Bill Stern, a forty-something substitute teacher, looked at his watch; it was now 10:30 a.m. He slammed a table in frustration. He owed $87 to his optometrist, $69 to the power company, $34 to…
He didn’t notice that the framed photograph of his deceased wife had just fallen to the floor. He was tired of waiting for a work call. He didn’t have a cell phone; he could hardly afford his cluttered studio apartment. It had a few pieces of furniture and looked more like a warehouse for discarded papers. Crayon drawings given to Bill by elementary school kids were thumb-tacked on the walls. He would smile and remember their young faces every time he looked at the pictures.
Call from Substitute Central
If he was not going to teach today, Bill preferred to be out and about. He would go to the library to read and write, and later to the grocery store to get something to eat. The ringing phone stopped him, though, as he reached for the door knob.
“Hello, is Bill Stern there? This is Substitute Central calling”.
Shocked and overjoyed with relief, Bill cleared his throat. “You bet I’m here!”
* * *
The moment Susan got off the phone—there at Mount Eagletown, the school for “Very Exceptional Students,” the county system’s worst hellhole—her clerical assistant spoke up.
“So,” Kathy said, “you found someone dumb enough to go to Eagletown?”
“Sure did,” Susan replied. “This Bill Stern duffus. Never taught there before.”
“Works every time. We just call the suckers first.”
* * *
Bill rushed to get ready, stumbling over a pile of overdue library books. He reached into a plastic bag filled with unfolded clean laundry which he had done the previous night. It was difficult for him to bend over and get his clothes because of his girth.
He pulled out a pair of shiny black sweat pants, his favorites. They looked okay and weren’t likely to rip. He added an oversized, dark, blue cotton shirt that was very concealing. He then spritzed himself liberally with ginger cologne that his late wife had given him for their last Christmas. He was always afraid of reeking because of his anxiety problem even though he took medication. Last, he put on his eyeglasses which were black and bulky. No Lasik for him on his budget.
Bill rifled through his briefcase looking for a couple of books to take with him should he have a chance to read. The books were serious intellectual works covering history, politics, and philosophy; no book candy of the sort you could find in paperback at the checkout line of any convenience store or supermarket. Last he picked up his laptop computer.
A small lizard vainly attempting to escape his apartment caught his eye. He didn’t want to leave the lizard to die, so he chased it for 10 minutes. Damn you, lizard, your going to make me late, he thought frantically chasing after it.
When Bill entered the classroom he saw five students in the room. A television set was playing a video tape. Two of the students were sleeping on the floor while the other three were in their own universe listening to iPods. Even though all three of the students had earphones on Bill could still hear the loud death-metal music playing.
There was another teacher in the room who said hello to Bill and told him that the school required two teachers at all times in the classrooms. She introduced herself as Sally and told Bill to make himself comfortable and read a book or something because none of the students would do anything academically. Sally proceeded to play a video game. Bill, overcoming residual nervousness, decided to ask Sally a few questions.
“Are any of the students dangerous?” he whispered.
Sally whispered that he did not need to worry because the most dangerous students had recently been sent to prison. There was a buzzer in every classroom. If it rang, an armed police officer would come and handcuff the offending student.
A jolt of fear went through Bill’s body, but he was determined to stay calm and not show it. He cleared his throat and continued with his questions.
“What grade level and age are most of the students?”
Sally told him that these students were technically in the 9th grade because social promotions were not allowed if the students could not pass standardized tests to get into high school. They were kept by the school in this class until their 21st birthday when they could be released.
Bill felt disgusted when he heard this, but he proceeded to ask more questions. “Do these students graduate from high school?”
Sally stifled her look of irritation at him for asking so many questions. “Most of the students receive a VE (Very Exceptional) diploma. It’s not a real high school diploma, but they get something for at least having attended school.”
By this time Bill was getting the message that this school and classroom were no more than a glorified babysitting service for troubled youth. He asked one more question. “Why’s the television on if nobody’s actually watching it?”
Sally looked up once again from her handheld video game and pointed to some slumbering stuents, one of them drooling. “Well, they’re on their meds, but the TV helps ’em sleep.”
He thanked Sally for the information and he took a seat.
Bill looked out the window and started thinking to himself what a waste of time. He thought about how his late wife, who died of cancer 18 months ago encouraged him to take up teaching. She had loved how he motivated a 12-year-old Russian immigrant to do better in school—by becoming a big brother for the boy. Bill’s late wife was one of the few throughout his life who encouraged Bill not to give up on school.
Over the years, counselors and teachers had told Bill he was not college material. He could not read well, his handwriting was illegible and his spelling was even worse. He barely graduated high school and afterwards he went through a long series of failures.
He ended up working in home health most of the time because it did not require much education. Clients liked Bill because he was dependable and had an unusual interest in talking about topics with patients who were starved for intelligent talk. Some of those home health clients also encouraged Bill not to give up. It took years of failure, struggle, and humiliation to overcome a complex learning disability.
Bill’s marriage was short and stormy. His wife was diagnosed with cancer. He spent most of the last year she was alive beside her hospital bed. After her death, he put his energies into finishing college. He only graduated two months ago. Afterwards to get a fresh start in life he moved to a new state and looked into becoming a teacher.
A loud bell rang and Sally put down her video game. “It’s time for gym class”.
Bill sat down on the basketball court bleachers and watched “his class.” In front of Bill a group of male students talked about porno stars they admired, and then they called a nearby group of female students “a bunch of Ho’s.”
