by Elizabeth Gold
S ubstitute high school teachers have it rough. For most students, a period taught by a sub is a free period, and rowdy behavior is imminent. When, midway through spring semester, Elizabeth Gold took over the Ninth Grade English reigns at the School of the New Millennium in Queens, NY, she essentially became a substitute... for four months. She writes about her experiences in Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity, a memoir that may be the most unsympathetic portrayal of a public school to ever hit mainstream bookstores.
In the "February" section of Brief Intervals Gold writes, "This is Hell. I never believed it before, but now the evidence is in. The screaming. The hitting. The grunting... And the hooting, don't forget the hooting." Her 15-year-old students are relentless, but with three and a half months (and about 300 pages) still to go, the reader has hope that things will turn around, that Gold will win these animals over, inspire them, and lead them down the Path of Enlightenment.
Alas, Brief Intervals is no Dangerous Minds. There is no rousing Coolio soundtrack, and no Michelle Pfeiffer to save the day. Gold is a struggling poet, with little to zero prior experience working with teenagers. Thrust pell-mell amidst the most extreme examples of teenagers imaginable, she doesn't stand a chance. Within weeks she is cowering behind her desk, or bawling in the hallway, or cursing at her students in frustration. All in all, the experience is a dismal one, with only, as the book's title suggests, brief moments of horrible sanity, when the classroom's perpetual din grows momentarily soft, or when a student shows for one second they might not be such a little shit after all.
Gold's candidness is refreshing, and more empathetic than any uplifting Mr. Holland's Opus-type story. While we don't necessarily admire her blatant failure in the face of adolescent adversity, we certainly admire her for telling it like it was, and as a result, entertaining us so profoundly. JUSTIN WESCOAT SANDERS III