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Angela's World

3.6. Episode Six:  "The Substitute"

    Original Air Date: September 29, 1994


"Maybe teachers have a hidden life where they're like human. Where they have, I don't know, like, dignity... or maybe not." -- Angela



    Angela and all her classmates save Brian are captivated by substitute teacher who turns out to have feet of clay.


In this episode, Angela "wakes up" to the world that lies beyond her friends and family. It is a world of ideas and issues -- and injustice. Angela's awakening is foretold at the beginning of the episode when she wonders whether "teachers have a hidden life." It should not surprise us that Angela's initial awareness of the "outside" world should come through her teachers -- they are, after all, teachers -- and the only adults other than Patty and Graham with whom she has regular contact. Nor should we be too surprised that the catalyst for her awakening is a teacher who also a stranger, for Vic Racine is not part of Angela's familiar landscape, and she must understand him in terms of her awakened sensibilities. Vic is also one of two adults in the entire program that Angela must relate to in a context outside of the student-teacher relationship. (Hence, "Vic" and not "Mr. Racine.") The other is Amber, and like Amber, (as we shall see), Vic has his foibles. Vic Racine demands attention, with his toothpicks and mismatched socks. He behaves as outrageously as he looks, defenestrating ("well look it up!") the students' creative writing. Vic's idiosyncrasies are quickly overshadowed in Angela's eyes by his demeanor, which we see in action when she confronts him about throwing the papers out the window:

    "Why did I do it? Good question. I did it to clear the slate. I did it to wake you up. I did it to do something. To find you. And now guess what? Here you are, wide awake, right in front of me. I mean, wasn't that worth it? I mean that um, poem, that oak tree poem, that was yesterday. What are you going to write today?"
    "Good question," Angela muses.

The dialogue reveals Angela's "awakening." As Angela confronts Vic, she largely parrots Patty and Graham's lecture about common courtesy and the amount of work she invested in the oak tree poem. But as the exchange ends, Angela is emulating Vic's speech patterns.

Thus, Angela has been entranced, not merely by the superficial, but by the possibility of a new way of thinking. In contrast, Rayanne never sees past the superficial. As the class reads their book, Rayanne tries to talk about Vic's socks, but Angela quiets her. The exchange is fleeting, but critically important in two respects. First, Angela is learning the difference between merely imitating or mimicking adults or adult behavior and thinking independently, the true indicium of adulthood. (As we shall see, Rayanne's inability to do this becomes her tragic flaw.) Angela's "Fable" also illustrates her growth: The girl wakes up and says goodbye to the cutouts she finds around her. Second, Angela's peremptory shushing of Rayanne reveals the girls' respective stage of development and a change in their relationship. In certain ways, Angela is outgrowing Rayanne.

Vic has a similar effect on the other students as well. He singles out Jordan for special attention, and Jordan will later declare Vic "the best teacher I ever had." (It is likely that Vic picks on Jordan because he is the first student to try to escape the classroom, and Vic is sufficiently comfortable in the classroom to infer that he is an experienced teacher with the savvy to know an underachiever when he sees one.) Only Brian never changes his low opinion of Vic. But unlike Jordan, Brian has had tremendous success with the system as it exists, and feels threatened by an interloper.

Vic's effect on the students is obvious, as they flock to his class room and follow him down the hall. More importantly, the students begin to produce better writing, the most provocative of which is "Haiku for Him." Naturally, everyone wants to know who wrote it, and the camera exposes the author even as Brian reads the first line. As he reads, Angela glances at Rayanne, evidently believing that she is the author. But the camera briefly fixes on Sharon, demurely looking down at her desk. She is wearing Kyle's letter jacket off her shoulders with only the orange arms showing. The fact that Sharon is wearing Kyle's jacket as though it had been pulled, or peeled, from her, and the prominence of the orange-colored arms states clearly that Sharon is the true author of "Haiku for Him."

The "haiku" becomes the catalyst for two events. First, Sharon and Rayanne discuss the poem in their first significant conversation, one that results in the sharing of a secret and leads to their ultimate friendship. Second, the "haiku" leads to Patty's interference with the publication of the Liberty Lit.

Vic's popularity can be explained by contrasting his treatment of Angela to Patty and Graham's. Angela explains that Vic is "an adult I can look up to, finally," a statement which leaves Patty and Graham mildly dismayed. But what Angela means is that Vic is an adult who treats her as an adult. Vic walked into Angela's world one day, and from the very beginning treated her as someone with her own mind.

