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0 Comments | Dec 30, 2015

The Substitute

Classroom1When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Mark Twain


“Good morning!” he said, smiling broadly, “and welcome to third period.” The man—tall but not too; in shape, but not quite enough—stood at the front of the room in gray blazer, black button-down shirt, khakis, and sneakers. Before him sat seventeen students, distributed roughly equally between boys and girls. They were silent, not acknowledging his greeting, only looking with dubious curiosity at a teacher they’d never seen before.

“You appear to be an astute lot,” he continued, pacing slightly back and forth, “and you will have noticed right away that I am not Mrs. Pendleton, your regular third period teacher.” He paused, giving them a moment to reflect on this statement of the obvious. “Rather, I am Rick Childs. Oh, and I will do you the compliment of not writing my name in large font on the board. Anyone incapable of remembering a single-syllable surname will gain very little indeed from what we are going to discuss this morning.”

He scanned the room, took its pulse. They sat unmoving, for the moment focused on his newness and on whatever was about to happen. The lack of respect generally afforded to substitutes was legendary, and he had but a moment to establish whatever hierarchy was going to govern the room for the next hour.

“Before we begin, I am going to share with you a little parlor trick I learned from a shaman on a mountaintop in Tibet many years ago. You are all going to introduce yourselves to me, but in the interest of time you’re going to do it all at once. On the count of three, everyone say your first name loudly and clearly.” He glanced about the room for a moment to confirm that he had their attention. “One … two … three!”

Following which there came seventeen simultaneous utterances in an incoherent vocal outburst no human could possibly have made sense of.

“That was excellent,” Childs said with a smile, “except that Charles, you could do with a bit more enunciation,” he said staring directly at the incredulous Charles. “And Samantha, you really ought to go with your full name rather than just ‘Sam.’ It’s much more becoming that way. Just my opinion of course.” She too stared back in amazement as he looked directly at her. The trick never failed, and he had their undivided attention, which was, after all, the point.

“So far this semester, you have, under the diligent guidance and watchful eye of Mrs. Pendleton, been focusing your attention on the many and byzantine ways in which speakers of the English language conjugate verbs.” Brief pause for affirmation. “I will begin today by confessing to you that I could not possibly give less of a rat’s ass about any topic than I do verb conjugation.” A few brief but quickly stifled chuckles, the class comprising students unaccustomed to hearing words like ‘ass’ in the midst of school lectures, particularly not when preceded by a qualifier such as ‘rat’s.’

“No, today I come bearing a gift for each and every one of you. It is a gift both rare and precious. But in exchange for this gift, I require, as well, something of you—two somethings actually. We are not going to discuss verbs today, nor conjugation, nor, in fact, anything remotely associated with, or in any way friendly toward, Mrs. Pendleton’s lesson plan. Today we are, instead, going to comport ourselves as adults, the adults you will soon be and for which role I am quite certain you are, as yet, woefully unprepared. However …” another pause for effect, “rules are rules, and the school system, nay society itself, demands that you learn certain things, or at least create the illusion of having learned them. Never mind that many of these things will benefit you not a jot once you enter the real world. They must nonetheless be learned. So what I require of you is first, the promise that you will diligently review pages forty-seven through fifty-four of your textbook this evening and that you be prepared to continue on with Mrs. Pendleton tomorrow morning as though we had discussed this material today, thus preserving the illusion that we have bowed as expected before our institutional masters. Second, I request that you not reveal to your parents or anyone else outside this room what transpires during the coming hour. They, and for that matter the faculty of this institution, are unlikely to regard our conversation today as an appropriate component of your adolescent education. Raise your hand if you are prepared to grant me these two humble requests.”

It took a moment. The students were still processing what they were hearing, and many frankly weren’t entirely certain what they were agreeing to or why. Still, the combination of peer pressure and curiosity had all hands aloft within a few seconds.

