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Essay

Your Child's Sub

The creation reveals the creator, especially to a substitute teacher

November 13, 2005|Valerie Schultz | Valerie Schultz is a writer living in Tehachapi.

I am a sub, neither a sandwich nor an undersea vessel, but the person in your child's classroom when the teacher is absent. I'm the substitute. You don't know me, but I know a lot about you from your child. Your child is a mirror, a sponge, a parrot. Your child is the best and the worst of you.

You would be surprised by the things your child tells me, things that you assume stay in the family. Like the lemon of a car you sold to the gardener's friend, who doesn't speak English and is here illegally. Like the clipped length of time between your oldest daughter's wedding and the arrival of your first grandchild, and how funny it was at the church when you kept telling her to "suck in." Like your his-and-her tummy tucks.

But usually I know more about you by your child's actions than by anything I'm told.

I know if it mattered to you to teach the basic please-and-thank-you manners when your child was small. If manners haven't become automatic by the time I meet your child, it's too late.

I know the value you place on a good education if your teenager remembers to bring a pencil to school. I know if your high school senior falls asleep during the short film on how a bill becomes law in the California Legislature because he was working late last night at In-N-Out Burger. "I owe my dad rent and car insurance," he says, explaining both his fatigue and his need for steady income. Is it even legal to charge your kid rent?

I know if you respect the teaching profession by the way your child greets me. Or doesn't. By the way I must tell your son every five minutes to remove his Dodger cap. By the way your daughter threatens to sue me when I ask her to stop discussing last night's episode of "The OC."

I know that you are a schmoozer by the way your son tries to sweet-talk me out of following the real teacher's lesson plan and into a free day. "C'mon," he says in a buttery voice, "nobody expects to do any work when there's a sub." I know that you manipulate the system by the way your daughter says she must use the restroom immediately because of a girl-emergency, and then turns up half an hour later after visiting her friends' classrooms. And I know that you live by the book because your child surreptitiously points out to me the stolen seating chart.

I know that you tolerate bigotry and homophobia by the names your child calls the classroom misfits. Or I know that you are kind to others by the way your child volunteers to partner with the classroom misfit. Or by the way your child does not pile on.

When a backpack is flung open under my nose, I know whether you smoke.

I know how you voted in the last election because your son suggests naming the newly hatched chicken in the science room "John Kerry." I know your income bracket by the brand names on your child's back, by the camera cellphone and iPod I threaten to confiscate, by the casual way your child wastes food. Conversely, I know the shaky state of your finances when your child does not have $20 to go on the field trip to the Museum of Tolerance, does not have lunch money, does not have lunch.

I know if you are religious by some of the questions I am asked, even though we are not supposed to discuss it in public school. In one classroom, a spirited debate took place during the Pledge of Allegiance as one group of students loudly shouted the controversial words "under God," while another group responded by emphasizing "liberty," the fifth-to-last word of the pledge. The moment was a crystallized lesson in civics.

I can guess the state of your marriage by the way your child treats classmates (or teachers) of the opposite sex. Or your divorce. I know that your child shuttles between two households because he can't figure out where he left his report on the San Fernando Mission that is due today. Or when he makes two Mother's Day cards--one addressed to mommy, the other addressed to his dad's friend.

I know too much about you when your child, while writing her autobiography, asks me how to spell "tubal ligation." "I wasn't supposed to happen," she tells me apologetically, as though she blames herself for every bad thing that has happened in your life since her conception.

A book called "50 Jobs Worse Than Yours" by Justin Racz lists substitute teacher as one of the all-time worst jobs to have, along with rat catcher and "It's a Small World" ride operator. I must disagree. My job offers excitement and variety, flexibility and immediate feedback, as well as lessons in colorful language and what's hot in body piercing. I often get notes and drawings from students. "You are a beautiful, kind, sweet teacher," says one of my favorites, from a sixth grader, under a drawing that resembles Substitute Teacher Barbie more than it does me. I am heartened when I hear kids resolving disagreements among themselves, when I see them smile in genuine happiness, when I can taste how well they get the subject they are studying, how much it matters to them. It does happen.

I admit to bad days, but I'll take a roomful of students over a colony of rats or rows of Small World singing dolls any day. The students are usually somewhere between rats and dolls. Which you already know--because they're your kids.

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