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During my interview for the substitute teacher post at a private school in San Francisco, Mr. Merkel, the principal, mentioned an opportunity for a three-month assignment.  It would start the following semester when the regular teacher, Ms. Mubarak, would go on maternity leave.

“Can you be available to work every day?” I was 75, and given my age, he was wondering if I had the  stamina to handle the job.  “Every day, without exception?”

I would have to be out of bed by 4:00 a.m. and take three buses to get to school by the 7:30 start of class. Both of my housemates worked until midnight or later driving with Uber and Lyft. Returning home, they often made so much noise that I got very little sleep. Despite those obstacles, I said “Yes,” then added, “I’ve just received the new flu shot and my third COVID booster.”

“Then, you’re golden,” he slapped the desk with his right hand.

“No matter what,” I pledged, “you won’t ever need  to cover my classes.”

“Good,” he said. “That’s one thing less to worry about.” From the bookshelf beside his desk, he pulled a thick, battered volume and handed it to me. It was Saxon Math: Course 3, a text for pre-algebra and subjects slightly but terrifyingly beyond.

“Math?” I said.

“Your resume shows that you’re a language arts person.” Mr. Merkel said. He had a Ph.D. in engineering and had supervised important projects in Silicon Valley. He had gone into private educationas a kind of semi-retirement after accruing a considerable fortune in the stock of companies he had helped to succeed.

“Yes, English primarily,” I said, “but as a tax attorney I had to learn math.” I was thinking about depreciation schedules, such as double-declining balance, and other computations—the details of which I could not recall to save my life.

“No doubt some math,” he said and smiled. He was making a sincere effort to avoid disparaging language and literature, the study and work I most enjoyed. I liked Mr. Merkel. I wanted to work for him. And I needed the job. My retirement savings were minimal because I had spent so much on my children.

“It’s only sixth-grade math,” I said.

“There’s an algebraic component in all math courses here,” he said. “That’s why parents pay steep tuition to send their kids to this school.” He paused, then added, “Advanced math, and more importantly, avoiding the risk of injury to their children in public schools.”

“I’m sensitive to those issues,” I said. I had paid a fortune to send my daughter to boarding school back East. Her learning math had not been my concern; rather to help her avoid pregnancy and jail.  My son also attended private schools but required less supervision.

“You put your children in private schools too?” Mr. Merkel said.

“Yes,” I said. “It was expensive and denied me many pleasures. Instead of a comfortable seat at the opera, I was generally standing in the back of the orchestra. Nonetheless, I’m glad I fulfilled my responsibilities.”

“You’re a solid citizen,” Mr. Merkel summed up my life, then pointed to the math book, “You have three months to learn everything in this text before teaching your first class.”

“Will do,” I said and stood up to leave.

“One more thing,” he said, “any unhappiness felt by parents or students gets blamed on the substitute teacher.”

“Understood,” I said.

“But don’t take it personally, unless I tell you to.”

There were 120 lessons in the Saxon math text. I calculated that Ms. Mubarak, the math teacher, would cover the first sixty before she went on maternity leave. But I would study the book from the very beginning to master the other sixty lessons, the ones I would have to teach. In hindsight, mastering the subjects may have been too ambitious a goal. Imparting something of value was within reach or, at least, avoiding serial humiliation.

Most days, I studied two lessons and did all the written homework. I checked my results against the answer key, and when I found a mistake, I tried to figure out where I had set up the problem incorrectly or where I had made errors in computation. When remedial efforts still failed to produce the right result, I noted the correct answer in red ink in the margin of my notebook. Red ink flagged the problems that might produce questions I would dodge,  especially when Mr. Merkel was observing class.

Little in the Saxon text was similar to the math I had studied in sixth grade many years ago. What was similar? Either you reach the right result, or you do your best to conceal your failure. I was confident about concealing failure under the rubric of the new pedagogy: “Let students teach each other,” and “The less teacher talk, the better.”

At the start of every class, I asked students if they had had difficulty with the previous night’s homework. Most of the students were too arrogant to acknowledge any difficulty. But on the rare occurrence that a hand raised above a face with a puzzled or imploring look, I would take the question. If there was no red ink for that problem in the margin of my notebook, I would work the problem on the board with swift grace and rehearsed compassion.

By contrast, if red ink was throbbing in the margin of the problem, I deflected the student’s inquiry with my own inquiry about what answer the student got. If the student’s response did not tally with what I had copied from the answer key, I would repeat the student’s answer in a questioning tone of voice, thus giving the student an opportunity to correct her mistake.

“A five under the radical? In a 30-60-90 degree triangle?” When my tone conveyed shock or disbelief, the student said nothing or burst into tears.

Then I turned to class and asked, “Can anyone help her? Can anyone help all of us by working the problem on the board?”

For some students, class participation was beneath their status as prodigies. But other students enjoyed helping or displaying their prowess. For these students, who were saving my skin from a scalding, I would return to my desk, sit down and prompt when necessary: “Do not talk to the board. Turn to the class and speak louder. Explain the setup, the governing equation, and every step of the operation. Do it in plain English with as few words and as few numbers as possible.”

At first, some students complained. Complaints were hard to absorb when I’d barely slept or had to wait in the rain for a delayed bus. One student even whined, “When is Ms. Mubarak coming back?”

“Her contact information is on the school website,” I snapped. “Call her and say that the babies in sixth grade need her more than the newborn at home.”

Not every student thrived with less and less teacher talk. But quite a number responded well, and I received friendly emails from their parents. Even Mr. Merkel praised me for the amazing increase in student participation in the classes he observed. However low he may have initially  ranked language arts, he came close to agreeing that more math is likely to be learned when students are challenged to explain their thought processes in plain English with as few words and as few numbers as possible.