A fleshy-faced boy looked at Bill and laughed, “Do you want to get high with me?” An armed police officer yelled: “You’re crossing the line here, no drug talk!”
After gym, Bill was sent to a new class. He went into the new room and found the same sort of thing again, but only one student was sleeping on the floor this time. Another co-teacher greeted Bill, introduce himself as Hank and told him to make himself comfortable because he had paperwork to finish up. Bill said that he would like to work on his laptop.
Hank told him, “This class is no problem for the most part—well, almost. See that boy over there?” He pointed to an unkempt student snoring on the carpet. “That’s Steve. Don’t dare wake him up.”
“You would want to know. If he wakes up, just call for me.”
Bill set up his laptop and put on earphones. Sometime afterwards, he noticed Steve was no longer sleeping but standing beside him and watching him work on his computer. He also noticed that his co-teacher had stepped out of the room. Bill regarded Steve curiously, and the student reciprocated with a puzzled expression.
“Who are you Dude?”
Bill cleared his throat “I am Bill Stern your substitute teacher for today.”
The silence was making Bill uncomfortable. “Did you sleep well?” he inquired.
Steve yawned and stretched his arms and mumbled, “I slept OK. Hey, man. Why the computer>? What are you doing?”
“Reading.” answered Bill nervously.
Steve replied while yawning some more, “I don’t like computers and I don’t like reading.”
Bill couldn’t help himself, “How come you don’t like to read?”
The student shrugged his shoulders , “I don’t know. All those words in front of me make
Bill couldn’t resist, “Would you like to try something?”
Steve looked at him suspiciously.
“If you don’t like it you don’t have to continue”, Bill reassured him.
Steve scoped out the odd looking substitute teacher again and thought to himself, “What a nerd, but he seems harmless. If I don’t like what this teacher is trying to get me to do, I’ll just tell him to bug off. OK, but you better not try to put me to work!”
Bill smiled, “I won’t.” Bill asked Steve to take a seat. Steve reluctantly sat down while Bill placed the headphones.
“Here’s one of my favorite books—The Catcher In The Rye. You won’t have time to read the whole book today, but just see if you can read the first chapter.”
“But why the computer, man?”
“The computer will read the story out loud to you and highlight each word on the screen as it reads the story. See if you can follow the highlighted words as the computer reads. I personally like to follow the story in an actual hard copy of the book while the computer reads”.
“It’s too fast!” yelled Steve.
“Don’t worry I can adjust it,” Bill said, and did.
“Now it’s too slow,” laughed Steve.
Bill made another adjustment. Then the student looked up at Bill, “Now its OK”. He soon finished reading the first chapter.
Steve took off the headphones, and Bill looked at Steve.
“So how was it? Were you able to follow the story? Did you enjoy what you read so far?”
Steve nodded. “That was pretty cool, I was actually able to read this shit and not get a headache. The story was really cool because it sounded a lot like my own life.” Bill noticed that Hank had returned to the room. Hank looked at Bill talking with the student, he had warned Bill about and asked “Is everything OK”.
Bill looked at Hank, “Everything is fine.”
Hank looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s almost time to go.”
Bill turned back to Steve. “Maybe you can learn to enjoy reading?”
Again Steve shrugged his shoulders. “I’m leaving school in a couple weeks after my 21st
birthday. It’s probably too late for me to get into learning stuff.”
Bill quickly gave an abbreviation of his own hard times in school. “Look Steve, I know school frankly sucks, and between you and me this school really sucks. But don’t confuse the fact that school sucks with the idea that reading sucks. Learning and reading are a lot more fun than just wasting your time.”
Steve looked at Bill with skepticism. “I don’t know, maybe I should look into this stuff. Are there other computer programs that can help me with other subjects?
Bill nodded, “There is even a program that can help you write. All you have to do is talk to the computer and it does the typing for you.”
Steve looked at Bill with amazement. “You’re not BSing me? Well, maybe. My writing really sucks.”
Bill kept nodding. “My writing used to suck too, until I started working with this text-to-speech program. I could show you it.”
Hank called over to Steve to get his stuff so he could get ready to get on his bus.
Steve looked at Bill. “Do you think you might come again here in the future before I have to leave? I would like to finish that book and maybe you could show me that writing program?”
“I don’t know Steve, but I hope so. If I do, sure”.
Steve picked up his backpack and said goodbye to his teacher, but stopped before he left the classroom. ” Mr. Stern, the only problem with this stuff you’re suggesting is that people like my Dad will call me stupid because I have to use it. ”
Mr. Stern looked at Steve eye to eye, “Steve, my friend, the only stupid thing is not taking advantage of technology that can help us.”
Steve left the classroom, and Hank came up to Bill. “Are you sure, you are OK I’ve never seen Steve talk with any teacher so civilly.”
When Bill got home he was tired and flung himself into his chair. He noticed that his wife’s picture was on the floor. He picked it up, looked at his wife’s image, and smiled.
Editing credit: Amos thanks David Faucheux for his help.
About the photo: It’s Creative Common-licensed via Flickr and was taken by Ashley. While this short story reflects some of Amos’s actual classroom experiences, the sleeping student in the photo is not from any of his classrooms—and for all I know could be an “A” student acting a little out of character. Furthermore, keep in mind that Amos currently does not teach at a school of the kind described in the story.