The sun was still sound asleep when the alarm let out its protest. I pulled myself from the belly of a mattress, showing more sag than this fifty-year-old body of mine. Colors dancing off the shadows of the dimly lit room, we had forgotten to set the timer on the TV: another commercial selling the latest gadget to throw up into the closet amongst the rest. Fumbling through the covers, I came upon the remote, quickly eliminating the annoyance. Five o’clock, hours before my wife would rise to the stench of thickening coffee. That would be my first stop, the coffee maker, too lazy to set the auto-brew the night before. Not much good without that extra kick in the morning: six cups and I’d be good-to-go, a major reduction since my last doctor’s visit. To the sound of the drip, I dragged myself to the shower in anxious preparation of my latest venture.
Some time ago, I had decided to go back to school and become a teacher. Oh, I’d like to say that it was for the love of children. I had always gotten along alright with the younger generation; kids were cool, in fact, I had one of my own. I was pretty sure I’d enjoy teaching, but honestly, I was seeking a respected profession, one in which there was a demand, where I could finish out my working debt to society. And the perks, oh my! Summers off, every holiday under the sun, and days that would end before the porch light went on. It was a far cry from the corporate world in which I was accustomed, hanging out in an office long enough to display good intentions, endless hours resulting in better spiffs for those at the top of the food chain. The bottom fish, on the other hand, were just like me; put on a façade of dedication, then head home to the significant other and bitch about the day. With fifteen years left before any hopes of retirement, I wanted to try something that the mere thought of Monday wasn’t ruining my Saturday.
It was a kick being back in college. I was actually enjoying education for a change. My first attempt at higher learning was back in my twenties. For two years, I had shuffled around taking pointless classes with little or no motivation. I exuded more energy in dropping them, as they conflicted with the card games in the pavilion. At that time, I just wanted to be a rock and roll musician and failed to see the importance in a degree. Anyway, the years sped quickly by before finally deciding to return to school.
Once I had gotten back into the swing of things, reading, writing, and arithmetic, I thought it might be a good idea to reinforce my decision to become a teacher by acclimating myself into the school system. I gave up my $50,000 per year job in order to become a substitute teacher at ten bucks an hour. I feel I had certainly established the fact that it’s not all about the money, but as I sit here asking my wife for pocket change, have to wonder what magic spell may have influenced my thinking at the time. In any case, good, bad, or indifferent, that was the mindset that led me down this path.
In order to achieve this new goal, it was necessary to take a two-day substitute-training course at the local community college. Following my registering, I couldn’t wait for the first day of class to arrive. I would finally get an insider’s prospective of what was in store for me: or so I thought. Rather than an educational experience, this turned out to be more of a boot-camp, designed to prepare soldiers for battle. The instructor was a twenty-year veteran teacher. A comical, middle-aged, black lady, she made the class both educational, as well as entertaining. She at least provided us with what not to do, in order to stay out of hot water, but her tenure in elementary school didn’t exactly prepare me for the hormonal effects on adolescence. However, I did obtain the ever-so-important credentials, and following the completion of this requirement, nervous, yet excited, I headed down to the school district office in order to register as a substitute.
Getting downtown early, in anticipation of long lines of people with the same aspirations as I, there was surprisingly no wait. With certificate in hand, along with letters of recommendation from anyone I knew who could write, I proudly walked right up to the clerk with my paperwork. After being shuffled around from room to room, with the modern technology of computerized fingerprinting, my background was checked in a matter of minutes. I asked the clerk how long the clearance procedure would take. She said, “You’re already cleared.” I don’t think they even read the letters. Well, at least that was out of the way, and the only thing left was the orientation: the what, how and when’s.
I attended this final, two-hour meeting a couple of weeks later on a Saturday. They informed me at that time that I could expect calls from their computerized, substitute teacher, resource center as early as Sunday evening. They also said that there was a critical shortage of substitutes and that I could anticipate staying relatively busy. This made me happy, as I would soon be able to pay at least the phone bill. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell the wife, I was an official county employee…sort of.
Sunday came and the phone would not stop ringing. Thank God I registered my cell phone as the number to contact, at least I could turn that off. I will never forget my wife saying, “There must be some kind of glitch in the system. You know how computers are.” Well, she was wrong; there was no glitch. For some reason, every school in the county had a number of teachers that, for whatever reason, couldn’t make it in the next day. I didn’t care if there was some hidden meaning behind this, it didn’t matter. All it meant was more opportunity for me.
With some loose ends to tie up first, I waited until Wednesday to begin this new endeavor, having made my selection of assignment on Monday evening from a long list of alternatives. That also gave me a chance to run down to the local office supply store, under the advisement of my substitute teacher training, in order to stock up on supplies: pens, pencils, paper, scissors, stapler, and yes…crayons, and “nice job!” stickers. Considering that I was planning to only substitute at middle and high schools, I don’t know what I was thinking when I approached the register with this junk. Anyway, I was well-prepared. I had my twenty-pound “bag of tricks”, and an assignment at Pine Ridge Middle School, seventh-grade English. The only thing left was to get there in my ’92 Volvo, which had been a tad-bit under the weather.
* * * * * * * * * *
I had been taught in training to show up thirty minutes before the beginning of school. Being a punctual individual, I did better than that. Nervous as ever, I pulled into the parking lot at 7:30 AM, jumped out of the car, grabbed my luggage and headed for the office forty-five minutes before the bell. That was to be my first lesson of the day. The computerized assignment from “sub-central” had already compensated for a forty-five minute window; school would begin at 9:00 AM. “Perfect!” I thought to myself, “This would give me time to sit in the office, gather my thoughts, appearing like an obvious rookie, and study the “Go Team Go!” posters on the walls.”
I was finally greeted by Cindy, the substitute coordinator; she seemed pleasant enough. “Hi Mr. Barnes,” she said, “Here’s your key; you are substituting for Mrs. Malakie in portable number 15.” “Great!” I replied, “I do have a couple of questions, however.” Attempting to appear as professional as possible, I continued, “Can you give me a clue as to where I might find the portables?” also, “what about attendance or any other procedures that I should be aware of?” As her smile slowly receded, obviously weary from the continual delivery of instructions to newcomers, Cindy proceeded to direct me to teachers’ planning, where I would find the attendance cards. She also assisted me by pointing south in the direction of the portables. “Thank you!” I returned. Remaining positive and upbeat, I was out the door, mission in hand, with at least a general idea of where I was going.
Room 148, teachers’ planning, lined in desks with privacy partitions, cluttered with stacks of boxes, books, and supplies, where people could literally bury themselves in their work. In the back of the room, adjacent to a table that would accommodate about ten diners, were the mailboxes. I was happy to find Mrs. Malakie’s but disappointed that it didn’t contain anything to do with attendance. Unflustered, I was off to the place where I would hang my hat for the day.
It was quite a hike to the portables, lined in a row along the well-kept grass of the soccer field. Up the ramp and to the door, the key worked, and I was excited to be opening the door to a new beginning: the world of education. Spirits high, I slowly entered, fumbling in the dark for a light switch. Instantly, the florescent fixtures illuminated the large room. I recall myself mumbling, “Ah….so this is what a classroom looks like!” Desks were lined up like little soldiers, surrounded by walls exhibiting an abundance of inspirational posters, classroom rules, and students’ artwork: lengthy ****ves held textbooks and an array of paperback novels. In the far corner was what appeared to be the teacher’s dwelling. “I must investigate…but first…the air conditioning. Where’s the switch?” Not sure whether it was the temperature or my anxious anticipation, but my forehead was already beginning to display beads of sweat, slowly trickling down my face. Mission accomplished, as the compressor kicked in, I made my way over to Malakie’s domain.
