The schoolteacher himself come after you, the stranger said, and got shot in the leg and the ear for his trouble.
—“The Violent Bear It Away,” by Flannery O’Connor
One of the greatest academic accomplishments of my life was in sixth grade when I led my team of classmates in running off a substitute teacher. Her name was Miss Anderson. Wanda Lynn Anderson. She sang for money at a lot of local churches, too.
I know this because my parents made me go to church every Sunday and sometimes even on Wednesday nights and sometimes Sunday nights even when we had already been there that damn morning. Miss Anderson sang love songs very loudly into a microphone to Jesus.
Anyway, back to one of the greatest academic accomplishments of my life. Beginning while we were mangling the Pledge of Allegiance, we delivered for the next two and a half hours a highly coordinated psychological attack on Miss Anderson ... and then she sort of had a nervous breakdown and then she trotted out of the classroom with her purse and her coffee mug. Before lunch, too. The pride we felt for ourselves was palpable. Miss Anderson had come to the belief, which she verbalized to us that morning a huge number of times, that we were all possessed by Satan. We took that as a compliment.
After Miss Anderson clomped out the door we ran to the windows at the back of the classroom and watched her get into her car and drive off. Miss Anderson had put her coffee mug on the roof of her orange Corvette while she fiddled with her keys and when she peeled out of her parking spot the mug tumbled down the back of her car and busted apart on the asphalt.
After we stopped cheering, I strongly suggested to my team that we read books and draw and color and play our educational board games while we kept real, real, real quiet. I tiptoed to the front of the classroom and eased the door shut.
Forty-five minutes after Mrs. Anderson took herself off of the substitute teacher list, the assistant principal, the real cheerful but one-legged Mrs. Nix, bopped by to see how Miss Anderson was doing. After looking around the classroom, and then by asking us a couple of questions that she demanded we answer because we were acting pretty puckered up, Mrs. Nix found out that Miss Anderson had left the building. Mrs. Nix asked us how long Miss Anderson said she’d be gone.
I told Mrs. Nix that we all felt Miss Anderson would not be returning. Ever.
Thirty-nine years later, and just a few short miles away from my elementary school, home of the Incurables, I was sitting on the front porch of a crappy house for sale on an open-house Sunday afternoon, trying to be a patient real estate agent. The only people who came to see the house were other real estate agents, looking for a free lunch.
All of a sudden I got a good and curious and remorseful feeling in my gut and heart and mind and soul and started thinking about what it might be like to be a substitute teacher at the school near where I live for kids who have learning, behavior, and emotional disorders, and then I decided I wanted to do that for a while and that’s how it all got started. The thought, random or ominous, was just as natural as thinking what I might have for dinner that night. Of course, I figured I could make a lot more money being a substitute teacher than what I was making as a real estate agent who didn’t sell anything.
I called the school. I used my sales skills, which most of the time is simply being a nice guy who uses his manners. A few days later I had an interview with the headmaster and the human resources lady. I filled out a bunch of forms while I smiled a lot and acted like I was not a wanted felon.
Two weeks later I got a call from the human resources lady at the school and she told me my application was accepted, that my police check came back clean, and that I was now on the on-call list. Your name and number is on the list, she said, and every teacher and principal and assistant principal has the list, even the athletic director. But let me make absolutely sure we have the best phone number for you.
I told the human resources lady I had only one phone and it’s always in my pocket.
I think I made a difference as a substitute teacher. I think just showing up is half of it and the other half is getting home alive. I got scheduled in advance—days, weeks, and even months in advance. Sometimes I got called the night before. Sometimes I got called the morning a frantic principal needed me to fill in that day for a sick teacher and I had to get cleaned up real fast and speed over to campus.
I was untrained for what I did—if you can call sixteen years of going to school—untrained. I didn’t make a lot of great grades. I was more of a student of school. I loved school, especially being on that bad ass 3rd grade cross country team of a little Episcopal school in a Civil War town. We raised hell and ran hard.
I was voted “Wittiest” my senior year. My best friend, in an underground poll of our pals, was voted “Most Likely to Become a Circus Geek.” I was more proud of him.
I loved my teachers, too. I appreciated their inexhaustible toleration of our inexhaustible goofiness. Deep down I knew what they were trying to do and I knew they cared. I knew they did. I still do today, more than ever.
One time a regular teacher said to me about a sixth grader, who was standing right there beside us in the great room of the middle school, “You should have seen her when she got here two years ago.” And then the teacher put her hand on the sixth grader’s shoulder and said in a tone of voice as if it would be the last thing she’d ever say, “Now she’s my miracle. My miracle.” I found out that teachers get to have those moments a lot. Even substitute teachers.
Some people say teaching is a calling—that if you don’t feel you’ve been called to teach don’t damn do it.
I got called more than I thought.
TODD SENTELL, Cat Herder
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