The Cool Sub

“JEN-ri? Is there a JEN-ri Rodriguez in this class?”

“Uh…it’s Henri,” Jenri said.

I was four minutes into my substitute teaching career, and I was already butchering a student’s name while trying to take attendance.

“Oh, um, sorry about that.” I may as well have been repeating Bueller.

I’d gotten the subbing gig through my mom, who was a middle school teacher on Long Island. It was late 2004 and I was a few months out of college at that point, with little in the way of job prospects. I’d snail-mailed my cover letter and resume to every publishing house in the tri-state area in the hopes of getting something entry level with my journalism degree, with visions of reading manuscripts for a living. But after receiving just one response—a polite but unequivocal “no”—I took a part-time job at The Sports Authority for $8 an hour to hold me over with first student loan payment looming.

The prospect of dealing with 13- and 14-year-olds all day was not appealing to me in the least, but subbing paid $110 a day and didn’t require any teaching experience—plus I’d be out of work by 2 pm every day. Meanwhile, I continued to look for full-time work and kept a couple of shifts a week at The Sports Authority.

Like every substitute teacher in the history of substitute teachers, I was determined to be “the cool sub” who wasn’t a stickler for the rules. After I made a few appearances, all the kids would be glad to see me when their teacher was out. “Nice, we got Mr. Calise subbing today,” they said in my insanely unrealistic fantasyland scenario.

Delusions aside, I knew better than to attempt any actual teaching. I fully understood that my job was to do nothing more than take attendance, hand out whatever busy work the teacher had left for her students, and make sure the kids didn’t fight with each other or destroy the classroom. I was a glorified babysitter.

After my first day my name was in “the system,” meaning that the night before a school day I would receive an auto-dialed call on my cell phone, which would tell me my assignment for the following morning.

There was no ostensible rhyme or reason behind my subbing assignments—as far as I could tell, they simply were pulling my name out of a digital hat. In my short career working at the school, I subbed in just about every subject.

One day they had me covering for a music teacher. His “classwork” for the kids was having them watch the part of the movie Grease they were up to from the last time he’d been out. I had very strict instructions to “fast forward through the sex parts.” By the third or fourth class of the day my censoring was faster than Greased Lightnin’.

The music teacher’s final class of the day was off the middle school campus at an elementary school, where all I had to do was put on a Charlie Brown video for a class of first graders. Unlike the junior high kids, who gave me a hard time about everything I said or did, the first graders were afraid of me. But once I turned off the lights and put on the video, they were entranced and seemed to forget I was there. When a song started in the Charlie Brown movie, they started singing along in unison in their little voices. It was the only time in five months subbing that I actually considered becoming a full-time teacher.

My most coveted subbing assignment was phys ed. (I cannot overstate the satisfaction of being allowed to come to work in a polo shirt and track pants.) The kids were even wilder than they were in their other subjects, but each phys ed class was taught by three teachers, so I pretty much just played with the kids and helped corral any stragglers back to the pack. Usually the “lesson” I co-taught was a game that could be played by fifty or sixty students at a time. One day we did volleyball with a twist—each side had about thirty kids volleying an oversized beachball that required at least five people pushing at the same time to get it over the net.

I didn’t typically interact with the teachers I’d subbed for once they came back to work. I would usually leave a short hand-written note for each period’s class in the teacher’s mailbox, letting them know whether the kids completed their classwork (or at least pretended to work on it) and whether they behaved.

On one occasion, I wrote a scathing note about a science lab class that had given me a particularly tough time. When I came for work the next day, I got called back to that classroom during the period that the class had behaved so poorly the day before. The teacher for whom I had subbed told me, in front of the whole class, that her students were not allowed to do a lab that day because of how badly they’d behaved for me. The kids collectively glared at me for having ratted them out. I did a terrible job of hiding my smirk as I thanked the teacher and left the room.

After almost five months of subbing, I finally found a full-time office job in the city. One of my last assignments before I left was a shop class. I didn’t know the first thing about shop — I hadn’t even taken shop when I was in school — but luckily the teacher had left a video.

I arranged for the audio-video set to be wheeled in, a tall tower with a heavy tube TV and a VCR, just like the ones we used when I was in middle school.

I popped in the VHS, which turned out to be a recording of an NBC Saturday morning TV special about technology from the early ‘90s—remember, this was 2005—hosted by none other than rapper-actor LL Cool J. (About the video: The creators apparently thought the future would be a lot like The Jetsons, minus flying cars and meals in pill form. Strangely, the creators of the special hadn’t seen the iPhone coming.)

Maybe I’d become more comfortable being in front of a room full of kids, or maybe I was a little giddy because I knew I was leaving soon for my new job. Whatever the reason for my newfound jocularity, I decided to make a little off-the-cuff comment to the class about how outdated the video was.

I said: “Looks like this is LL Cool J somewhere between ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ and In the House.” I smiled goofily at my own humorous observation, as if to say, “Am I right???”

I was met by twenty blank stares from the kids. Immediately, I realized my mistake: LL Cool J’s career-defining hit song, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” came out before they were born, and his moderately successful sitcom In the House was canceled in 1999. Most people my own age would not have gotten that reference, no less a room full of 13-year-olds.

After the class’ complete non-reaction to my “funny” comment, a rare break from the “serious substitute teacher” character I’d played for five months, I slunk back into the darkness for the rest of the period.

Not long after my LL Cool J gaffe, I found myself on the Long Island Rail Road, commuting five days a week, two hours each way, in and out of the city. Staring out the window of the train, my insanely unrealistic fantasyland thinking kicked in again and I wondered briefly if any of the kids had even noticed I was gone.

“Yo what ever happened to Mr. Calise?” Jenri would say. “Who?” Jenri’s friend would ask. “You know,” Jenri would reply, “the cool sub.”