The Scream, substitute teachers and sixth grade crimes: Life lessons and family values


Years ago when we were sixth graders Virgil Davis and I had a saying we loved to repeat: “Flannery will get you nowhere.”

Mrs. Flannery was the substitute teacher we’d see a few times a year when Mr. Spinelli, our regular, took a day off to see to his sniffles and mental health. I haven’t seen Mrs. Flannery for decades, and I owe her countless apologies. When I imagine her at the front of the class trying to herd all of us squirrels back to our seats I keep seeing Edward Munch’s “The Scream.”

Mrs. Flannery came to mind the other day as I strolled through the Winona State University campus near my home. I struck up a conversation with two middle-aged women there to take a class designed to teach them how to teach. “What is the class about?” I asked.  I saw their faces begin to contort themselves into versions of The Scream. “It’s supposed to teach us how to be better substitute teachers,” one of them replied.

While my sixth grade crimes came into view so did the enormity of the task they were taking on.

Pity substitute teachers everywhere. Let’s pity ourselves. An early morning phone call blasts away the poor sub’s sleep, and off the sub goes, cup of coffee spilling in hand, to some classroom full of children full of energy, creativity, and fun, most of them strangers to the teacher making a house call on them. The sub flips through the absent teacher’s lesson plan for the day, trying to make sense of somebody else’s agenda for the smiling faces laying in wait to act up, like Virgil Davis and me, just for the fun of it. Math, science, social studies, grammar, reading––who really cares? And why care? Mrs. Flannery doesn’t know what math or reading each one of us has done to date, or what we could do if we tried. She doesn’t know our names, and probably knows nothing about our home life––whether our parents ever read to us, or if there was one book in the house, or if we had breakfast today, or if our dad lives with our mom, or if he drinks too much or takes drugs and pounds on her, or on us. Math, science, social studies, grammar, reading––why did we forget to do our homework again last night? Again. Do we hate school?  Are we present but absent?  Is there something we are trying to forget?  Don’t we know there’s a test coming up?  Do we want to fail?  Why should we learn this stuff?  What’s the sub’s name?  She doesn’t want us to call her that other name.  Her name’s on the Smartboard.  Her name’s not Mrs. Flannery.  She doesn’t know our names and she’ll soon enough be gone again, so later today let’s just watch her scream.

As I walked away from the two practice teachers trying to learn their trade, I thought maybe I should enroll for the class.  Though I’d spent thirty-nine years in classrooms and have three children, the eldest now 36, it occurred to me I’d been a substitute both as teacher and parent the whole time.

Recent surveys  about parent-kid time do not console me about my parental influence.  In a study done for the Brookings Institute Garey and Valerie Ramey, economists, conclude that college-educated parents spend on average 9.6 (waking) hours per week with their kids, up from 4.5 in pre-1995 years, while non-college parents spend 6.8 hours per week, up from 3.  Good news?  Less than an hour and a half per day, at best.  Time spent how?  Discussing Plato and Aristotle or algebra or the latest crisis in the Mideast?  Sitting in front of the TV with the kid in the same room, or in a car on its way to some distant soccer tournament?  How much parent-kid time is good time, and how much “good” time is educational time?  If absent fathers are reliable indicators of family dysfunction, how much of that hour or so do kids spend with mom, rather than with dad?

When I look realistically at how few hours I, a wonderful father in my own mind, actually spend with my kids, I conjure The Scream.  I’m even less cheered by another survey, this one by Betty Stevenson and Dan Sacks, also economists, done for the Wharton School of Business.  Only 41% of parents today, they conclude, deem children “very important” to marriage.

As Yogi Berra might say, “Marriage, like the future, isn’t what it used to be.”  What a lot of people call “family values” are also not what they seem and also are not what they used to be.  Like a past perpetually reinvented to serve special interest groups with doctrinal agendas and products to sell, “family values” probably never were, or are, how we imagine them.

If some of our kids are school dropouts and a majority are absent from school even while sitting in their seats, they’re like most of us, the adults charged with showing them the way to live.  Like substitute teachers we’re seldom there, and when we’re there in the same room with the kids we’re somewhere else, like them.  Mrs. Flannery got us nowhere because she had little chance to know who we were and what was irking us, and because there was little coherence, continuity, or credible meaning attached to the fragmented learning tasks schools require.  Try inspiring a twelve year-old by saying, “Learn your math for the test or else you won’t get a job when you turn twenty-one.”  Spitballs, figurative of course, are the proper response.

Should we be surprised that so many teachers and parents duck out whenever they can?  Raising kids is hard, and educating them is harder.  It’s a complex, time-consuming, and often maddening process that requires the patience and perseverance of tortoises not interested in winning some sort of race to the top.  It also requires presence–– physical, mental, emotional and moral.  Our economy’s improvement now seems inextricably tied to uplifting our children’s test scores by providing them the technologies that allow our kids to duck out on us.  What teenagers don’t text at the dinner table or on their way to the soccer tournament a hundred miles away?  What kid, or parent, isn’t cellphoning, I-Podding, or video game playing while I-Padding (or driving) down the street?  We leave them to their own devices. Privatized, we seem to want to spend a lot of time someplace other than where we are, even those being homeschooled on-line.

It’s telling that the parent/kid surveys were done by economists, whose professional interest in consumers and the stuff they buy is likely to result in children (somebody else’s, of course) being identified as engines of economic activity.  From studies like theirs advertisers learn how to flatter kids into purchasing products, many of which will provide parents time-outs from them.  In this way the values of business, also known as busy-ness, become family values.

The family values we reap are those we sow.  The lifestyles we require for ourselves and our children often depend on double incomes that make absent parents of fathers and mothers alike, and these lifestyles place a high value on the time needed to accumulate wealth and debt.  How many kids can spell the word “conservation,” let alone have parents who personify and explain its best practices?  How many parents have the courage to tell their children they can do without some gadget or thing, and convincingly explain why?  How many parents structure into the daily lives of their business weeks actual educational experiences calculated to develop their children’s curiosity, creativity, critical thinking and mindfulness of the needs of others?

Our current family values, confused with political noise about job growth and deficits, do not address the real deficits our kids have to deal with on a daily basis.  Family value deficits make substitute teachers of us all, unable to compete with the powerful influences cleverly constructed by commercial interests who know that even horrific violence and demoralizing vulgarity will make millions for them.  Full time teachers are substitute teachers too, except when we need someone to blame for bad test scores.  Then we point a finger and speak the only piece of mind we have going for us:  Our schools are failing us.                    

I, of course, like to flatter myself into thinking my parenting is exceptional.  When I recall Mrs. Flannery it’s now easier for me to see why she failed Virgil Davis and me and how I failed her.  But I rarely scream, except quietly to myself.