“Outstanding!” Mister Childs enthused. “Then let’s begin, shall we. Today, I am going to do something altogether unprecedented, something I imagine many of you have no experience with. I am going to treat you as adults. We are going to have an adult conversation. We are going to interact in adult ways. And, if successful, you are going to depart at least marginally better equipped to function in the adult world. So, first of all, you are free to address me by first or last name, as you see fit, precisely as adults do when they interact with each other outside these walls. I leave it up to you. Second, allow me to observe that adults in the real world do not sit in straight rows of seats unless they are attending an OCD therapy session. Therefore, my first request is that you all take a moment to rearrange the room in whatever manner you prefer.”

Childs stood back and watched. No one did anything at first except look uncertainly at the people to either side of them. “Come on, come on,” Childs said. “In the real world people expect you to organize things the way you want to, not the way someone else imposes on you. It’s an important concept we call free will. Go on, give it a try.”

Finally one student rose, looked at the girl sitting next to him, shrugged, and pushed his desk against the wall near the window. Others quickly got the idea and there was, for a few brief seconds, a cacophony of screeching and grinding as chairs and desks were slid about, rearranged. Soon, what had been a regimented matrix of rows and columns had transformed into a roughly circular ring.

“Interesting,” Mister Childs said, “stepping into the center of the circle. “Interesting that you chose this arrangement. And thanks, Jack, for taking the initiative on that.” He addressed the student who had moved his chair first. “It often requires just a pebble to start an avalanche.” He paused one more trenchant moment and surveyed the room. “So … I promised you a gift when we began, and here it is. In the remaining fifty-five minutes, we are going to speak as adults, and I, as the longest serving adult in the room, am going to endeavor to answer, with unremitting honesty and candor, any question you care to put to me concerning life in the real world. We may discuss success or failure, money, sex, life, death, whatever you like. The agenda is limited only by your inquisitiveness and imagination, both of which I will assume you possess in great abundance. You have but to pose the questions. Oh, but do not suppose that I have all the answers to these questions. I merely possess the benefit of a few years head start on you. If I have a perspective or opinion on your question, I will tell you so. If I do not know the answer, I will tell you that. I should point out, by the way, that it is my expectation I will learn as much from you in this exchange as you from me.” Childs stopped and crossed his arms, looked about the room at the many uncertain eyes looking back. For a moment there was silence.

“Come on, time’s a wasting,” he said. “Surely one of you is brave enough to be first.”

An additional few seconds of uncomfortable silence, then a female voice from the back of the room. “Why do they make us go to school?” A brief undercurrent of agreement encircled the room.

“Why indeed, Kara,” Childs said. “Why are we here at all? As astute a question as I can imagine to get things started.” He thought for a moment, glancing upward as though seeking guidance from above or perhaps reconsidering the wisdom of the entire conversation. “In order to enjoy a long, healthy, and productive life—which is presumably what you all aspire to—you need, first and foremost to make a living, which means possessing some sort of marketable skill, something you know how to do that other people are willing to pay you money for. That, my friends, is the simple basis of capitalism, the system into which we were all born, for better or worse. The good news is that there are countless fields you can choose to satisfy this requirement. If you’re truly fortunate, you’ll find a career in which you can not only make money but which you also really enjoy. Not to be too much of a downer here, but that’s a surprisingly rare combination. If I had a nickel for every attorney I’ve met who discovered a few years after law school that they really didn’t like the law all that much, or every engineer who realized after ten years on the job that they needed to go into management in order to get ahead in their company … well, suffice it to say I wouldn’t need to be standing here in front of you guys today.”

