When I was twenty-eight I spent a grand total of five and a half days substitute teaching for my alma mater—the Cumberland County Public School System in Cumberland County, Virginia. Cumberland, as one of my friends likes to put it, is country with a capital K. Cows, fields. No stoplights. The closest 7-Eleven is over an hour away.
Subbing was the latest in a string of part-time jobs I’d had since dropping out of grad school, which I supposedly did to write a novel. I’d been a dishwasher, a farmhand, and—last but not least—a houseboy for a retired gay couple who liked to lounge around their living room in thongs. All of these possible careers I found through the classifieds, which is how I also found the call for substitute teachers. Fifty dollars a day, the ad said. Make your own schedule. The job sounded perfect, and perfectly thong-free, so off I went to the orientation.
Held in my elementary school’s cafeteria, the orientation consisted of an hour-long presentation by Dr. Joyce Wheeler, the school’s Director of Personnel. A tall, hefty woman wearing a gigantic red hair bow with her charcoal dress suit, Dr. Wheeler spent most of the orientation walking among the tables, hands behind her back, repeating the three things we needed to keep in mind to be successful subs:
“C. Y. A,” Dr. Wheeler told us. “Cover. Your. Butt. Cover your butt,” she explained, “and you’ll never find yourself in my office on the wrong end of a lawsuit.”
The other people at the orientation—mostly housewives, as far as I could tell—wrote this down like they were back in school, but all I did was stare out the window, thinking of that fifty dollars a day. Fifty dollars a day!
This was going to be the best part-time job I ever had.
I started a few weeks later, on a Friday, covering for a middle school teacher who was leaving early for a dentist’s appointment. Walking across campus to her room, I reminded myself of the plan I’d come up with since the orientation—my own plan for subbing success, which had nothing to do with C. Y. A.
In my plan, I was going to be the laid-back sub, the friendly sub, the cool sub—that rare, mythological creature on par with the unicorn. Faced with my unexpected appearance, the kids would have no choice but to treat me with awe and respect, even if I didn’t wear a hair bow.
The room that day turned out to be my seventh grade Earth Science room, where I once learned about shifting tectonic plates, how diamonds form, and crafted a paper mache volcano that spurted cherry Kool-Aid. Fifteen years later a poster claiming Virginia is for Readers! had replaced the map of the solar system, and plastic stalactites no longer hung from the ceiling, but otherwise the room was the squat, fluorescent-lit rectangle I remembered.
I stepped in after a quick knock, aware of thirty-some adolescent faces turning toward me. As planned, I gave them time to whisper over my bowling shirt and khakis, generous hair product, and latest pair of Doc Martin knockoffs before sauntering up to the much older and pitifully unhip woman I was replacing—who, between efforts at telling the class to settle down, explained to me that the students had a reading assignment that would keep them busy for the next hour or so, until the bell rang for the pep rally.
“Ooh,” I said, looking out at the class. “A pep rally, huh?”
“Okay, that’s enough,” the teacher frowned when the students giggled. “It’s not like yall’ve never seen a substitute before.”
I sat on the teacher’s desk once she was gone, and one by one the kids closed their books and pushed their own desks together, starting to talk. A few glanced at me, worried, but I just nodded, understanding that part of being a cool sub was embracing my lack of authority. I couldn’t tell them what to do. “All I ask,” I ended up announcing, “is that we keep the chaos contained. We don’t want the other classes to get jealous, right?”
Someone shouted “Cool!” at that, and the volume level bumped up from a hum to a throb. My plan, it seemed, was working.
For the next thirty minutes I sat there on the desk, chatting with a group of polite, nerdy girls in the front row whom I began to think of as my fan club. Five in all, they grinned at me, heads propped on their hands, as I told them about growing up here in Cumberland and going off to college and my plans to write a novel, which got me a few more cools in addition to an awesome. “I want to write a book too!” my most unfortunate fan—a girl with braces and a scar on her chin—said. “That’s so weird!”
I agreed it was weird, and was starting to tell her about my equally weird experience of going off to (and dropping out of) grad school, when a hand rose near the center of the room. It belonged to a cherubic, light-skinned girl in a T-shirt decorated with the Cumberland mascot—an armored duke on a horse, toting a massive quill instead of a lance. Saying “excuse me” to my fellow writer, whose horizons I was no doubt expanding, I gestured to the hand.
