Confessions of a Substitute Vol.2

Mark Rius
Age of Awareness
5 min readMar 10, 2019


Empathy and Understanding. Lessons I learned from an 8th grader.

“Mr.Marks, step into my office?” The hairs on my neck prickle, and without hesitation I obey.

“Close the door behind you.” The principal orders. Suddenly I get flashbacks to Middle School. Am I in trouble? A familiar fear pierces through my veins. