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This one is for all the teachers out there: “The Substitute”

May 2, 2013

thesubstitute1996w666imAnother school year is drawing to a close, and another class of students is advancing—maybe to a new grade, or maybe out into the world. The leave behind them scores of proud, satisfied teachers—men and women who spent the past nine or so months giving everything to classroom after classroom of students. Amid a barrage of public criticism unprecedented in history, vilified by pundits, scapegoated by politicians, they still get up at the crack of dawn every day to stand in front of dozens of students crammed into too-small schools and shape the very future of America. No film I’ve ever seen has really communicated the nigh-miraculous  job these people do better than 1996’s The Substitute, a film which shows us if this if we are to fix our ailing school system it’s going to take more than budget cuts and empty rhetoric. It’s going to take Tom Berenger and a team of heavily-armed mercenaries.

So, Berenger plays Tom Shale, a freelance mercenary bugging out from a mission gone bad in Cuba (goddamn, are we ever gonna invade that place right?) along with his team (a pre-Law & Order Richard Brooks, Raymond Cruz, William Forsythe, and Luis Guzman). He arrives home to his domestic bliss in South Miami with girlfriend Jane (mannish-faced ‘90s mainstay Diane Venora).

Alas, this bliss is not to be permanent, as Jane has gotten on the wrong side of a high-school gang-leader named Juan Lacas (Marc Anthony, acting about as scary as is possible for Marc Anthony). Jane tries to get him transferred to a school more hellish than theirs (pretty tough, that), but Principal Claude Rolle (Ernie Hudson) tells her he can’t do a thing without proof. Goddamn system! With all its bullshit rules! So Juan has Jane kneecapped during her morning jog. This makes Shale mad.

There is nothing more terrifying than a ballad-crooner with a gun.

There is nothing more terrifying than a ballad-crooner with a gun.

With a little document-jiggering, Shale goes undercover as Jane’s substitute, Mr. Smith. At first Jane’s class is a tough nut to crack—what with being populated exclusively with minority teenagers torn straight from middle-class white America’s deepest anxieties. He tries to teach them about the Vietnam War, but they just wanna dance to their ghetto-blasters and throw gang-signs, and say “yo, dawg!” a lot.

Realizing these kids are merely putting up a brave front to cope with the danger and disappointment of lives lived as members of an ignored, discarded underclass, Shale bonds with them by giving him this inspiring speech: “I’m in charge of this class! I’m the warrior chief! I’m the merciless god of anything that stirs in my universe. You fuck with me, and you will suffer my wrath!” I know, I’m getting misty just transcribing it.

And then he transfixes him with a story of his days in the ‘Nam when his unit totally wiped-out a bunch of Viet Cong, so they could give their AK-47s to the Montagnard hill-people they were training, so that the ‘Yards could launch attacks against the VC without their ammo being traced to the US. You know, like all good teachers do.

"And then, naturally, we desecrated the corpses. Ears and tongues make good necklaces..."

“And then, naturally, we desecrated the corpses. Ears and tongues make good necklaces…”

Well, this little story of black-ops builds a bridge of understanding and respect with these kids that Shale uses to warm them about the evils of gang-life. Evils Shale knows personally from his time in a youth gang. Shale calls upon his personal history to explain to them precisely why gang-life is a road to nowhere: they’ll all end up either dead or in prison, where they’ll almost certainly be sodomized.

[Side note: I don’t know why more teachers don’t use the threat of imminent butt-rape to bond with their students. Probably some PTA rule against it or something. Man, the system sucks.]

Well, this puts Shale on the radar of Rolle, who, it turns out, is on the payroll of a drug-kingpin and muleing his coke through the school, using Juan’s gang as muscle. Now, Shale is a hunted man, but he fends off an ambush in the school library by throwing books at the kids and then tossing them out a window. The school board frowns on this, too, but what the hell.

"Better put this on. We're talking about the Louisiana Purchase today."

“Better put this on. We’re talking about the Louisiana Purchase today.”

Then Juan goes after Jane, but Shale and some of his now-allied students kill them all (it’s like the triumphant math-test scene in Stand and Deliver except with less math and more German firearms). And now it’s on like Donkey Kong. It all ends with a balls-to-the-wall firefight between Shale’s team of mercs and Rolle, the kingpin, and his goons. They all use silencers, so it’s, like, the politest gunfight ever, but they do use an AT-4 anti-tank missile on the Home-Ec room, which all sorts of awesome.

In the end, order has been restored: the kingpin has been killed, Juan’s gang exterminated, and Rolle gets the bridge of his nose rammed through his brain (though, he probably never gets officially fired—stupid, screwed-up system). And the education can continued unhindered by drug-trafficking and targeted assassinations.

In all, The Substitute unflinchingly points to some uncomfortable truths about the state of our public schools. Such as:

* All inner-city schools are hellholes, dominated by ruthless, future ex-husbands of Jennifer Lopez.

* The best way to improve our ailing schools is with stories of off-the-books wartime ambushes and automatic weapons.

* If you’re the drama teacher, don’t try to escape from ruthless gang members by trying to climb one of the ropes in the gym. Gang members can climb like spider monkeys.

* Your students probably want to maim you.

* The system is all sorts of screwed-up, having been bought by narcotrafficantes.

* Home Ec rooms are not missile-proof.

* If you’re a principal on the take, don’t wear your Rolex to work—no matter how well it complements your silk suits.

* And while you’re at it, give the new substitute teacher with the face scars and head like a cinder block a little extra scrutiny.

* Books really are more powerful than guns. Particularly when hurled at someone’s head.

* The threat of inevitable buggering is an invaluable educational tool.

Anyway, this one goes out to all of you teachers out there. Thank you for your tireless efforts. Know that whatever is said about you or your noble profession, you have made this world a better place. And remember to always keep one in the chamber.

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