Substitute Teaching


October 8, 2010

Teaching my own classes sometimes feels like sailing across a vast body of water toward some unseen landfall. Over the course of weeks I tack back and forth against prevailing winds, triangulate my position by distant heads half-shrouded in fog, and note the highs and lows in the atmospheric pressure, all while my students constantly discuss the worthiness of their craft.

Substitute teaching, on the other hand, feels more like being dropped in the middle of the sea and told to swim until you can wade ashore.

My acquaintance Rory told me I had to take his class one day this week, as he was having his annual trepanning to let the demons out. Fine, I said, but you owe me. White toast or wheat? he asked in the diner where he took me for lunch.

I knew it would be fine. After more than a decade of teaching I have things I can do on short notice, and I remembered how, as grade school kids, we were thrilled to get substitutes. There was a delicious coercion we could bring to bear: Have fun with us, join us in our relief at reduced workload and our excitement in novelty, or else be prepared to do battle.

College students here, though, no longer think piratically, evidence that formal education borrows against the spirit in key ways. As I introduced myself, Rory’s students just looked at their laps, radiating their embarrassment for me. I gave them my biggest smile, the one that catches on my snaggletooth, and radiated right back: I’m an interesting guy, I know what I’m talking about, you can trust me: I make funny faces at babies in shopping carts; I feel bad for a fallen squirrel even though his cousins ate my roof; I cut my chicken patty in two to fit a stale hotdog bun, without being asked, so Mrs. Churm can have the last hamburger bun. That’s me.

All that was in my smile. And I’ve been jogging again lately, so I was feeling strong.

Rory expected me to start by talking about some book-length fiction and a collection of poetry I’d enjoyed recently, so I told them about the interview I did here last week with novelist Duff Brenna and read a short passage from his book. I talked about Maxine Kumin’s latest and read the title poem from Philip Levine’s News of the World. I’m wily enough that I’d sent around a sign-in sheet, instead of calling roll, so I could tell who was sitting where. After I’d asked several questions about their homework and they hadn’t volunteered answers, I called on them in patterns, just to keep it weird: Every other person, then every third; all those with glasses; male, female, female, male; school spirit clothing; the prime numbers.

To the packet material. I sweated and rolled up my sleeves, expecting students to engage at any moment. I did my whole bit. They laughed a little, then nothing. I brewed myself a cup of tea at the seminar table, cream and sugar, and gobbled a few finger sandwiches to keep my strength up as I lectured. Puzzled looks during a line reading of a microfiction, the glare of the overhead projector in my eyes; did that kid really shake his head no at me when I asked him to comment? As the sun sank behind the bookstore across the street I stepped behind a screen, still talking, and changed out of my hairshirt for more formal evening wear. I intended to make that lesson a fête, a ball, a soirée, if it killed me.

I taught Rory’s class so long that afternoon that my sons grew up, got their own degrees, and joined the American workforce. Seasons spun like a zoetrope. Transnational business empires crumbled, armies clashed by eternal night of deep space, the lonely solar winds blew across a devastated planet, and sand dunes covered the English Building. I blinked and looked at the clock on my cell phone. It said it was Autumn.

I was alive, to my surprise, and maybe even better, no longer a substitute teacher.


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