On Substitutes: A Collage
Robert Wilder | Teaching
My students have a hard time accepting substitutes. It doesn’t matter if the stand-in has a Ph.D. in literature from Harvard or spent the week preparing, the kids always find something wrong with the sub. “He’s mean,” they’ll tell me upon my return, or “She was weird,” or “He spoke funny,” or “He hated us”. I used to think the collective cold shoulder was because teenagers are close-minded and unforgiving. Now I realize it’s their complicated way of telling me that they missed me while I was gone.
My daughter Poppy had a substitute in elementary school who was missing part of his finger. Everyone referred to him as “the stubstitute” as if that was his given name.
My students refuse to learn subs’ true names. The last one in my class was a retired schoolteacher and they called him “bow-tie man” or “The Monopoly guy”.
Subs with props like guitars, puppets, or magic tricks scare the hell out of me.
Charlie Baxter has, in my mind, the best story about substitute teachers out there called “Gryphon”. In it, Ms. Ferenczi (the sub) is a mythic character who impacts Mr. Hibler’s class in strange and unexpected ways. I often fantasize about being a sub like Ms. Ferenczi, no responsibilities other than to entertain and get to really know the kids. No grades, parent conferences, faculty meetings but then I realize that a) subs don’t get paid shit, b) subs are treated like shit (mostly), and c) I am not a mythical kind of guy. As a coincidental aside, our school’s mascot is the griffin.
As a teenager I loved the song “Substitute” by The Who but realize the song holds very little meaning for me and may be a tad misogynistic: “Substitute me for him/Substitute my coke for gin/Substitute you for my mum/At least I’ll get my washing done.”
When I was in junior high, my geometry teacher died and my friend’s mom subbed for a few weeks. You’d think she would have gotten a break. She didn’t.