“The bad news is that, regardless of how assiduously you apply yourself, you will not leave this school equipped with the knowledge or skill set you need to survive in the real world, not even close. None of your teachers will tell you this, but high school serves only one purpose, and it hasn’t got a thing to do with algebra, English, history … or even football.” Brief uncomfortable laughs from a few. “The purpose of high school is to teach you how to learn. Which means that if you choose to end your formal education at the conclusion of high school, you’d better hope you’re possessed of the talent of Cary Grant or Billy Joel. Because these guys, and all the other success stories you’ve heard about people making it big who never finished high school, are the anomaly, my friends. The numbers are against you on this; don’t doubt that for a moment. But also don’t suppose I’m trying to discourage you from pursuing your dream. Just know that whether you aspire to win a Pulitzer Prize, an Oscar, or a Heisman Trophy, just make damn sure you have a Plan B. Because for every person who actually wins one of those awards, there are millions of others just like you who think they will, but won’t. Oh, and the other reason why you have to come to school every day is that your parents really don’t want to be around you all day…” He stopped and smiled. “Oh, come on, that was supposed to be a joke.” A couple of titters, and a raised hand from one of the boys.

“What’s the most valuable skill to have in life?”

“More bad news, I’m afraid,” Childs said. “It isn’t anything you’ll learn in this building, and you almost certainly aren’t going to learn it from your parents or your friends either. A handful of you have it naturally. Most of you don’t. Some of you will eventually figure out how valuable it is. Some never will. But at least if you’re sitting here today—this morning—you won’t be able to say later on that no one told you. The most important single skill you can learn if you want to be successful in your professional life is salesmanship. I don’t care if you’re planning to be a doctor, an engineer, a musician, a lawyer. Doesn’t matter. You will spend your entire life selling, or at least trying to. Just so we’re clear here, selling is nothing but a catchall word for convincing someone else to do something. Selling isn’t just about used cars and Tupperware. You have to be able to sell yourself, your ideas, your point of view. Every job interview, every interaction you have with a colleague or your boss, every time you try to get a higher exam grade out of a professor. Same story. It requires confidence and the ability to speak convincingly, articulately, whether it’s to one other person or a room with five hundred people in it. And it’s not just about your professional life either. First time you see that hot guy or girl and you want to make a good impression, how are you going to make that happen? How do you close the deal? You bet your ass—salesmanship. You’re selling yourself. I cannot possibly overstate this—if you take nothing else away from this hour, remember this one. And if you’re the shy, retiring sort like Kelly here,” he glanced to his left at the girl slouched in her seat, absently shuffling a stack of papers, “the person who’s terrified of speaking in front of a group or who has trouble clearly communicating your point of view with others, you need to drop whatever you’re doing with your life and focus on this big time. Force yourself to do it. Join the debate team, Toastmasters, whatever it takes. It’s that big of a deal. I only wish to God someone had told me this when I was your age instead of trying to cram algebra and the Missouri Compromise down my throat. Newsflash—there’s an excellent chance you’ll never use algebra again in your life once you leave high school … unless you decide to become a mathematician or an engineer, then maybe…”

There were three hands raised now. Progress … skinny pimply guy to the right.

“How come the good looking girls only like jocks?” Laughs all around. Kid’s got balls at least, Childs thought.

“Ah, the Holy Grail at last!” Childs threw his arms outward in (not entirely) mock enthusiasm. “And some good news for a change, at least for you,” he said, looking at the student who had asked the question. “Yes indeed, it appears at this point in your life like all of the social cards are stacked against you. Seems like the jocks get all the breaks. But here’s the ugly little truth most people discover around the time of their tenth high school reunion. With a handful of notable exceptions, it’s the nerds who end up with all the money and power in the world. You see, those thirty guys on the football team all think that sports is the most important thing in their lives, and they all believe they’re going to be NFL players someday. But once again the math is against them.” A conspicuously large, obviously athletic student sat in the back of the group, arms crossed but listening. “Professional sports is an extremely steep pyramid, and anybody who puts all of their eggs in that basket is almost certainly heading for failure. Of the thirty guys on the team here, at most two or three of them are good enough to even be considered as players at the college level. And there probably aren’t three football players in this entire state with the skill necessary to get drafted into the NFL. And, like all of that isn’t bad enough, even getting drafted into the NFL is no guarantee that you’ll have a lengthy or successful professional sports career. A lot of those guys never make it past the practice squad. And even if you get to play in real games, the average NFL career lasts only three years.”

