By Larry Widen, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Mar 13, 2016 at 7:06 AM

It’s 5 a.m. when the alarm clock announces the start of another day in the substitute teacher trenches. My eyelids don’t want to open, but that’s on me; I was up half the night watching "Marvel’s Jessica Jones" on Netflix.

It doesn’t matter. All problems can be solved after a 44-ounce Mountain Dew from Speedway. With caffeine roaring through my veins and an Allman Brothers CD cranked on the stereo, I speed off in the predawn darkness to the day’s assignment. "Oh, they call it Stormy Monday, but you know Tuesday’s just as bad ... "

Hail Mary in the classroom

At 7:15, I walk into the office at an elementary school on North Avenue. The staff is very friendly, and I think almost relieved to see me. After handing me a set of keys and a green folder marked "Guest Teacher," they point me down the hallway that leads to my room for the day. "Guest teacher," I chuckle to myself as I pore over the contents of the folder. The guy who coined that phrase probably changed "hillbilly" to "Appalachian-American."

My heart starts pounding when I see lunch hour scheduled from 11 to 11:15. Other than that, no breaks. Oh, man, come on. That’s gotta be a clerical error or something. As I reread the agenda looking for additional salvation, a strident voice in the hallway says, "Come on, come ON. The buses are here, and you need to be at Door 2 to pick up your kids!" Any response is pointless. The last part of that admonishment is in the slipstream created by an experienced, fast moving teacher already on her way.

I arrive at Door 2 just a second or two behind. My kids are lined up behind a numbered circle painted on the asphalt. Judging by the startled look on the faces of 32 second graders, it’s obvious they weren’t expecting to see a 225-pound, 6’2" man escorting them to class.

"Hey mister, you forgot our breakfast," one of them says, pointing to a pile of boxes. A cafeteria employee hands me a blue milk crate and the rest of the stuff earmarked for our room. Breakfast consists of individual prepackaged cereal and crackers along with a tube of yogurt, juice box and carton of milk. My sub folder says I need to put a check by the name of each student who had breakfast. The document is then sent to the office ASAP along with the day’s hot lunch count.

As I begin this task, an outraged screech of "Stop it!" rises from the corner. Uh oh. "What’s the matter," I ask, and immediately 32 voices talk at once. In the ensuing bedlam, a purple and white milk carton sails through the air. That baby hangs in the air like one of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary passes before gathering momentum and exploding against the opposite wall. The Breakfast Club loves it. While I’m looking for a roll of paper towels, a fusillade of Cheerios peppers the desks of four or five kids who respond in kind. It’s 8:15. I’m holding a broom and wondering if I can survive until 2:30.

Follow your dreams, but don’t sleep in my class

Checking in for the day at an East Side high school, I gracefully accept the mantle of "guest teacher" in stride, even taking a bit of fraternal pride in being part of something so noble. But the good feeling evaporates quickly. Being a "guest teacher" in this school, well, that's an honorary title like the one bestowed on Harland Sanders. He never spent a second in military service, but everyone called him "Colonel."

None of this matters though, because when their regular teacher’s out sick, the news travels like wildfire on some frequency reserved for high schoolers.

Instructions for the sub say the first order of business is taking attendance. This must be done in the first five minutes of the period and emailed to the office. Simple, right? Nah, taking attendance here is like performing one of the labors of Hercules. The seating chart doesn’t make sense, but it’s hard to gauge the accuracy because everyone’s walking around. To make it harder, a steady stream of tardy students continues well after the bell has rung. When I ask why no one looks like the picture next to their name, it gets a big laugh. Wow, I’m going over big here.  

"Don’t worry about that," one kid says. "We’re allowed to sit wherever we want." My folder says to admit the tardies only if they have a pass. Of course no one does. "I was just getting a drink of water." "I had to go back and get my books." "I left my cell phone in my locker." And that’s where it should have stayed, I think as I continue taking roll. Right now, I don’t care if they were writing a doctoral thesis on how the Magna Carta impacted future generations.

Just then the classroom phone rings. I move to answer it, but a dozen Olympic track team hopefuls vault tables and chairs to see who can get there first. The winner listens for a second before holding it triumphantly over his head. "For you, mister," he says, a huge grin splitting his face. "Attendance lady on the line."