In contrast, Patty and Graham still generally perceive Angela as a child. Their contrapuntal lecture to Angela early in the episode to "stand up for her rights" has a decidedly parental tone. Similarly, as Angela excitedly tells Patty and Graham over dinner about the confiscation of the literary magazine, Patty and Graham respond as parents:

    "Look, sweety, um, don't get carried away with this, okay?" Patty says to Angela, unconsciously using the diminutive pet name.

Graham's contribution is equally parental:

    "We don't want you doing anything that could get you into trouble."

Angela is indignant:

    "I can't believe this! What about all those boring stories I've had to sit through my whole life about how committed you were in the Sixties, about how you believed in things?"
    "We did."
    "Oh right! Only now you're so terrified of causing trouble you can't even see what it means to me."

The scene ends with Angela storming up the stairs and Patty and Graham chuckling. Clearly, they still regard Angela as a child, and their perception is not totally inaccurate, given Angela's stomping retreat up the stairs. Nevertheless, what began at the dinner table as a principled, if somewhat naive, discussion, has degenerated to a spat between parents and child, reminiscent of the dinner-stairway scene in the pilot episode. Patty and Graham are still raising Angela the Child and not Angela the Young Adult.

Digression: Patty and Graham in the Sixties

    Patty and Graham are too young for the Sixties, even if we consider them "FortySomething," and not merely forty, as Graham states in "Why Jordan Can't Read." However, as most historians will likely note, the "Sixties" was not bounded by mere dates, but rather by issues, concerns and attitudes which remained in the public mind into the 1970's. Thus, while Patty and Graham were likely not Flower Children, they very likely took part in environmental activism like Earth Day, opposed American involvement in Viet Nam, favored Civil Rights and Women's Lib, and certainly were aware enough of Woodstock to miss it. This being so, Angela has no doubt heard the stories of their youth. However, being heretofore a child, Angela's sense of history is likely not so refined as to distinguish Patty and Graham's history from the true Sixties. Thus, Angela's statement is not an error by story writers, but a reflection on Angela's grasp of the world at that moment. End of Digression.

As well-received as Vic is with the students, however, Vic reveals a darker, manipulative side as he deals first with Graham, then Patty. Graham enters as Vic is working with Jordan. He has come to pick up the student work for the literary magazine, which is to be printed by Wood & Jones. But as he tentatively tries to explain, it is as though Vic is not listening. Finally, Vic slams down a desk.

    "That kid who left here," Vic says almost as much to no one as to Graham, "that extremely smart kid, it seems that nobody ever bother to notice that he never quite learned how to read! I mean it pisses me off. Toothpick?"

We see no more of the conversation, but Vic has clearly taken control of the situation with a display of anger and introduction of a topic that has nothing to do with why Graham is there. Vic has also unethically revealed to Graham a fact about Jordan that should have remained highly confidential, particularly in light of the fact that Graham is not only not part of the school faculty, but a parent of another student.

But it is apparent that Graham has fallen under Vic's spell as he and Patty read the students' work. Patty is appalled at "Haiku for Him," (would her reaction have been much different if she had known the true author?), and goes to school to confront Vic and refuse to print the poem. Vic again takes control, first by flattering Patty, then by attacking Graham, whom Patty instinctively defends, putting herself on the defensive. Vic's position:

    "if these kids aren't afraid to put their hearts on the page, why should we be afraid of them?"
    "Do you think you should be in the position of deciding because you have a printing press and I don't?"

...may be ideologically correct, but he has prevailed by manipulation and not principled discussion. Vic's encounters with Graham and Patty also have symbolic significance. The ideas and attitudes he represents are beginning to sway Angela. It is all the more important, therefore, to keep in mind that if Vic prevailed in his meetings with Graham and Patty, he did so by clever argument and not sound principle.

If Vic is controlling, he is also not above lying. Angela, Rayanne, Rickie and Sharon follow him as he leaves the school grounds, and he confirms their incorrect belief that he has been fired for publishing "Haiku for Him." In truth, Vic has not been fired, but has in fact walked out when confronted with a subpoena to pay child support to a family he deserted. That evening, Graham tells Patty the story, wishing aloud that he didn't know, and wondering how to tell Angela.

    "Tell her the truth," Patty tells him. "She can handle it."

Patty and Graham may still generally perceive of Angela as a child, but they are not afraid to tell her the truth, unlike Vic Racine, who merely pays lip service to "the truth." Having been told the truth, Angela confronts Vic at his home. The scene contrasts to her earlier confrontation of Vic in the classroom because, unlike the earlier scene, Angela will talk to Vic with words that are neither Patty and Graham's nor Vic's, and further, because here she is not confronting Vic the dynamic teacher but Vic the guy who lives in a fourplex (four mailboxes on the fence) and has deserted his family.

Vic calls Angela "Amanda." He offers an utterly vapid and cliche rationalization for having left his family ("my wife is far better off without me"), and patently stupid advice:

    "You're telling me to drop out of high school?"
    "Good Question. Yes. Run for your life. Save your life. Let the walls of your gingerbread house come crashing down. Or not."

Vic's statement is calculated to regain control of the conversation. But Angela is ready to think and speak for herself:

    "It's Angela. And I have to say, I don't think leaving high school is the answer. I don't think leaving anything is."

Part of Angela's "awakening" has been the realization that seeing beyond the superficial means seeing that things are not always good.

Upon her return from Vic's, Patty and Graham offer their advice, again in counterpoint: Not all fights are worth fighting; pick your fights. However, even if Patty and Graham still perceive Angela in stage she is fighting to outgrow, their parental tones stands in stark contrast to Vic's freewheeling advice-giving. Vic's advice is given to win converts. From "follow your hearts and veer away from heroin," to "let the walls of your gingerbread house come crashing down," Vic has given his advice for effect and in the hope that he, and not his advice, will be followed. Patty and Graham have advised Angela because they love her and have a virtual identity of interests, although it will be some time before Angela realizes this. Vic is clever, but his advice is merely glib. Patty and Graham are clumsy, but their advice comes from the heart and is ultimately sound. Angela takes Patty and Graham's advice to heart, though not in the way they intended. Angela copies the literary magazine and hands it out in the school, an act punishable by suspension. However, Angela's eyes are now open. She has acted with the full knowledge that she faces suspension. While passing out copies, she is called to the principal's office, where, to her dismay, in walk Patty and Graham. Their presence is another contrast: Vic ran away from his family; Patty and Graham have come running.

While Patty and Graham are concerned about the possible adverse impact on Angela's "record," Angela sees the affair as an issue of principle:

    "I just think it's wrong to censor people and I'm willing to get suspended for it."

While Patty looks on with concern, Graham tries to suppress a smile; he is proud that Angela has stood for herself. Before entering the principal's office, Graham stops Angela.

    "Listen, Racine, what he did, walking out on his family -- you know that could never happen in our family?" He cups her face in his hands. "You know that don't you?"
    "Graham, of course she knows," Patty says, mildly exasperated.

However, Graham and Angela share a secret -- the phone call Angela overheard at the end of "Dancing in the Dark" -- which has never been discussed and has come between them. Graham has taken advantage of Vic's situation to reassure Angela and provide closure. The exchange also foreshadows events to come while at the same time foreshadowing their outcome. In Principal Foster's office, it is established that Angela knowingly committed an act which she knew would result in suspension. With that knowledge established, Angela sits, ready and willing to take her punishment. Foster sees the pleading expressions on the faces of Patty and Graham and relents.

However, Foster's decision to not punish Angela is the last of a succession of right conclusions arrived at for the wrong reason. Brian is suspicious of Vic from the start, but because Vic does not fit his conception of what a teacher was supposed to look like and not because Vic is manipulative or has a blot on his personal history. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note how Brian, defender of status quo, has been treated by the very establishment he defends: Vic won't let him speak; Principal Foster won't let him speak; the teacher who sends Angela to the principal's office browbeats him.) Vic is correct in his discussion with Patty, but prevails because it is his nature to control others and not because his position is ideologically correct. Patty and Graham are correct in advising Angela to pick her fights, but give the advice out of fear that Angela might rock the boat too much and not because one has but finite personal resources to fight the injustices of the world. Mr. Foster decides not to punish Angela because he perceives that she has been brainwashed by Vic, and is otherwise not capable of defending a position she believes to be right. The episode ends with a relieved Patty and Graham and a frustrated Angela walking down the school hallway in opposite directions. However, all has not been for nothing. Angela is now capable of free, independent thought. More importantly, she now knows that she must exercise her ability to think for herself and not rely on others, whether parent, teacher or friend. Angela's new-found ability and the realization that she must use it will serve her well in the episodes to come. Angela is awake.


    Copyright 1997 William E. Blais.
    All Rights Reserved.

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