“Now you nerds and computer geeks, on the other hand, and particularly the ones who possess that salesmanship skill we discussed earlier, are the ones who go on in life to invent new technologies, start companies, and make the sort of money that makes supermodels swoon. So there, girls,” Childs said with great affect, “is quite possibly your next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Get him while you can!” The kid who had asked the question managed a humorous combination of smiling and blushing.

“Mister Childs,” said a girl near him in the front of the circle, “what’s the point in getting married if it’s only going to end up with a bunch of shouting and divorce? Don’t something like two thirds of marriages end up failing within a few years?”

Childs paused a bit longer than previously, carefully considering his words. “That, ladies and gentlemen, is arguably the question that has vexed mankind since the invention of—well—humanity itself. Why doesn’t love endure?” He reached for an unoccupied desk and drew it toward him, sitting on the edge. “Full disclosure on this one. I myself, as I stand before you, am a double divorcee. So you may wish to weigh carefully anything that I say on this topic that sounds like advice. My first marriage lasted seven years; my second just three. What is it that changes in the time between when we can’t keep our hands off each other until, just a few short years later, we can’t stand to be in each others’ presence? We are, after all, the same people. Not much has really changed about us as individuals. We have the same appearance, more or less, the same likes and dislikes, hobbies, interests, political beliefs and moral values.

“You could plausibly argue that the only thing that changes from the initial attraction to the final revulsion—pardon the phrasing—is that we’ve gotten to know each other far more thoroughly than we ever did before the wedding. So, while I can’t answer your original question satisfactorily, I will offer this small bit of advice—but for the love of God don’t tell anyone you heard this from me. Never EVER marry someone who you haven’t spent a terrific amount of time with in advance, and that means living with them, going to movies with them, sleeping with them, fighting with them, anything you have to do to extract every nuance of behavior and attitude from them. Nothing should be a surprise after the wedding—nothing. Because when there are surprises after the honeymoon—or God forbid during it—they tend to be bad ones and it’s too late to do much of anything about it at that point.”

“Mister Childs … Rick …” a stocky boy said, “you seem to know a lot about life and stuff. Don’t take this the wrong way, but how is it you’re only a substitute teacher?”

“Ouch …” replied Childs. There was general laughter throughout the room. “No, no, it’s a fair question. It’s true that some of you probably earn more in your part-time after-school jobs than I do standing up here doing this. So, why I do it is a completely legit thing to wonder about. I have a Masters in teaching from a good school, with a focus in English Literature, which might explain, by the way, why I’m not too jazzed about discussing verb conjugations for the nine hundredth time. You might recall my earlier comments about marriage and how I’ve had two of them. One of the lessons you’ll all learn at some point is that that takes a toll on you, and just not an emotional one. There are some very pragmatic consequences of divorce, including financial and geographical ones. You tend to move more often than you’d like. And you frequently find yourself starting new jobs, kind of like I did this one about a month ago. So, when you go back later and revisit your notes from this discussion, as I’m sure you all will,” a wry smile and a panning glance around the room, “remember my comments about choosing your partner wisely.”

“Oh … oh … and just in case no one thinks to ask about it, let me throw in another two cents worth about career choice. I alluded to this earlier, but one direction you can go is to pursue an education in something you deeply enjoy doing, what you have an actual aptitude for. Or you can choose a field that you think is going to make you a lot of money. If you’re really lucky, those two things will be the same. But, with the arguable exception of choosing a spouse, this is the most consequential decision you’ll make in your entire life, so for God’s sake, go in with your eyes open. Talk with people who are already doing what it is you think you want to do, people who’ve been doing it for a long time. Don’t rely on what your guidance counselor tells you. You didn’t hear this from me, but there’s a reason why she’s a guidance counselor, and that’s because she wasn’t too terribly astute about choosing her own career. Which I can totally get away with because I’m the substitute English teacher standing here today.”