The eagle flies on Friday

The past few days at this school has been the longest month of my life. Despite all the classroom shenanigans, I actually start to feel like a guest. Individually, the kids are all really nice to me, and I’ve gotten to know some of them pretty well.

En masse is another story.

Bad behavior from one or two is immediately modeled by the others. Right now, I’ve got my hands full. One of the girls is chasing a guy around the room while an admiring audience cheers them on. The phone rings, and this time I get there first. Damn. It’s the principal. She’s been informed that a certain kid was seen leaning from our third floor window. "It that true?" she demands. Even as I’m assuring her that nothing of the sort is going on up here, I look over to see the little SOB’s rear laid over the sill, no head or shoulders in sight. Hanging up in mid-sentence, I race to the window and pull him in by the belt.  

The kids chasing each other are out of breath by now. One of them says, "Mr. Larry, ain’t you gonna yell at us?" I tell them that yelling isn’t my style, and what good would it do anyways. A couple of them nod sagely, like I’ve just articulated the key social breakthrough of the century. "We like you, Mr. Larry," one of them says. "That’s why we’re being good." Are they kidding? Just today, I’ve confiscated two cell phones, made careless soda guzzlers clean up after themselves and requested that security take a wild kid out of the room. And they like me?  Actually I’m oddly touched by that admission, possibly because up to now I’d been feeling like a complete and utter failure.

After lunch, a good-natured taunting match between two students escalates into a beatdown contest faster than a cat leaping from hot tin. Because the art instructor has charge of the room for a while, I take one of the gladiators into the hallway for a cooling off period. Both of them have already said that the fight stemmed from insults about their mothers. "That’s stuff goes on all the time," I say. "What are you really so angry about?"

He doesn’t want to talk at first, but it seems the family dog died the night before in what I would call bizarre circumstances. "The dog was in the kitchen and got stabbed," he says. "My dad thinks a knife fell off the counter and hit him." Yeah, that happens all time.  "I’d be pretty upset about that, too," I say.

He tells me a few other things before concluding with, "My momma says white people are stupid." Not quite knowing how to respond to that, I manage to say, "Really? Well, I’m white." He says, "She ain’t talking about you. She means white people." With that, we head back into the class, much to the art teacher’s relief. Just then, my phone pings an alert from Chase Bank confirming a payroll check deposit. The eagle flies on Friday all right, but that’s not the best thing that happened today.

Tales from the teachers’ lounge

Once upon a time, Americans told scary stories while sitting around a campfire. In the 21st century, the tradition has moved to an often dreary, airless little room the school has set aside as a teachers’ retreat. You won’t hear anything good if you’re only in for the day, but come back a few more times and the beans get spilled. Most tales begin with a teacher looking left and right to see if anyone else is within earshot before talking out of the side of their mouth like Jimmy Cagney in "The Big House." I always know it’s gonna be a good one when the story starts with, "You didn’t hear this from me."

One day, I was buying a tiny bag of Cheetos from the vending machine when a teacher says, "I hear there was a fight in your class today." I nod and reply that it wasn’t a big deal; I’d gotten in between them before things got out of hand. I stop talking out of the side of my mouth when I realize it was only the two of us in there.  

"Let me give you a piece of advice," he says. "Never, ever put yourself in that position."  While I wait for the other shoe to drop, he takes a deep breath before continuing. "I tried to stop a fight in the hallway last year, got slammed against wall so hard I blacked out." He goes on to say the concussion he suffered gave him such blinding headaches that he was forced to stay out of school for the remainder of the year. "The hell of it is I’m still fighting to get a settlement from the insurance company," he mumbles. "They don’t want to pay because their lawyers claim the videotapes are inconclusive." I feel pretty bad for the guy, and as we walk out, I think maybe I’ll stay on the sidelines from now on.

In any case, I’m outta here in a couple hours. I’m looking forward to grabbing some dinner and watching another episode of "Jessica Jones." But tonight, I vow to be in bed by 10 at the latest. Tomorrow’s Tuesday, and I’ve heard that Tuesday’s just as bad.