Several years ago, I heard a radio interview with the poet Robert Bly, who was postulating that a lot of men seem hard-wired for a ceremony marking the transition from adolescence to adulthood. At the time, Bly was promoting a men’s movement that has such rituals. As I’ve observed various men’s gatherings over the years, I can say that they seem to work. But often, some men just don’t get it. For them, the whole thing is nothing more than a metaphysical snipe hunt.
For these men, I’m happy to say that I have discovered a ritual already in place in an official capacity right here in Jefferson County.
For two years in the early ‘90s, I was a substitute teacher – the virtual fast track to adulthood. Nowhere in the world will you ever find a greater place to test your mettle than in a classroom of seventh-graders pumped full of sugar and adrenaline.
Substitute teaching is the ultimate baptism of fire. When I taught, I found that it didn’t matter that I only wanted to teach music or English since I was always put in charge of a middle-school motorcycle gang. I quickly learned to diffuse a lot of situations before they happened by telling everyone I had a temper so bad that they let me out of prison for a few days at a time to either teach school or straighten out the situation in the Persian Gulf. The only drawback to this outrageous lie was that they actually believed me and begged for stories about being in the gray-bar motel.
I also learned how to take control. Once, when I was trying to mark attendance the classroom was so noisy that I was sure the Louisville International Airport would call to complain. In the middle of the room a guy and girl were making out like there was no tomorrow. I pointed at them and yelled, “Hey! If you’re going to behave like that, at least wear a condom!” Everyone convulsed in laughter, the two lovebirds became embarrassed and skulked off to their desks, and I was finally able to take roll.
Once, while teaching a class full of restless sixth-graders, I had to step out of the classroom for a few seconds. When I returned, I found that someone had scrawled on the blackboard, “F--- YOU, MR. MCDONALD!” While everyone snickered, I very slowly and methodically erased the offending passages, and said, “Okay, every one of you is being sent to the office. And NO ONE ... ” I swiftly turned and glared, “will be going on the DERBY MUSEUM FIELD TRIP THIS FRIDAY!!!”
“BUT I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING!” they all wailed. “All right!” I said, “Then, WHO DID?”
I couldn’t have choreographed it better. Every arm and index finger pointed to the same person at the same moment, and with one voice they all screamed, “SHE DID!” The little girl in the front row wearing a bitter defeated scowl looked at me and said, “I didn’t mean to.”
I subbed for two years and I’m sure I’m a better man for it. And lest I think I didn’t have a lasting impact on my students’ lives, I will always remember being approached by one of them in the lobby of a movie theatre. “Remember me?” he said. “I’m the guy you told to wear the condom.”