The Substitute

Every day she counts time until bells ring and release the children from their cold desks, different children most days, children she may never see again. She wants no commitment to them or the buildings they fill, no allegiance to their colored tile or the rules in bold letters on the walls of the classrooms she performs in as a stand-in; a warm body to take attendance on the printed rosters different middle-aged women hand her at 7:45 in the morning, each of them harried even before the students have arrived, ready to be openly vexed at the flaws in the school system, its students, their parents.  

She considers herself lucky when navigating the different schools, each middle school built the same, each high school following a similar floor plan. Her district is consistent. 

She chooses, sometimes, the fun classes: Home Economics, Visual Arts, Agriculture. More often there are openings for substitute teachers in the Math department, those teachers the most adept at scheduling their off time, their breaks and personal days a part of the running register of numbers in their minds. Here, like every other part of her life, she has flexibility, the option to participate or not. She opens an app to schedule days to work, declines the jobs listed that include any element she might not enjoy—no anatomy labs, no criminal justice classes. She removes the elementary schools from her list first, has never stepped foot into one in the county. Young children need too much from her, become attached too easily. 

Middle school and high school students, she has found, become attached as well, though it takes about a week before they start asking you to stay. In her district, multiple teaching positions sit open, vacancies, they are called—these classes are filled, like all others, with students, though there is no regular teacher to build their curriculum, to grade their work, to learn their names. These are the children that ask her first, sometimes before the week is up, if she will stay with them, become their permanent teacher. This is possessive—theirs, she thinks, each time she hears Why can’t you be our permanent teacher? She will accept the weeklong appointments only so long as there’s nothing more interesting that conflicts. 

She is, in theory, overqualified for the job. Most substitutes are retirees wanting to give back to the community, or are degree-less, looking for whatever days they can pick up. Some substitutes are mothers, formerly stay-at-home, now re-entering the workforce. She has heard of districts that send letters home asking parents to apply to become subs and pick up whatever days they can. There is no way for her to know how well this has worked for those other districts, her district was not one that has sent letters out. 

She wants, always, to feel needed. This job is one that receives many thanks, administrators and assistants and permanent teachers meet her around every corner with a Thank you so much for being here today! or Substitutes are the glue that holds us together! Though she wants to be this appreciated, this needed, she can hardly manage a smile at this attention. Her need to be needed conflicts with her desire for anonymity. Though she has been background-checked and fingerprinted and given a lanyard with her name and photo on a badge, she is not someone whose name is known in most classrooms, most school buildings. 

It is the anonymity that she loves most about the job, not the flexibility. Here no one knows her well enough to point out her habits, her quirks. There is no coworker-friend at the lunch table pointing out the way that she covers her mouth when she eats, if she eats. There is no nemesis to point out her over-use of the free WIFI, her tendency to browse Amazon any time the students are seated quietly working. She window-shops like this most days, sometimes so focused that the bells make her jump, the sudden piercing sound an unwelcome reminder of her location, her duties. She window-shops and adds item after item to her lists. 

These lists are for her fantasy rooms, her fantasy home made up of vibrant colors. She saves mango wood side tables, a metal bed frame, even a mattress that fits neatly into a 4×6 box and expands to a Queen once the buyer cuts away the plastic. For the bed, she selects a multi-color quilt, something imported from Bangladesh, according to the description, which retails for $68.97. She feels no guilt for the laborers, perhaps the same age as her students, since she makes no actual purchases. 

Each month ends with a paycheck direct deposited into her checking account, half of which she transfers dutifully to savings, no matter the amount. Each day she works is $120.00 before taxes, $20 more than the base pay thanks to her four-year-degree. She tries and fails to do the math of those taxes month after month, though she can never quite figure it out, her degree is in a soft science, Philosophy. She spent those years learning how to think like the great minds, how to structure her moral compass around some nebulous set of values, each philosopher different from the next. What she took away in the end—this sense of being nothing more than a body in a place, a body that can go most places, needing only to fill that place in the way she’s needed to fill it.