The Substitute Teacher

Photo by Donovan Reeves on Unsplash

I didn’t miss any days of school during my first year as a high school teacher. I was a strapping twenty-three year-old. And it was 2003. Long before pandemics.

I scheduled my first substitute during my second year. And not because I was sick. I was the school’s theatre teacher, and directed an improv troupe. We’d been invited to attend a workshop. My first field trip.

I walked down to another English teacher’s classroom before school.

“Leah,” I asked my unofficial mentor. “How do I request a substitute?”

“Boy, you are truly helpless,” she told me sarcastically. I laughed. I was.

Leah showed me how to use the automated system with her phone. Again, 2004. The internet hadn’t poisoned our minds yet. Or elections.

My sub was requested. I wrote lesson plans and organized seating charts. I arrived at school earlier than usual the next morning to set up the classroom for the sub.

I entered the dark, black box theatre that was my classroom. Turned the lights on. Set the packet of information on the overhead projector in the center of the room. The copy of Romeo and Juliet that my ninth graders would be watching was cued in the VCR.

Suddenly, I felt a presence. I wasn’t alone. I looked up. Noticed something standing on the stage. A haggard figure was facing the corner of my classroom. It had its back to me.

I froze.

I had just watched The Blair Witch Project. I remember the character at the end of the movie. Staring at a wall in a comatose state. That same witchcraft appeared to be happening in my classroom.

The hairs on my neck stood up. I prepared for the figure to turn around. Surely worms would be coming out of its face. It would have black eyes and a pig’s snout.

What happened next was just as terrifying. The being turned around and faced me. I was looking at a confused, elderly woman with a vacant facial expression.

I called out tentatively. “Hello?”

“Mrumph?” The figure was confused.

Something dawned on me.

“Are you my substitute teacher?”

“Substitute?” This old woman’s response clearly had a question mark after it.

I exhaled. I mistook the confused old woman for a demon. The decrepit substitute teacher used her cane to hobble over to me.

“Are you the substitute?” I asked the woman again.

“Substitute.” Though it was still hinted at, the question mark was almost gone now.

This poor woman had trouble maneuvering through this drama classroom without hundreds of bloodthirsty (or teacher-thirsty) ninth graders to manage, I thought. I shuddered to think about the day in front of her. Still, I put on a brave face and motioned to the packet on my overheard.

“Here’s a letter explaining what you’ll be doing today,” I told her. “I’ve included seating charts and class rosters.”

The woman stared at me vacantly. I wondered if she’d escaped from a nursing home. Or a cemetery. I simplified my directions.

“You have two different preps. The student directors can manage the acting class. The ninth graders are watching Romeo and Juliet. The movie is in the VCR.”

“VCR?” The question mark at the end of the woman’s statements returned.

“Yes, VCR.”

Had she never used a VCR? I showed her how to press play.

“Just hit this play button and the film will start, okay?”

Her eyes drifted up to the ceiling. There was nothing more I could do. This woman’s fate was sealed. I went to meet my improv students who were going on the field trip.

A bus picked us up before the school day started. We drove to downtown Minneapolis, and I spent the day learning about improv with high school kids. I returned to school at the end of the day.

One of my 9th graders, Ticole, stopped me in the hallway.

“You look like an Oompa Loompa in that jacket, Mr. Tanner,” Ticole told me.

“Thank you, Ticole.” I was 5’4’’. Twenty years later, I’m 5’3’’. So it goes.

“You need to hear about what happened in your classroom today, Mr. Tanner.”

Ticole filled me in.

First period was uneventful. Apparently, one of my students helped the substitute, Ms. Smith, turn Romeo and Juliet on. The day fell apart after that.

Two of my favorite students, Lionel and Steven, were in my second hour. Very funny boys. They rarely did any work. Often, when I was in the throes of teaching enraptured students, I’d look up to see that Steven was using a pencil for a mustache. His serious, mustached expression always made me lose it. I loved the kid. Other teachers didn’t find Steven’s antics so endearing.

Lionel and Steven took one look at Ms. Smith after they arrived for second hour. I imagine that they looked at each other and said what they often said to me:

“Hell, no, Mr. Tanner!”

There were two doors leading into my black box classroom. One door led to the hallway and another led to the auditorium. Each door had a light switch next to it. The switches were on different circuits.

The black box was pitch dark with the lights of. No windows. Steven and Lionel positioned themselves at separate doors before class started.