Beneath the books, papers, file folders, tissue, and clutter, I saw what resembled a wood surface. The desk was nestled amongst stacks of more books, papers, and whatnot, rising from the floor. “Not Suzy-homemaker,” I whispered. Plopping myself down onto the small, dusty, rolling office chair, I came across the telephone. I, however, didn't find any list of extensions to call in the event of an emergency. On my own, but not overly concerned, I searched for a bell schedule and some sort of lesson plan. Having found the first item, I noted, three fifty-five minute classes, with a five minute passing time between them, a thirty-minute lunch, then three more classes finishing out the day. Not bad, but therein lay the next very valuable lesson. With the time before the first class rapidly depleting, a hundred yards or so away from the employee restroom, those six cups of coffee were beginning to apply pressure on my bladder. “This could be a real problem!” I glanced around for a Styrofoam cup with no success. Attempting to ignore the physical symptoms, I stumbled upon a sheet of torn notebook paper, the teacher’s SOS, with the hurried etchings in black magic marker: her lesson for the day.
She had written, “Do the Opener using the overhead,” whatever that was! “Pass out the article on the history of rubber,” if I could only find it! “And, have them answer the summary questions on their own paper, reviewing them at the end of class.” Sitting there puzzled, tugging on what few hairs I had left, beginning to sweat more profusely, the first bell rang. Up, like a bolt, I hit the door, holding it open as I had been trained. Smile on my face, awaiting the mass of kids slowly approaching, I stood there; decked out in my dress shoes, Dockers, and sport shirt…with a big red bull’s-eye on my chest.
“Cool! Substitute!” they shouted, arms stretched upward for a “high-five”. They were right; I was a pretty cool dude. How did they somehow know that already? “Don’t run!” I called out, looking inside the doorway at the youngsters in chase, “Find a seat!” The final bell rang as the last few stragglers dragged themselves in, slumping into their seats. “Can we watch a movie?” they yelled, seemingly a unanimous request. At this point, I didn’t know, as I still didn’t have a clue of how I was going to occupy their time over the next hour.
That hour would seem like an eternity. By the end of the period, I had thrown up the white flag, retreated to my corner, some animated movie playing in the VCR. I was green, and they knew it. With animal instincts, they could sense the fear that I had so desperately tried to camouflage. During the second period, though, I had found at least one helpful assistant. She showed me how to work the overhead, where the handouts were kept, and when attendance was handled. By the end of my third circus act, not being one for breakfast, I was starving. Having seen a McDonalds nearby, after a quick trip to the bathroom, I hurried to the car.

With fingers crossed, the Volvo cranked right up. I managed around the bends and curves of the parking lot to the exit. Directly at eye level, attached to the closed chain-link gate, was a large sign that read, “This Gate Will Remain Locked Between the Hours of 9:00 A.M. and 3:00 P.M.” Bewildered, with cramps in my stomach, I slowly proceeded back to my little nightmare.
As the day progressed, I gained more skills and knowledge, and by the final period, actually had the students on task before finally resorting to movie-time. I spent the majority of my shift wandering up and down the aisles, dodging flying objects, attempting to locate the ground crews responsible for their launch.
Ah…the final bell, “Slow down!” I caught myself saying, as if they were going to begin listening to me now. Everyone out the door, I grabbed my bag, hit the light switch, my feet weary from the hard-soled shoes, and slowly limped back to the main office. I signed out, grabbed my time-slip, and proceeded to the parking lot.
Finally resting my feet, cranking up the AC, I nudged my Volvo into the long line of cars: parents picking up their precious cargo. At this point, I began to evaluate the day’s failures and successes, the latter being easy to tally, as there were no successes, other than pure survival. On the way home, licking my wounds, I began to reminisce and long for the corporate world, which I had so hastily abandoned. Nevertheless, I was determined not to let them defeat me. I would be back, but it would take some time for me to climb back up onto the horse that had bucked me. “I won’t be coming back here for a while,” I thought. “I wonder what high school is like.”