I loved being praised by Mr. Merkel, and I did my best to ensure he was not blindsided by my errors in classroom management. Of course, the best way to support him as our central figure would have been to avoid such errors. Short of that, I made sure he heard about my errors directly from me before receiving calls from outraged parents. Those calls came of course, but only after I had given him time to prepare a response.

One of my worst errors involved Arhaan, a boy who should have been in a special education setting and spent entire class periods playing computer games on his Chromebook. Every student received a Chromebook as part of the tuition parents paid. There were, however, limits on the use of the Chromebook. Unless they had special permission, students were forbidden to use their Chromebooks during math class. Special permission might be granted to a student whose first language was not English and who needed to use the Chromebook to access Google Translate. As a general rule, however, students took class notes and did their homework in paper spiral notebooks.

Mr. Merkel counseled me on the correct way to manage the illicit use of Chromebooks in class. “First, remind the student of the prohibition and instruct the student to put the Chromebook away – in his desk or on a shelf nearby where he could charge the machine.”

“And if the student refuses? Or if later in class, I notice that he has resumed using the Chromebook?”

“Then threaten to send him to my office and threaten to report his defiance in an email to his parents.”

Such threats were unacceptable in the new pedagogy.Threats branded the teacher a failure in classroom management. To my relief, however, they worked for most students. Unfortunately, threats had little impact on Arhaan. He would hide his Chromebook until my attention turned away from him to teach the class. A few moments later, students would start whispering to me,

“Arhaan is on his Chromebook again.”

“He’s back on his Chromebook.”

“He’s playing games on his Chromebook. He’s not paying attention to class.”

Some days, I lacked the stomach to scold Arhaan.  Letting him continue to play on his Chromebook was less disruptive for the class and easier for me.

“He’s only twelve years old,” I explained to Mr. Merkel, “He will have future opportunities to learn math.”

Mr. Merkel responded strictly: “You have reached an impasse in your teaching and have succumbed to your weakness at the cost of concern for the students.”

That sounded bad. Even worse, however, was my succumbing to anger a few days later when wrestling the Chromebook from Arhaan’s hands, I shouted, “We’ve had it up to here with your shit.”

Later that morning, Mr. Merkel called me to his office. “Arhaan says you swore at him.”

“Yes, I did,” I said, “I’m sorry.”

“You’ll be even sorrier when I pull you out of class to explain to the parents why, in what should be a safe environment, their children have been exposed to profanity.”

Fortunately, I did not have to confront Arhaan’s parents in person. Rather, I received an email in which his mother referred obliquely to the incident and exhorted: “As members of team Arhaan, we all have to do better.”

Unfortunately, however, news of the scandal spread to parents of some children in other grades.  These parents confronted me in the cloister walk outside my classes. No matter how sincerely I tried to apologize, the mothers never stopped looking distressed. But some of the fathers laughed heartily when I reenacted the scene.

“You’re handling the situation well,” Mr. Merkel acknowledged to my relief.

My worst encounter with one of the parents occurred with a mother during conferences toward the end of the semester. Mr. Merkel had warned me that this woman was relentlessly caustic. She seemed to operate under a regret that, had she been more of a shrew earlier on, she would not have to be so thoroughly a shrew this late in life. She was offended because my communications about her daughter’s study habits and conduct in class had not been sufficiently deferential. She was also upset because Mr. Merkel had not sent her an email detailing the academic credentials and previous teaching experience of the math teacher replacing Ms. Mubarak.

“I’ve been enrolling my children in this school system for nine years,” she said. “I deserve to be treated with more respect.”

“Nine years,” I said, “That’s a big investment.”

“Yes,” she said, “And I should have received a letter of introduction from Mr. Merkel or from you before Ms. Mubarak went on leave.”

“Does nine years give you veto power over faculty hiring decisions?”

“Maybe or maybe not,” she huffed, “but parents should have input.”

“Mr. Merkel decided that I’m qualified.”

“Why?” she said. “Because you’re a lawyer? My daughter’s grandmother is a lawyer, and I doubt she has the smarts to teach any level of math.”

Lack of smarts was not the issue that morning. Lack of sleep is why I attacked: “Let’s hope your daughter hasn’t inherited that gene too.”

“You are way out of line,” she said, then stormed out of the conference and into Mr. Merkel’s office. There, according to Mr. Merkel, she repeated her complaint about my discourtesy until he assured her that it would not go unpunished.

Not long after , toward the end of Ms. Mubarak’s leave, I forgot my notebook on top of my desk, failing to  take it home. One of the students who had never warmed to me and who had detected my incompetence in math– it had not taken enormous insight– delivered my notebook to the principal’s office with alleged concern for its safekeeping. I imagine the student left the notebook open to a page with several entries in red ink. Or, in leafing through the book to confirm its ownership or just out of curiosity, Mr. Merkel came upon one or more of those pages.

Exposure had been inevitable. Mr. Merkel, however, was calm and generous. I asked about the possibility of a post in summer school if some of the regular faculty wanted those months off. “I’ll get back to you,” he said, “maybe for language arts.”

“If there’s no space here,” I summoned my courage because I needed a job. “May I ask for a letter of recommendation to another school?”

“You can ask,” he said and smiled.

“I kept the word I gave you during my first interview,” I said, “I never missed a day of class. “

“That’s true,” he said, “for better or worse.”

“I never missed even a minute.”

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll see if there’s a vacancy in our primary school on the other side of town, but no pretense or profanity, please.”

Chuck Teixeira

After practicing law for many years in San Francisco, Chuck Teixeira taught English in Bogota, Colombia.

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