This essay originally aired on WVTF Public Radio. Click here to listen.
Years ago, before I decided to bite the bullet and embrace the soul crushing rejection that often goes with Being a Writer, I decided to try my hand at substitute teaching. I realized my mistakealmost immediately.
Part of the problem was Miss T., a school secretary whod call before the sun rose to line-up her fill-ins. She scared the hell out of me. And not just because she carried herself like a linebacker. Shed done an on-the-spot personality assessment to determine how best to keep me in her stable — correctly settling on a combo of bossiness and guilt. Declining was impossible.Once when she called I told her I couldnt work because I had a doctors appointment.
Thats fine, she snapped. You can go and come back.
And I did.
Turns out when Miss T. failed to get a substitute it was up to her to take over for the missing teacher. She had a lot at stake.
Because even Miss T. wasnt up to subbing.
My very first day I filled in for a science teacher. From the outset the twenty-five kids realized I was:
A. clueless about the subject matter and
B. totally freaked out by the rat aquarium just a few feet from the blackboard.
Also, in my effort to be kind and understanding (ok, liked), I changed the prescribed seating arrangement for two boys whose chairs faced the wall in the classroom equivalent of Siberia.
They immediately jumped up to handle the teachers personal effects, putting her stuff to their cheeks like Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. While I tried to pry away family photos, a ruckus broke out over by the pencil sharpener.
Then a girl asked if I dyed my hair. Startled, I did what any self-respecting person in authority would do. I lied.
You trippin was the well-received response.
I hadnt even taken attendance yet.
I decided to quit. Miss T. wouldnt hear of it.
I received a fat envelope full of letters of apology on notebook stationary.
I kept at it.
My best days were when I wasnt expected to actually impart any knowledge because the real professional left behind Independent Seatwork for the students. Basically I was a hostess with hall passes. It was perfect.
Until the day I oversaw a health class.
The 13-year-old boys dutifully opened their books to begin reading. Many asked for my assistance in pronunciation.
Urethra, I blushed.
Urogenital, I soldiered on.
I didnt know anything was amiss until this angelic-looking child fell out of his chair, laughing so hard I thought he was choking. Turns out they were supposed to be doing silent reading on fire safety.
Fortunately the period was cut short by an assembly — from which the kids were to be released to their next class. Projectiles began flying between rows as soon as everyone took their seats.I was secretly delighted by the mini-riot because it meant it wasnt just me. No one had control. Eventually, the principal ordered everyone out. Miss T. directed traffic towards the doors. Go back with the teacher who brought you.
When I turned to look at the kids lining up behind me Im pretty sure one of them winked. I considered my options. The publishing world suddenly seemed like childs play. Substitute teaching was for people made of stronger stuff.