The bell for second hour rang, and Ms. Smith tried to take attendance. Steven turned off the lights. Ms. Smith hobbled — with great effort — to the door to turn them back on. At that moment, Lionel flicked the other light switch, plunging the world into darkness. Again, Ms. Smith lurched to the other doorway to turn the lights back on. Steven hit his switch again. And so on.

This continued for fifty-five minutes.

Second hour ended in shambles. Lionel and Steven had so much fun they skipped third hour to hang out with Ms. Smith.

At the time, my drama classes were creating children’s theatre. It wasn’t Broadway, but there was an impressive cottage on the middle of my stage.

Steven and Lionel pushed my cart of ancient ninth grade English textbooks on stage. Hid inside the house as the bell for third hour rang.

Once more, Ms. Smith began to take attendance. Her back was to the stage. Lionel and Steven started throwing books at Ms. Smith.

The students in third hour convinced the elderly substitute that the books were being thrown by students up in the catwalks.

Aside from the custodians, I was the only one in the school with keys to the catwalks. Ms. Smith decided to climb the twenty-foot wall in the back of my classroom. She was determined to reach the catwalk. Ms. Smith wasn’t successful, and the class watched her attempt to scale the classroom walls for fifty-five minutes.

Steven and Lionel didn’t attend a single class that morning. Instead, they remained in my room and tortured poor Ms. Smith. Eventually, my juniors and seniors arrived for acting class. They kicked Steven and Lionel out, let Ms. Smith take attendance, and ran a productive class.

What a day. I thanked Ticole for her helpful information.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Oompa Loompa.”

I came up with a plan for the next morning. What follows is one my favorite teaching memories. One of the great things about 9th graders is how inquisitive and smart they can be. Another great thing is how dumb they are. See:

Second hour arrived the next morning. Steven and Lionel entered the black box and took their seats quietly. The bell rang. I walked in front of the room. My demeanor was extremely stoic.

“So, you all had a sub yesterday,” I said quietly.

“We threw books at that woman, Mr. Tanner!” Steven called out.

“Yes, Steven, I know.”

“We were bad, Mr. Tanner,” Lionel yelled out. “You mad?”

“I’m not mad, Lionel. I’m sad.”

I put a very serious, grim expression on my face.

“I think I need to tell all of you something,” I said soberly. The class eyed me curiously.

“Are you messing with us, Mr. Tanner?” Steven asked. I ignored him.

“I’m afraid I received a phone call last night from the hospital.”

The atmosphere in the room shifted. The playfulness was gone. Students hung on my words.

“Ms. Smith was admitted to the hospital late last night. She… Well, she had a heart attack.”

It was deathly silent. I let the news of Ms. Smith’s demise sink in. Slowly, I turned to face Steven. I made eye contact with him. Deep eye contact.

“Steven,” I said quietly. “You killed Ms. Smith.”

I watched Steven process the knowledge that he had, in fact, taken the life of another human being. His mouth hung open.

Without another word about Ms. Smith, I asked students to take out their books and open to Act Two of Romeo and Juliet. We spent the day reading about hormonal love and untimely death.

Later, Lionel realized that Ms. Smith was actually subbing in a different classroom. Steven and Lionel stopped into my room after 4th hour.

“Ms. Smith is alive, Mr. Tanner,” Lionel told me with righteous indignation. “You lied to us.”

“You deserved it,” I told them. “Jerks.”

They laughed.

Ms. Smith subbed for me one other time, a year later. At the time, I had a section of an advanced composition course. These eleventh graders were a little more willing to humor Ms. Smith. Apparently, she felt so comfortable with my kind eleventh graders that she ignored my lesson plan. Instead, she spent the class telling my students stories about her childhood. Ms. Smith told them about how a house had fallen on her when she was a child. She shared that her son had recently blown up in a house fire. A propane tank had exploded. Ms. Smith actually had pictures of her son after the explosion. She passed them around the room so that the students could look at her son’s remains.

Students were disturbed. They told me as much when I returned the next day.

“Who was that woman?” one of the students asked me. “She had pictures of her exploded son, Mr. Tanner. She made us look at them!”

“That was Ms. Smith,” I told them. Then I told the story about Steven, Lionel, and Ms. Smith’s death.

“You really need to learn how to request a specific sub,” one of the students said to me.

“I really do.”

Samuel Jaye Tanner is a professor in the Penn State system, a writer of some (mostly ill) repute, an improviser, and an altogether terrible basketball player.

*This post is a revision of a story told in the memoir Playing with Sharp Objects.



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Samuel Jaye Tanner

Samuel Jaye Tanner

Writer, teacher, professor, improviser. Some stuff is serious. Some is not. Can you guess which is which? Oh, there’s this too: