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Al Martinez

We set lousy examples and wonder why we've turned out lousy kids. : A Tale of Two Teachers

May 14, 1987|Al Martinez

When I was a kid in high school we understood, however reluctantly, that the reason we were attending school was to learn.

That is not to say we all loved algebra and physics, but we accepted them as necessary elements of what we perceived to be a steady rise to the ecstasy of graduation, after which we would have plenty of cash, good cars and all the girls we could kiss.

Our pimples would disappear shortly before dawn on the day after commencement and we would be popular and beautiful for the rest of our carefree lives.

High school dreams were sweet then.

While we were in school, we got away with what we could, especially if we had a substitute teacher, by which I mean we tried to con the sub into believing that our regular teacher had fully intended to give us that day to do as we pleased.

It hardly ever worked, but it was an honest effort. We grumbled when we failed but not once did anyone threaten to hang, beat, sink or sue the substitute.

The subs did their jobs and we did ours, and we ultimately accepted with good grace each day's final score, Subs 10, Con Artists, 0.

Which brings me to today.

I've been talking to two substitute high school teachers who describe their experiences as assignments in hell.

They've been cursed, threatened, assaulted, defied and demeaned by students they've been trying to teach, and both say they've received neither support nor respect from the principals or regular teachers they've worked with.

One of the subs, June Cox, taught in Simi Valley but quit a few weeks ago and vows she'll never return to teaching.

The other, who asked not to be named, teaches in Ventura County, and views each substitute assignment as a test of her ability to survive.

She calls herself Jerry Baker in letters she writes to local newspapers trying to focus light on the problem.

Both women love teaching and they love kids, but they despise what they must endure in order to do their jobs.

Baker has been a teacher for 30 years and is only subbing because she is new to California and must wait until her credentials are approved to teach full time.

She never expected to run into what both she and Cox call "the Cushioned Generation"--bored suburban kids who won't work at learning because they don't have to.

They'll get by. They always have.

"I have taught in Texas, Ohio, New Mexico and Arizona and I've never had to take the abuse I've taken here," Baker said.

"I have never felt so humiliated as I felt trying to teach in Simi Valley," Cox said, "and that includes a teaching assignment in the jungles of Thailand."

An unruly boy warned Cox, "You'll see what's going to happen to you" when she tried to discipline him.

An unruly boy told Baker, "I'd like to hang you" when she disciplined him.

A stink bomb was set off in Baker's class. A rubber band hit Cox in the face.

"The kids threaten us with lawyers when we try to tell them what to do," Baker said. "I'm not joking. One boy said he was going to sue me. I said, 'Fine, you give me your lawyer's card and I'll give you mine.' "

Subs make $60 a day. They couldn't afford a lawyer.

"I was told when I began subbing to smile and be firm," Cox said. "That doesn't work. The kids are out to 'sink the sub.' They're from another world."

When the stink bomb was ignited in Baker's class the principal cross-examined her and none of the students.

When Cox asked a principal to come to her class to restore order, he refused.

"I swear," she said, "that the principals hide from you. Even when you make an appointment they aren't there. No one wants to rock the boat."

Said Baker: "Handbooks given to substitutes say that help is available from regular teachers and principals. Baloney. In reality, the sub is totally ignored, snubbed and left on her own."

Both Cox and Baker ask for answers and solutions. A generation seems out of control. An educational system is falling on its face.

I learned shortly after high school that I had no solutions and damned few answers. I kept getting pimples until I was 36.

But I can speculate.

We've pampered and we've spoiled, but that's only part of the reason we've turned out monsters in the math classes.

Nuclear disaster haunts our world. Moralizing lightweights lead our country. Drugs blur perspective. Hypocrisy runs amok. Dishonesty prevails.

We set lousy examples and wonder why we've turned out lousy kids. We're afraid to discipline, to lead, to alienate, to offend.

We bury statesmen and honor politicians. We mock poets and cheer actors. Philosophers are ignored, image-makers achieve.

I'm to blame. You're to blame. Our willingness to accept mediocrity is to blame.

June Cox and Jerry Baker aren't going to remake the Cushioned Generation they despair of. But at least they define a problem that transcends even high school chaos.

Pogo said it best. We have met the enemy and it is us.

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