Tested Severely A sub story: Fill-in teacher John Frank does hazardous duty for little pay and less respect. He knows there's no substitute for cool under fire.

February 08, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

This is the popular image of the substitute teacher: a pale, damp man in a faded cardigan sweater, or a dowdy woman in an Annie Hall outfit and sensible shoes standing in front of an unruly class, paper airplanes sailing everywhere, the smell of fear so ripe you can almost cup it in your hand.

John Frank knows the image well. He himself is a sub, an occupation where the job description might as well read: low pay, high stress, vast potential for permanent emotional scarring.

John Frank is only 23, just one year out of college, still waiting to land his first full-time teaching job. But if this strikes you as somewhat akin to leading a Shetland pony into timber wolf country and saying, "Bye now," you have not heard his story.

"I've seen just about all that can happen in a classroom, short of a kid pulling a gun on me," he says on a recent morning at Dulaney High School in Timonium, as the first rays of the sun slant into his trailer classroom. "And if they pull a gun on you, it's too late to worry about it."

This is what happened at Towson High last fall, in one of his first gigs as a sub:

He was teaching a ninth-grade standard English class. The kids were taking turns reading aloud from a textbook, only the drill wasn't going very well. There was a sub, after all, so the prevailing mood was: PAR-TAY!

Two girls, in particular, seemed determined not to let the reading interfere with their conversation.

Mr. Frank told them to be quiet. They kept talking. He repeated himself, again without success.

Suddenly one girl shot to her feet.

"You can't f------ talk to me like that!" she screamed.

The words crackled with rage and menace. In an instant the classroom was very still.

"You either sit down and be quiet, or you're going," John Frank said, working hard to keep a choir-boy squeek of panic out of his voice.

The girl would have none of it.

"I'm not going to put up with your s--- !" she screamed again. "You're just a f------ sub!"

Well. In some schools, maybe the girl also pulls out a knife and offers to filet the teacher right then and there and let the other students pick through the bones.

But at Towson, this kind of behavior is still considered aberrant. Now the stunned students were staring at Mr. Frank.

What would Mr. Frank do?

Would he turn into a quivering mound of Jell-O before their very eyes and have to be spooned off the blackboard? Or would he go into full authority-figure mode, the veins in his neck sticking out like twin ropes and escalate the conflict even further?

John Frank's gut was churning, but he chose the path of least resistance, what the Buddhists call the Noble Eightfold Path -- controlling one's feelings and thoughts. As the girl ranted and raved, he acted nonchalant, all but stifling a yawn for effect.

"OK, you're done with your little explosion," he said at last. "Now take this note and yourself to the [principal's] office."

As he recalls the incident, the first Dulaney 10th-graders begin to file in to his first-period World History class, normally taught by Don McCombs, who is recovering from a mild heart attack.

John Frank finishes relating the Towson story with a what-can-you-do? shrug and then begins reviewing a quiz on the Ch'in Dynasty in China.

The review gets off to a less-than-promising start when the grunge lobby in the back decides to test the sub.

"How many people live in China?" Mr. Frank asks.

"A lot," is the smart-mouthed reply from a Kurt Cobain look-alike.

The preferred answer is 1 billion. But Mr. Frank chooses to ignore the remark and smoothly gets the review back on track by asking the girls in the class what they think of the male dominance of ancient Chinese society.

As the end of class nears, Mr. Frank begins to hear from five girls who have apparently decided he's hot-looking. Their line of questioning is as subtle as a car plunging over a cliff.

"Are you married?"

Mr. Frank holds up his left hand and points to the absence of a wedding ring.

"Are you engaged?"

"Are you seeing someone?"

"Now you've stepped over the line," Mr. Frank says with a smile.

As the bell rings, one of the girls announces, in a voice that could be heard in the next area code: "Girl, the man is old! He must be 28!"

This is life as a sub. These are the dues you pay while you wait for your state certification so you can land a full-time teaching position.

And John Frank wants to be a teacher more than anything else in the world.

A Poly guy from Hampden

John Frank grew up in Hampden; the neighborhood's blue-collar work ethic was ingrained in him early along with other lessons: never forget where you're from, don't let anyone walk all over you, if the other guy comes at you with a brick, make sure you have a cinder block.

He has the trim, well-muscled body of an athlete, which he was: a soccer and baseball standout at Polytechnic Institute Senior High School, a good-hitting first baseman-outfielder at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, W.Va.

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