open in horror, while the boys shared a hearty, sadistic laugh.  I now have their attention.  It’s now educational.  Eat shit, Robin Williams.

And no, it’s not what Hilary Swank would do.  But it’s my story, my words.  And it’s my way of finding freedom against the odds.

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7 Responses to “ From Mr. Killstudent’s Lethal Bag of Teaching Tricks: Freedom Watchers ”

  1. Carol on May 22, 2010 at 9:09 am

    “‘That dog must be dead by now,’ I reminded them.”

    i just laughed for about five straight minutes.

    if you wrote a weekly column i would read the shit out of it.

  2. devinelizabeth on May 25, 2010 at 6:52 pm

    the little lake free school will be so special! no friends dvds, even if there is a handout that goes along with it.

  3. alissa on May 25, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    agree with carol.

  4. Daniel on May 25, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    hilarious. you always manage to get us laughing out loud- see above posts! lol

  5. Colleen on May 28, 2010 at 11:34 am

    my favorite line:
    “Shhhh!” as subs tend to say: “Watch the movie! She’s about to inspire someone.”

  6. Rob Shelton on May 15, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Nice Mr. E. “That dog is dead by now”.

  7. Rob Shelton on May 15, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    By the way, I was wondering if you still rap to your students? “Yo i’m Mr. E yo it’s not a mystery…”

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