Just Another Crazy Old Substitute Teacher

Jim Pines walked the room with a pretend air of authority, and wondered how much longer he could fake it.

Then he heard it. Swearing and vulgarity were nothing new to Jim Pines. But honest self-assessments from high school kids were.

Please show understanding of the color wheel, hues and
shades in a non-stupid way, please.  
"I'm such a slut....No seriously.  I seriously have a problem. I meet a guy and before I know it, we are having sex," said the dark haired girl in the back of the classroom.  She could've been Latina, but she wasn't.  Amelia, or was it Jessica, Mr. Pines thought, as he fumbled around in the back stock room where the more expensive art supplies were kept.  Why is she divulging this information so freely? Is this a new way for girls to brag? I'm seriously out of touch... He grabbed some large pieces of card stock from a bin and loudly exited the small room.  Amelia (or Jessica's) table quickly changed the subject and laughed--not realizing the teacher was in such close proximity.  Mr. Pines barely glanced their way and gave the card stock to the boy patiently waiting.

The kids liked Mr. Pines enough, and he YouTubed the curriculum enough to be a passable substitute teacher, but he wasn't the real deal, and students played on that notion like they toy with mall cops.  

If teachers wore their certification on their lapel, like a badge, the kid's would've said, "Oh that's nice, Mr. Pines, they let you wear one of those even though you aren't a real teacher."  

I hate chalkboards too, Bart.  
But overall, they weren't that cruel, and he wasn't that naive.  One false move, and the class would probably all be on their cell phones...not planning a bank heist.  Disassociated, not undisciplined, was the correct put-down for this generation.  They just don't care about anything...was the generalization that many other teachers would say.  But, of course, like all great generalizations, that only referred to a minority of the classroom.  Most want order, interesting lessons, and relevant activities...and making that happen, Mr. Pines knew, was easier said than done.  

Mr. Pines was also out of his element. A science teacher by trade, long-term substituting in an art classroom for a teacher on sabbatical.  Sometimes he would talk about colors, like green, and start explaining chloroplasts and how the light spectrum is absorbed into plants, leaving green as the observable light...and look up to see that the class was nodding their heads not in agreement, but in an attempt to stay awake. 

Mr. Pines was hip enough to quickly edit his lesson, and go into an Adam Sandler voice, "You got Chlorophyll Man up there talking about God knows what and all she can talk about is making out with me. I'm here to learn, everybody, not to make out with you. Go on with the chlorophyll."

Some of the kids knew the reference, others were grossed out and more confused then ever.  Mr. Pines, like many substitute teachers, would often amend a boring lesson plan with quips, or jokes.  Sometimes the "real" teacher's lesson, if totally bad, could get tossed for an hour of story telling or discussions. Kids liked to distract Mr. Pines, and Mr. Pines liked to be distracted.

Substituting was, however, on his terms...he could choose a job, or deny it, and he didn't have to teach to any test or set curriculum, or have administration or parents breathing down his back.  Not like they did when he was a real teacher. It (being a real teacher) didn't work out, he'd like to say. But he did miss the influence he had on students, back when he paid dues. The students who said he was the reason they went to college, or helped them understand a difficult concept, or he helped them through a tough year, or made them laugh when things were crappy at home.  That's why he got his teaching license.

So he still had empathy for the students, despite the career misfortunes that had befallen him.

And students, for whatever reason, talk openly to substitute teachers. Like a temporal counselor, a priest in another town, a teacher-confidant, a 1-800 anonymous support group...they share gossip, spill the beans on other teachers, talk crap about coaches, spew venom on clique groups throughout the building, talk about their messed up home life...

"Remember guys, I am a mandatory reporter...anything you say that can be considered abuse, I have to report to the authorities..." He'd often say to protect himself from truths he didn't want to hear.

"Oh yeah...I forget you are a teacher sometimes," they'd say back.

Great. Great. He thought. I'm a joke to them.  

"So do you think I should fight him;...You think he's cheating on me;...Do you think this teacher was in the wrong;...Is my mom mental;..."  All in a day's work of impossible to answer questions from kids trying to avoid the worksheet or activity in front of them.

But at least in art class, the kids were busy making art.  Sure, most of it sucked.  But they were being creative and taking chances that the core classes no longer had room to incorporate with all the testing rigor.  And they chatted while they drew, or painted, or sculpted, and it was a nice change from forcing kids to read out of the textbook, Jim thought.

But it wasn't a health class.