“Don’t pick a college degree just because it’s easy. Don’t pick something that you know perfectly well requires that you continue on to a Doctorate and then wonder why you can’t find a job after quitting with just a Bachelors degree. Not to pick on any field in particular, but there aren’t a lot of employers out there offering jobs to philosophy and French literature undergrads. It might not even be a bad idea to find yourself an internship in a field that you think you want to work in. A few months of hands-on experience, even if it’s doing the mundane stuff, can be worth more than all the formal education in the world. At least you’ll get some insight into what people really do in that field every day.”

“Here’s one more little tidbit that you might thank me for later on. Right now, there are countless thousands of students around the country sitting in classrooms just like this, who will soon be walking out the door with diplomas just like yours. And you’ll all be competing for places in universities, places that are, by their nature, limited in number, particularly at the very best schools. Getting into the college you want is not just about your grades and your clubs or sports activities. Those are important, but you need to do something that makes you stand out to that college recruiter who spends all day reading the applications of one candidate after another—applications that all look pretty much the same after about the tenth one. Find something you can do now—start a company, write a book, work for a nonprofit—whatever it takes to make you stand out, to be just that little bit different from everybody else. You’ll be surprised how little it takes. Those screeners at the universities are looking for some sort of indication that you’ll be successful in their program. It doesn’t reflect well on them when applicants that they’ve approved then go on to drop out of school. Give them a reason to believe in you.”

Childs glanced up at the classroom clock to notice that the hour was nearly exhausted. “Sadly, ladies and gentlemen, our time is almost at an end. So I will leave you with one final question, this time from me to you. Does anyone here accept on faith that I was actually able to discern every one of your names at the start of class by the expedient of having you shout them all out at once?” No hands went up, but a voice came from the back of the room.

“It’s some kind of trick, right?” A couple of low murmurs of agreement.

“A trick you say, Mister Grimes,” an address that earned a look of even greater surprise from students, since there had only been first names conveyed at the start of the class. “How, then, did I accomplish this feat of legerdemain?” No sound. No suggestions.

“Oh, come now,” Childs said, “this is my final life lesson of the day. Surely you won’t disappoint me now.”

A hand from one of the girls. “Miss Stevens, enlighten us if you will.”

“It’s simple,” she said, smiling broadly as she glanced at a friend adjacent, “you studied the names before you ever came in this morning. You memorized them all—our names and our pictures. We could have yelled out anything at the beginning, and it wouldn’t have mattered one bit.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Childs said with a laugh, “your future valedictorian. My subterfuge is revealed. But … BUT, what, Miss Stevens, is the lesson to be gleaned from your astute revelation?”

She looked perplexed for a moment. “Robert,” Childs said, turning his head to face a boy to his right, “you seem the clever sort. What’s the lesson?”

Robert wrung his hands for a moment. “Always be prepared.”

“Indeed,” Childs said, “it appears Miss Stevens has at least a bit of competition for that valedictory honor after all. “Be prepared for whatever life throws at you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for your time and attention this morning. Oh, and don’t forget our earlier agreement. ”

At that moment, the period buzzer sounded, and Childs turned toward the front of the room, but there was not the expected thunder of rising students and exiting feet.

“There’s another lesson too, Mister Childs.”

He turned and saw Chip Ruggles gathering his belongings.

“Is there, Mister Ruggles?”

“Always have a way of getting the other person’s attention before you break out the salesmanship.”

Childs smiled broadly as he pointed at Chip with a right index finger.

“Words to live by, Mister Ruggles … words to live by.” As they rose to leave, he raised his voice one final time against the gathering din. “Pages forty-seven to fifty-four. Don’t forget, you have an illusion to uphold tomorrow.”

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