By Joshua Freeman
Shortly after graduating college, when I thought we would seize state power in a couple months, or maybe a couple of years, I took a job as a substitute school teacher in Worcester, Massachusetts. Assigned to a junior high school — this was before the new-fangled middle school became the norm — I immediately found myself immersed in chaos, which somehow I was supposed to control. Kids raucously went about their business, whatever it might have been, paying no attention to anything I did or said. Bathroom passes and just about everything else flew off my desk, and I could not figure out how to stop the boys hiding in the coat closet from lighting matches without abandoning the rest of the class to total chaos — while all I really wanted to do was to get into the coat closet myself and light up a cigarette.
I lasted four days, or maybe it was three. My next job, in a factory making plastic Halloween pumpkins, seemed like a piece of cake in comparison.
There are literally rooms full of books about our troubled education system. Many are by advocates of charter schools and neo-liberal reforms, though there also are some fine rebuttals, including Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools by Diane Ravitch (whose blog is well worth following) and Mark Naison’s Badass Teachers Unite!
Typically, these books are written by people who either never taught public school themselves or did so only briefly. Books by active teachers are much rarer, and books by substitute teachers, the underclass of the public school system, almost unheard of.
Tom Gallagher, an old friend from my Massachusetts days, began substitute teaching in Boston during the 1970s. For a while, he was diverted from what turned out to be his life’s fate by six years representing Allston-Brighton in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he was known – affectionately or perhaps not — as “Tommie the Commie.” An ill-fated run for Congress and a move to San Francisco got him back into the classroom. Now, he has chronicled his years as a substitute teacher in a hysterically funny and deeply distressing memoir-cum-journal, Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools.
Gallagher has no illusions about what goes on in the classroom; survival is the first skill the sub needs to master, and he, unlike me, mastered it.
In his introduction, he tells of the time in 1997 when he was working as an international voter registration supervisor in a suburb of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When local election officials and then military police from the United Nations Protection Force proved unable to create order as a crowd pushed and shoved in their effort to register to vote, Gallagher stepped in. Using his tried and true substitute teacher methods, he got the overly-enthusiastic Bosnians neatly lined up and obedient in a mere twenty minutes.
But Sub is more than war stories and absurdist comedy; it is a deeply revealing look at the layer upon layer of problem and dysfunction in our urban schools and a marvelous portrait of the rowdy, wonderful, lovable, destructive, and self-destructive students Gallagher has encountered. This from-the-bottom-up look at our public schools, far more than the lofty, abstract tomes that dominate education-reform writing, leaves you not only laughing but seeing how the problems of our schools can never be solved in the schools alone — for they are really the problems of our society.
Dr. Joshua Freeman is a Professor of History at the Murphy Institute, Queens College, and the CUNY Graduate Center.