From 'Babysitting' to Stopping Sexual Assault

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Substitute teachers are often referred to as babysitters because they typically show up to a classroom just to keep order while the regular teacher is away, keeping the kids preoccupied with a movie or busy work. This reader’s experience, on the other hand, was far more serious:

I was first a regular sub, then a long-term sub (same class assignment for the duration) at the “alternative education program” for boys who had been expelled for behavioral issues. My whole story is way too long to commit to text, but here’s the short version:

A first-year teacher was about to be sexually assaulted at the hands of about six of the worst boys. They were in a covered area, outside on a recreational terrace, with windowless walls on two sides and the only door having a small window. They were at a ping pong table, circling the teacher like sharks, with each one darting in to ruffle her hair when she turned to face the previous would-be attacker.

In my few seconds of observation, their escalation was obvious. So I slammed the nearest boy against a wall and marched him back into the building, banging into doors and walls every step of the way, and I did each of the others in turn.

The teacher was indignant. She “reported me” for being “absolutely brutal” in my handling of “these children.” In her defense, she was completely oblivious to the danger and simply saw me manhandle a bunch of kids. She was of the opinion that they were “mistreated by life and misunderstood,” which while not IN-correct says nothing about the state of their current pathology.

I quit on the spot.

Update from a skeptical reader:

I’m not sure I understand with what attitude we are expected to receive this anecdote. Presumably we are to nod at the sage wisdom of a veteran educator and praise them for averting a disastrous situation. Why should we be so credulous? The writer asserts that he (his masculinity is thoroughly unambiguous) can predict, and successfully predicted, a sexual assault which was about to occur, on the basis of circling and hair-ruffling. I’m not convinced.

Physical restraint, removing clothing, forcing the victim into obviously pre-assault positions—these I would take very seriously. I of course was not present to witness the situation, but from “a few seconds of observation” of “ruffl[ing] her hair” we can neatly conclude that a sexual assault was definitely about to occur? This is only my first problem.

As a minor note, the attitude of the writer towards the students seems problematic. He describes them as “circling like sharks.” That’s somewhat dehumanizing. He also feels the need to employ scare quotes when they are described as children. Are they younger than 18 or not?

But lastly, all of this aside, how does any of this justify the writer’s actions? He admits to brutalizing each and every one of the students, slamming them against walls and doors repeatedly. Why? Presumably he is trying to teach them a lesson. But what lesson is it, exactly, that he is teaching? That violence is the ultimate source of power? That justice is not restoration or the rule of law, but pure retributive fury?

His inability to understand his coworker’s complaint that he is exacerbating and reinforcing the very worldview that leads to the kinds of acts he purports to have prevented is the most frustrating sort of bull-headedness. I hope no one glorifies this kind of behavior. If he had not quit, he should surely have been fired. That fists are not universal problem-solving tools is precisely what violent young men need to learn in school. Indeed, it is hard to teach them anything else until this one lesson has been taught. If this teacher can't grasp that, I am quite glad he is no longer charged with the care of children.

If you’ve ever been a substitute teacher—or any teacher, for that matter—who felt compelled to physically intervene with a student, please drop us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.