The first thing I told my kids was that, contrary to rumor, this substitute teacher was not taking any abuse. “Things will go on exactly as usual,” I said, and pulled out the lesson plan that I had written in my daily planner. The planner was for the year 2007, and was mostly blank, as I had apparently preferred to live 2007 the seat of my pants. But I always knew I would one day find a use for it, and that day had arrived.

As I began to read aloud from my list of assignments based upon my best recollection of elementary school – “Penmanship…Show-and-Tell…Gluing Things to Other Things” – I was advised that the day’s assignments were in an email from the teacher. I checked my inbox and, lo and behold, there it was, sandwiched between a daily body count briefing and a coupon from TGI Friday’s for 25% off family meal boxes to go.

The email had been composed in comic sans, and the first assignment was to have your child complete level one on a reading website called Do Re Me Like to Read, where you completed sentences by controlling a digital frog avatar that hopped from word to word. But the username and password were in a different email, and I could not find the email. I spent twenty minutes looking for it, and when I finally decided that the reading lesson was over, I saw that the kids had found the iPads hidden in the cabinet with the salad bowls, and were watching those toy reviewing videos that seem to have neither beginning nor end, and it took the promise of something on the order of changing the tides to earn their attention back.

The next assignment on the list was math, and for this we were to visit a website called “Math-teroids” where your child controlled a space ship that flew through an armada of numbers. A math problem would appear at the top, like 5 + 3, and you were supposed to shoot laser beams at the number 8.

But the game required that I run the latest version of my browser, and when I tried to update the browser, I was told that I needed to have administrator privileges. And after I figured out how to activate such privileges and updated the browser, I was told that I needed to install a certain plug-in. And after I downloaded the plug-in and waited for it to install, I noticed that the kids had found the iPads where I’d hid them under a stack of flattened Amazon boxes, and were now transfixed by a video of a family that decided to dress up as unicorn elves for Christmas and share their experience with the world.

The next item on the list was a science project. We were going to simulate the water cycle in our very own homes! Just fill a clear plastic sandwich bag with water, seal it shut, and tape it to the window. The project seemed straightforward, except that we had no clear plastic sandwich bags, having opted months earlier for environmentally responsible bags made of beeswax. So I filled one of these beeswax bags with water, sealed it shut with the natural heat of my hand, and taped it to the window. But tape does not stick well to beeswax, and the bag fell, and we ended up simulating just the flood part of the water cycle.

The last assignment of the day was story time. Now here was something I could do: simply find an age-appropriate story and read it to the children. I knew that kids like fairy tales, so I read them a story that I picked at random from a beautiful book titled “The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales” that had been sitting on our shelf for years. When I was finished reading the story – a riveting tale about a very hungry wolf and some very gullible goats – my kids weren’t looking for the iPads. They were staring at me with eyes wide open, mouths agape, and bodies perfectly still. At last I had their undivided attention, the kind of breakthrough that makes the hard work of teaching all worth it.

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