Jim, like any secondary teacher, wasn't naive to the fact that kids were sexually active.  Every year there were a handful of girls getting pregnant, and other couples full on making out in hall ways.  When Jim saw these couples he would make a throw-up sound. It was fun to tease the kids about their "relationships," but deep down, every teacher hopes those couples aren't attempting to procreate.

Jim went back to his roll sheet.  It was Amelia, and she was a freshman.  A FRESHMAN!

Jim thought of his grade school daughters, and the words that they would freely associate with themselves: dancer, artist, princess, softball player... they were just a few short years away from being 15 themselves.  His chest hurt.

It's not your fault. She's not your daughter. She's barely even your student. Let it go. Do you care how many people a 25-year-old woman, or guy, has been with? 

"Yes I do care!" Jim said out loud.  A few curious eyes drifted off their color wheel assignment and towards him..."Sorry, just got a little miffed at this email from the district...go back to your work."

Why do you care? he thought. Because she's 15, and I can understand "not a virgin," but a "slut?" Because it should be meaningful. Because she deserves love.  She probably doesn't know love from home. Because God loves her even she doesn't know it. Because sex is important! Because self-esteem!  

But he knew he couldn't say any of that to her.  He knew her counselor wouldn't say any of that to her. And her parents, whatever they consisted of, had never relayed any of that to her.

The chaos in the room rose to a loud roar as papers were stuffed into backpacks or binders, the bell would soon follow.

"Can we leave early so I can hit the snack shack?" said the constantly hungry teen boy stereotype.

 "Yeah," he barely heard himself reply.

The class left as if their political candidate had just won an election, and Mr. Pines slumped in his chair, and almost immediately started crying. Their lives...their lives are so chaotic and filled with disillusionment and hate and meaninglessness and escapism.  He hadn't even known her name with certainty before the class started.

God help her. I don't know how, but God help her...He uttered between tears.  An 8th period student walked in early, saw the tears on his cheeks, his eyes clenched and quickly shut the door.  He heard through the exterior wall as she said, "Mr. Pines is having a breakdown!"

Haha...he chuckled. A breakdown. Another thing to add to the list.


A nice evening at home with his family, a movie and a bowl of popcorn couldn't shake the yucky feeling, though.  So he wrote her a note to stay after class and talk about her grade.  

"What's up Mr. Pines?" Amelia said after he dismissed the class early again.  

"Well, I'm missing the principles of art assignment from you, just wondering when you're going to turn that in..." 

"Oh yeah...it's almost done.  Can I turn it in on Monday." 


"Is that all?" she asked...itching to get out of the room.  

"Um...well, no.  How are things at home?"  

"What? Fine, I guess.  My mom's a drunk, but that's no newsflash."  

"I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"Whatever...it's no big deal..."  

"Yeah it is...I'm sorry...also...I heard what you were saying the other day at the table..." 

"Hmmm...what was I talking about?" She sheepishly replied, realizing the moment.

"Well, I just wanted to say..."

"Oh gawd...you aren't going to say that Jesus loves me or something...haha...save it.  I'm fine.  I know what I'm doing. Gawd this is soooo embarrassing, can I go now?"  

"Look...I'm sorry...it's just...I'm a parent, and I don't know what your mom may or may not have said, but there's so much to relationships, and..."  

"I made it up...most of it.  I made it up...okay...Can I go now?"

"Look Amelia, I'll be gone next week, and then you'll maybe never see me again as a teacher, but I think you should know..." 

"What...oh Gawd...don't say you love me...that's..." 

"No...don't...don't do that...Don't get defensive. I was just going to say that sex and love are two completely different things. And neither is bad, just that unconditional love is incredibly freeing..."  

"Okay...well awesome talk Teach..."  

"And get that Principles of Art assignment turned in...and...and...Jesus does love you."  

"Okay...what?  Oh, haha...you're funny Mr. Pines." But as she looked closer she realized that Mr. Pines was not, in fact, joking.  

"Oh...uh...bye..." She hesitated, as if knocked off-kilter by a left hook, and then exited the room.  

He heard her through the walls say to her friends who had been waiting outside, "Well that was awkward!"  

"Oh well, it's just a crazy substitute."  

"Yeah, Yeah...but Mr. Pines is alright, even if he is crazy."  she said.  


  1. I think this is my favorite of your short stories. Very believable, the characterizations and the dialogue. It pulled me in and I was engaged all the way through. Good one.

  2. You nailed the subbing world and all that comes with it. Even if this didn't come from exact experience, it's completely realistic. Kids do listen to subs and take in what they tell them...more so in conversations than lessons. As hard as subbing is, I know you're doing a great job. Those kids are lucky to have you.

    1. Thanks Erica. We who have endured. We who have endured.