“Yes, um, Mr. Smith?” the student belonging to the hand said. “Can I ask you something personal?”
I couldn’t believe this young woman wanted to know something about me too. “What’s your name?”
“Angel,” she beamed, and I gestured again, as gracious as the Pope.
“Well,” she began, head cocked. “You talk kinda funny, you know? Are you, um, gay?”
A strong sense of déjà vu came over me at the sound of those words—so strong it was like a heavy blanket dropped over my head. I knew I’d been asked this same question before, in this same tone, in this same room.
By the time I crawled out from under this feeling, paper filled the air, shrieks filled my ears, and desks were toppling to the floor. Even my fan club was getting in on it, swatting at each other with pastel notebooks. Then the bell rang, and with a communal roar of “Pep rally!” the kids took off, leaving me blinking around at the junk heap that, less than an hour ago, had been a neat and orderly room.
Over the weekend, I couldn’t get Angel out of my head no matter what I tried to do. I read half a book, listened to music, watched a movie, and still, there she was, raising her hand in the center of the room and asking that question. “Mr. Smith? You talk kinda funny, you know? Are you, um, gay?”
I first heard this question back in seventh grade, as Friday’s bout of déjà vu so happily reminded me. The twelve year-old me asked a fellow student for a strip of newspaper to add to my paper mache volcano, and what I got instead was the question. “You talk kinda funny,” the other kid said, his face screwed up as if he smelled something. “You gay?”
This classmate, whose name was Leroy Jenkins, was a pudgy, red-headed boy with freckles so round they could’ve been drawn on with a stencil. Having no idea what Leroy’s question meant, or how I could be talking funny, I stared at his freckles and shrugged it off—or thought I did, at least, until the question began to reappear.
To be honest, I never understood what about my voice made people wonder about me. Was it too melodic, maybe? (I did like to sing.) Or did it have a more subtle feminine characteristic that I just couldn’t hear? Even in high school, after my voice dropped an octave, all I had to do was say a few words and somebody would more often than not ask the question, which always got delivered the same way: A curious “are you” for starters, followed by that heavy “um” and overtly italicized gay.
The best I could tell people at the time, not that I ever would have, was “maybe.” I was a college senior before I knew for sure, and once I did, I promised myself that the next time somebody asked the question I’d use my tell-tale voice to say, “Yes, I am gay. You got a problem with it?”
At some point over the weekend I tried saying this to Angel when she appeared, snapping in Z formation as I did, but it brought no satisfaction. The moment of truth had come and gone, and instead of standing there like a man I’d gone blank-faced and slack-jawed, a teenager again.
I started keeping my journal on Monday morning while subbing for a tenth grade Home Economics class, using a small, spiral-bound notebook I found on the floor, empty except for the word MATH scrawled across its purple cover.
The teacher hadn’t left a lesson plan—no surprise—so keeping the journal at least gave me something to do while the students talked, and I certainly had something to write about. Why on earth was I here? Why was I putting myself through this? It was a complete mystery, and I hoped this journal would help me puzzle it out.
Over the course of that class period I made sure to write down everything, no matter how trivial. I wrote about the faint buzz of the overhead fluorescents, the omnipresent smell of pencil shavings, and the suggestive book titles on the shelf next to me: Experiences with Clothing; The Meat We Eat; The Secrets of Happy Families. I also wrote how, close to midway through the period, a shorthaired girl in overalls got up from her desk and began moving around to each of her classmates, whispering something into their ears that caused them to look at me with their own renditions of Leroy Jenkins’ screwed-up face.
The tomboyish girl was the last to leave after the bell, and when she called out to me—“Bye, gay dude!”—I wrote that down too, happy to have another specimen, another clue.
Journal entry, written later that day in the library:
I just met the strangest lady! Another sub, who was sitting at this table with me—a tiny, feeble woman whose name, she told me, was Ms. “K.” When I asked what the K stood for, she smiled and said not to worry about it, that no one could pronounce it anyway. Then, after a quick glance around, she scooted her chair a little closer and filled me in on her story.
She used to work for the government, she said, in a position she was no longer at liberty to disclose. Highly educated, proficient in several languages, she knew that after her government job ended she could easily get a job in education, but felt that, with her history, she was better off not staying in one place very long. That’s how she started subbing, she explained. She could work a few weeks here, a few weeks there, then move on, no questions asked, if anything suspicious happened. “As a sub,” Ms. K told me, her voice taking on an accent of the Eastern European variety, “you are, vat is de vurd, invisible. A ghost. As a sub,” she confided, leaning closer, “you—are nuttink!”
Journal entry, Tuesday morning, ninth grade Biology class:
I had the most bizarre dream last night. In it, I was back in school again with everyone I’d gone to school with, only they were still teenagers and I was the age I am now. Then the bell rang, and we were all in Mrs. Jamerson’s class, and she was telling us about this mammoth paper we had to write on Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. I asked to be excused from the assignment since I graduated ten years ago, after all, and Mrs. Jamerson gave me a nod and one of her little Mona Lisa smiles and said, “Oh no, Dale. You do have to write this. Write this, and you’ll be done.”
Journal entry, Wednesday afternoon, fifth period Algebra II class:
Walking back from lunch earlier I spotted the tomboy from Home Ec class, whispering again, this time into the ear of a teacher. The two of them glanced at me, laughed, moved on—and as awful as it sounds I realized at that moment why those school shootings take place sometimes.
I’d never do anything like that, of course, but if I did, I wouldn’t need guns. Like Stephen King’s Carrie, I could level this entire place—buildings, sidewalks, busses and all—with the force of my mind alone.
The next day, Thursday, I was back at the middle school with a whole new look. Gone was my fun, youthful attire that should’ve made anyone want to know me and wish they were my friend. In its place were dull tan slacks and a somber blue sport jacket, light blue dress shirt and green silk tie, and the brown loafers I never wore except at weddings and funerals. Hair gel was still apparent, but much less generously applied, and used in the service of a side part so severe it could’ve doubled as a carpenter’s level.
The class that day—eighth grade Civics—was in a (blissfully!) memory-free room in the former vo-tech building, over on the edge of campus. I headed straight for the desk when I got there and plopped down the stack of neon yellow office referral forms I’d picked up on the way. Around twenty or so students had arrived by this time, and as their eyes moved from me to the forms and back again, I squinted and crossed my arms, doing my best to invoke my new persona: The strict, no nonsense, scary sub.
This Civics teacher, God bless her, had left a lesson plan on the board, and as a result the class and I had something to do for the next fifty-five minutes besides stare at each other. We had a chapter about voting practices to read aloud—or rather, the students read the chapter while I helped them along with the vocabulary—in addition to a follow up worksheet designed to keep everyone busy until the bell rang.
And thanks to my new persona or the lesson plan, or some combination of the two, or simply the fact I was no longer a new face, the entire period passed without generating any material for my journal, which sat on call in my jacket pocket. Second and third periods proved uneventful too, and while the post-lunch crowd was a bit rambunctious—someone in fourth period asked what brand of personal lubricant I used—a quick display of an office referral form, held above my head, brought such behavior to an end.
Not long after fifth period began, however, as I was walking among the rows, helping kids sound out terms like Electoral College and legislature, something crashed near the front of the room. Turning, I found two desks on the floor, as well as two African American students—a boy and a girl, their legs entwined. “Up off the floor!” I ordered, pointing at the forms on the desk, and with an “alright, alright” from the boy, and a weak “Michael did it!” from the girl, and some laughter from the class at large, the two got back on their feet, righted their desks, and we returned to our chapter.
Later, after I passed out the worksheets and was sitting at attention at the teacher’s desk, the boy who’d fallen down—Michael—stepped up to me. With his weight shifting back and forth, and no real eye contact, he asked if he could go get some ice for Saketra’s foot. (Saketra, apparently, was the girl who’d fallen down.) Rolling my wheeled chair off to the right, I spied the supposedly in-need Saketra with her head on her desk, her worksheet folded in half beside her, chatting away with a friend. Rolling back, I suggested Michael return to his seat, finish his assignment, and let Saketra take care of herself.
When the bell rang, and the kids got up to leave, I noticed that Saketra was walking with what might have been—what might have been—a very slight limp. Her gait evened out once she hoisted her back pack higher up on her shoulder, though, and I wondered if the limp was just a balance issue. Textbooks can be heavy, after all.
From one of the room’s tall windows, collected papers in hand, I watched as Saketra appeared, then disappeared, then appeared again in the mass of students heading toward the busses, her bright pink back pack making her easy to follow. At moments her rhythm seemed off, but I couldn’t be sure, and the smile she kept flashing, obvious even from here, certainly didn’t give the impression she felt any pain. But in keeping with my new persona, who did in fact follow the tenants of C.Y.A., I reported the incident to the middle school principal before leaving campus.
As I learned at my orientation, the principals at Cumberland prided themselves on being available to students and faculty, and at the end of the day you could always find them in either their offices or monitoring busses. On this day I found Mrs. Hurt, the middle school principal, at her desk. A squat, hefty woman in a pinstriped dress suit, she nodded as I told my story, jotted down Michael’s and Saketra’s names, and thanked me for coming by.
“I’m sure everything’s fine, Mr. Smith,” Mrs. Hurt said, standing to shake my hand, and that’s when I saw the bright red hair bow, like something out of Disney’s Pollyanna, sitting on the book shelf behind her.
That night, in my journal, I wrote:
Hefty women with hair bows are taking over the world, and no one is even noticing.
On my last day, Friday, I subbed for an eleventh grade English class held in the same room where I’d taken journalism—one of the few high school classes I enjoyed. Instead of a lesson plan the teacher had left a note suggesting I turn the class into a study hall, and while this was fine for the first twenty minutes or so, during which I patrolled the rows with a referral form, it became tedious once I sat at the desk. I attempted to break the monotony by writing in my journal, but other than Friday, study hall, a few kids reading, at least three sleeping, I had nothing to say.
Second period passed by much the same, but in third all I could do was think about lunch. Then lunch came and went in a matter of seconds, and I was back in the room, facing fourth period. I delivered my study hall announcement in what sounded like the muffled voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher, and after a halfhearted row patrol I returned to my desk, aware of the afternoon sun warming my back and stretching out across the floor.
Although a few of the students were indeed studying, most stared glassy-eyed into space or put their heads down. One—a skinny guy with a crew cut, near the center of the room—had his head thrown back, mouth open, his eyes rolling under half-closed lids. We’re all zombies, I wrote, my pen feeling heavy enough to break my hand. We’re all sitting here, waiting—praying—for the bell to ring. I haven’t been this miserable in years. I haven’t been this miserable since I was in high school.
And just like that, with the writing of that last sentence, I understood why I was here. The reason had a sense of rightness I hadn’t experienced since I first kissed another guy, and with an energy I didn’t know I had I hunched over my journal and scribbled it down.
Dullness, boredom, inertia, I wrote—they were the worst things about high school! All this time I thought it was the “are you?” question, but really it was these afternoons with the sun stretching out across the floor…
I could avoid the question if I wanted to—all I had to do was keep my mouth shut—but I couldn’t avoid these long awful days, and still can’t…
The crew cut guy startled awake, knocking his back pack from his desk to the floor, and as he blinked around the room I continued to write.
The question was minor compared to this. A buzzing mosquito, a bee sting. Okay—probably more like a snake bite, from a baby cottonmouth maybe, but still…
Crew Cut got his back pack on his desk again, dropped his head down on it, and hugged it like a pillow.
That’s why I was here—to figure this out—and I get it now. I get it!
I came home that afternoon to find a message from the school’s Director of Personnel, Dr. Joyce Wheeler, on the answering machine. She wanted me to call her as soon as possible and let her know, in my own words, what happened in my classroom on Thursday.
I took off my sport jacket and folded it over the back of a kitchen chair, catching my journal when it fell from the inside pocket. I then grabbed a beer from the fridge, the cordless phone off its base, and sat at the table to call Dr. Wheeler, who answered on the second ring even though it was past five o’clock.
She immediately asked about Thursday, and after a swig of beer and a deep breath I told her about hearing the crash, seeing the kids on the floor, and having them get back in their desks. I also described Saketra’s possible limp after the bell, and how I reported everything to Mrs. Hurt, the middle school principal, before I left campus.
“Mrs. Hurt didn’t seem concerned,” I told her, fingers tapping the cover of my journal.
“Is that it?” Dr. Wheeler asked, and when I said it was, she told me that all sounded fine and good, and similar to what she’d heard from Mrs. Hurt, but due to Saketra Jackson’s broken foot I needed to file a written report.
“A broken foot?” I said. “I’ve had a broken foot. You can’t walk like that with a broken foot.”
“Your written report should detail the incident, as well as your response to it,” Dr. Wheeler continued. “It would be best if you could get it to me on Monday morning. Thank you, Mr. Smith.”
I tossed the phone over to the couch when she hung up, took another swig of beer, and laughed. Here I was, twenty-eight years old, essentially being summoned to the principal’s office.
I waited until late Sunday evening to write my report, and when I did, it was so sarcastic, with me making so much fun of the fact I’d been given an “assignment,” that I knew I couldn’t hand it in to Dr. Wheeler. So I scrapped it and started over, this time writing a more black-and-white play-by-play of the incident—and that’s when things got difficult.
When writing about ordering the kids to get up, I was struck by how harsh I sounded. The two of them had just crashed to the floor, bringing their desks along with them, and I didn’t even ask if they were alright. And when writing about Saketra’s limp, I felt ashamed that I hadn’t called out to her before she left the room.
“You okay, Saketra?” I could’ve said. “Something wrong with your foot?”
What had stopped me from showing any concern, of course, was my anger at the students—not at these two in particular, but at the student body in general. I tried explaining that in my report, and detailing some of the behavior I’d written about in my journal, but on a later read-through I decided it was all too embarrassing and not what Dr. Wheeler wanted anyway. So I made myself keep only to the facts, offering no explanations, and kicked myself for letting the kids get to me.
In the end, in the final, non-sarcastic version of my report, I also took out the part about not letting Michael go get some ice. Taking that out wasn’t exactly lying, but I knew I wasn’t telling the whole truth, either.
“Unfortunately, we have to put you on probation until further notice,” Dr. Wheeler said as she took my report on Monday morning. “This means no more substituting until the school board reviews the situation. I apologize for the inconvenience, but probation is the norm in these cases.”
Although I’d expected such news—and, in fact, was relieved by it—I still didn’t enjoy being treated as a lesser-than, especially after writing two versions of my report and making a special drive into school to deliver it. “Aren’t you even going to read what I wrote?”
Dr. Wheeler stared at me over her glasses, I wrote later, in what would be my last journal entry, before inviting me into her office with a held-out arm, her shaking head letting me know this invite wasn’t a welcome one.
Dr. Wheeler’s office was similar to the middle school principal’s, only with a few more bookshelves and a painting of a generic farm scene on the wall. Two low-backed leather chairs faced her desk, and I sat in one of these, my sport jacket tugged down and legs crossed, as she read through my report.
Her hair bow was blue, I also noted in that last entry, but otherwise a mirror image of her red one, and just as much at odds with her dress suit. Where does she buy these things, I wonder?
She turned my report face down when she finished it, nudged it off to the right, and laced her fingers together. “I’ll give you this much, Mr. Smith,” she began, considering me again over her glasses, “you were on the right track by going to the principal, but that wasn’t going far enough. When you saw Saketra walking with that limp you needed to stop her, right there. We would’ve held up her bus while the nurse looked her over, and we would’ve taken her to the hospital if necessary.”
Face warming, I watched Dr. Wheeler sit back against her own chair—a high-backed one, also leather, with padded arm rests.
“I know it’s difficult to put students first,” she said, her arms on the rests, “especially when they treat you so…unpleasantly, but they’re still children, after all, and during the day they’re our responsibility.”
Her “unpleasantly” was what did it, I think, and the way she lifted her eyebrow when she said it. I just couldn’t let her get away with that.
My eyes on hers, I reached into my jacket’s inside pocket, pulled out my spiral-bound journal, flipped it open, and balanced it on my knee. “How long have you been working here, Dr. Wheeler?” I asked, reaching back into my pocket for a pen, which I made a show of clicking into action.
“What are you doing?”
“Wheeler isn’t a familiar name. I don’t think you’re from Cumberland, are you?”
“Where I’m from has—”
“Hey,” I said, “just curious. Have any other subs been on the receiving end of the same type of unpleasantness that I got?”
“Listen, Mr. Smith,” Dr. Wheeler told me, “I’m aware that you’re upset, and I’m sorry. But if you’d like to continue this conversation you’ll have to make an appointment. Thank you for your report,” she said, standing. “I will share it with the school board.”
I wrote down her last few comments, big enough so she could see, before returning the journal and pen to my pocket. I gave her a raised eyebrow of my own after I stood, then turned and walked out the door, which she’d left open. I nodded at the grey-haired receptionist in the office foyer, and moments later I was out on the sidewalk, passing by the occasional student on the way to my car.
Another job ended today, I’d write in a few hours, when starting my last entry. But, on a happier note, I think I finally graduated from high school.
Photo By: Matthew Paulson