Substitute / by Sophie Johnson

Sometimes I look at substitute teachers and think, "Hey. Most substitute teachers seem pretty sad and fat." Yesterday, while substitute teaching, I realized that there is a reason for that. The reason is that substitute teachers deserve to be sad and fat. What I mean to say is that they've earned it. It's a very depressing, fattening job. I want to buy all the world's substitute teachers vats of ice cream and jars of fudge -- the saddest food combination out there -- just to say, "I get it."

Kids don't like substitutes. They might not even realize they don't like substitutes, but they don't. They like their lives to be pretty much predictable, because they are dealing with enough chaos already. A substitute is just not going to get everything right, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how detailed the plan is. A substitute is going to call the wrong table group to line up first, or is going to have an overly relaxed policy on pencil sharpening, and the whole classroom culture will collapse in on itself like a house of cards. 

When I substitute teach, I do it at the charter school where I spent five years regular-teaching. That makes it easier for me, because I know everyone's name, and pretty much all the kids think I look like Katy Perry. (Hey, they said it, not me. I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT MY BOOBS VERSUS KATY'S BOOBS. This is not a boobs thing. This is a face thing. Katy and I both have winningly symmetrical faces. We also both wear really cool and ironically-funny outfits.) I cannot imagine what substitute teaching is like when you can't yell, "Dylan! Please stop throwing books at the window when my back is turned! I will call your mother!" and must settle instead with, "Hey! Kid in red shirt! STOP THAT! Ugh, you all have red shirts. EVERYONE STOP EVERYTHING!* "

I remember having substitute teachers in middle school. I specifically remember Ms. Day, my sixth grade science teacher, being sick a lot. She was the kind of woman who looked and sounded like she would be named Ms. Day. She had wild birds' nest brown hair and a plastered-on smile that never left her face, even (terrifyingly) when she was scolding Tom Johansson about something (which was about 40 percent of the class period). Ms. Day vocally hated sugary sodas, drove a Subaru that used vegetable diesel before people did that, and drank putrid-looking smoothies out of jars every day. She had lots of brown scarves that she wrapped around her body in unintentionally silly ways.

When I was a kid, empathetic as I was, it was impossible for me to see teachers as human beings with cars and lives and pets. They were more like furniture -- they belonged at the school, where they wore variations on the same outfit every day and went into the corner to shut off, machinelike, at night. I guess this is what it's like for most children. I use the knowledge that the kids I teach think of me the same way to my advantage. Mark my words: there is nothing that will get a student's attention more immediately than a detailed story about their teacher's personal life. (Why, just yesterday I told a congregation of nine-year-olds that I was Lebron James' secret wife, and that he only ate frozen yogurt and liked to take me on vacations to the Virgin Islands. I guess that was a lie. Maybe what I mean is that there is nothing that will get a student's attention more immediately than lying to them about Lebron James.)

To Young Sophie, Ms. Day was a constant variable, impervious to the elements. Now it seems obvious that Ms. Day (who was in her mid-forties) was actually suffering from some intense onset anxiety, and probably in the midst of a mid-life crisis. She often went into the broom closet to cry in the middle of class. Sometimes, halfway through a lesson, she'd freeze and go sit at the front of the room and tell us we had 30 minutes to "free read whatever we wanted." Poor Ms. Day. She really probably shouldn't have been a teacher. She probably should have followed The Grateful Dead around on their final tour, as she wistfully told us (one million times) she had always dreamed of doing. 

Anyway, Ms. Day had a substitute regularly. She hand-picked her substitutes. (As an adult substitute teacher, this is fascinating to me now. Hand-picking a substitute is never an available option in New Orleans. Lead teachers just kind of get what they get ["and they don't throw a fit"].) Her favorite substitute teacher was an impossibly thin man who looked like a villain in a James Bond movie. His name was Mr. Hand. Everyone totally hated Mr. Hand. He never did anything like Ms. Day did, and he didn't apologize for not doing anything like Ms. Day did. Tom Johansson wadded spit balls up and put them on the yellow memo pad he kept on Ms. Day's desk when no one was looking. 

I was not cruel to Mr. Hand, and I didn't really hate him. I wish I could say I had been an extraordinary kid, helping him out, or even being enthusiastic when he was in the room. The truth was that I was largely ordinary in school in general. I wasn't loud-mouthed or interesting, or enigmatically shy. I didn't dislike school, but I wasn't crazy about it. I was a disappointingly middling child. I tolerated Mr. Hand, just like I tolerated Ms. Day, and I tolerated how mean the other kids were to him, because that was the way the food chain worked in middle school. Then I went home and read The Babysitter's Club. And that was my childhood.

But one day, five years later or so, I started going to The Unitarian Church. (Read: a church for people who like church but don't necessarily believe in anything. A Unitarian Church is very similar to an open house poetry reading in many ways.) One day, after listening to a sermon on the importance of recycling, I saw Mr. Hand sitting in the front pew.

This was still crazy to me, even though I was 17 years old at that point, and should have understood how human beings worked. (I felt strongly that Mr. Hand was not where he belonged -- didn't he go in a storage closet when he was not being used or something? What was he doing at church?) Without any real plan, I walked up to Mr. Hand and introduced myself.

"Hi! Mr. Hand? My name is Sophie. I think you were my substitute teacher in sixth grade?"

"Oh! Errrm..." (Mr. Hand was the kind of guy who said "erm" a lot.) "Yes. Well. Hello there! What a lovely Sunday it is. It's nice to see you!" He shook my hand awkwardly and turned to go get coffee and donuts in the conference room.

I have no idea what it would be like to meet a person I had only interacted with when they were a child, and who, in all likelihood, had probably been very unkind to me. I assume it would be weird. Even now, when I see kids I taught in second grade wandering around the seventh grade hallway, I feel a little queasy. I look exactly the same to them, but they have grown two full feet and developed a snarky attitude around Justin Bieber. 

Right now, Mr. Hand is off somewhere in Portland, living his life, and he has no memory of me. He probably looks back at his days as a substitute teacher with some amount of distress. I'm telling you, it's a seriously thankless job. All the great parts about teaching are utterly absent from substitute teaching. You don't get to make relationships with kids. The relationships, after all, are what make the whole practice of teaching worthwhile. 

I am not a spiritual or religious person (see above: Unitarian Church), but I want to send waves of gratitude across the universe to Mr. Hand, and to all the substitute teachers in history who fill their lives with ice cream and Lifetime movies. It's not an easy thing to do. But I think they do it because they believe in children, and they believe in teachers, and they believe in schools, and they want to contribute, in whatever small way, toward a kinder, smarter, more just world. Right? Or, they really need a paycheck. Maybe a little bit of both.

 

* "EVERYONE STOP EVERYTHING" is a phrase I have actually heard while walking down the hallway. I think it's efficient.