Southern fiction has a new hero—Tom Ironsides makes his appearance in book form in Perrin Lovett’s work The Substitute (Shotwell Publishing, 2023). Sequels and prequels are in the offing.
Ironsides is a sort of James Bond, but a much better man. He is a master of his former craft as a CIA operative, although he has progressively developed a realisation that he had not really been defending his country but rather the worst people in it. Lovett describes his paramilitary adventures vividly and more realistically than Bond fantasies.
Ironsides has seen much of the world and has lived a good deal abroad, including as a college professor in Slovakia. Like Bond, he drinks and likes women (and additionally is a cigar connoisseur ). He is also a Christian, a genuine classical scholar, and feels deeply a duty toward his declining country and people. Ironsides was born and bred in the snows of New Hampshire, but is a happily adopted South Carolinian.
In his first book appearance Ironsides’s social conscience leads him in retirement to sign up as a substitute teacher for South Carolina schools in the Augusta, Georgia metropolitan area. He wants to know what is happening in education.
From here The Substitute is based on the first-hand experiences, blow by blow, of the author as a Substitute. These experiences are a cold shower (or an alarm bell if you prefer) for anyone who really wants to know what goes on in the public schools. And we all should want to know.
Ironsides’s encounters in elementary, middle, and high schools with dozens of administrators, teachers, and students–good, bad, and indifferent–are authentic. There are a number of good books about the perilous state of American education, but Lovett provides us with a nuts and bolts, every day portrayal that really strikes home.
There are some good and dedicated teachers–almost all demoralised and wanting to get out even if it means working for Walmart. The students are mostly good (although there is a violent minority who are never appropriately handled). But the young people are, as they vaguely understand, the victims of fearful, faddish, over-controlling bureaucrats who have never had any idea about what education should be.
The schools barely teach reading, writing and ‘rithmetic to some of the students. As for passing on Western Civilisation, which has been the successful goal of education for centuries, the intellectual and moral mediocrities who are in charge do not even know what you are talking about.
Ironsides entered the schools in an open-minded investigative attitude and in hope of contributing some improvement. He ends his year with the certainty that there is no hope of reform in the vast decaying educational empire. The preservers of civilisation must leave behind the mass public “education” and begin innovative work elsewhere.
For some reason stranger women experiencing trouble find me an easy target for accosting in public. Maybe they think I am a harmless old man easy for a touch.
Here are some things that have happened to me in the last two years or so.
I was checking out of a family restaurant when a middle-aged woman, very well dressed and respectable looking, asked me if she could have some food like I had just had. I gave her a $20 bill.
At a gas station I was approached by a young woman who said she had had car trouble on her way back to Charleston and needed to get to a car shop on Two Notch Road. Her information was vague---there are two Two Notch Roads in the Columbia metro area, both rather far from where we were. I spent two hours driving her around without finding the shop. Inquiry suggested that she did not have a credit card to use for a place to stay. It appears she was a Walmart employee and I finally left her at a big Walmart store where she thought she could get people to look after her.
I was strolling the neighbourhood when an older lady asked me if I could help her get her car started. She wanted to pour a little gas into the carburetor, which I advised was not a very good idea. I helped with all my inferior technical ability would allow, but we never did get the car started. Meanwhile, her male next-door neighbour looked at both of us with contempt.
At the inevitable Walmart an African American lady, middle-aged, approached me. She said she was broke and did not have money to get her clothes washed at a laundromat. I gave her another $20 bill.
Just the other day at the gas station, another lady pulled up beside me. She said she was trying to get to Charlotte to see her mother who was sick or dying and she did not have any money. I gave her all I had in my wallet, about $32 or so, in hope that she could get some food and fuel.
My experiences as a compassion magnet have made me realise how many Americans there are today who are living on the margin. I can remember when it was said that America was a good country for common people to better themselves with hard work.
These days your government is bailing out billionaires and taking on trillions in debt for useless, immoral, failed wars that have nothing to do with defending our country. The economic status of the middle and working classes is declining. The tiny minority of super rich have more than all the rest of us “deplorables” put together. The foreigners and rich people who own the U.S. government debt have a risk-free investment and their interest profits are tax fee.
This ought to encourage us to think again about Lincoln’s famous lie that his war was to preserve government of, by, and for the people.
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews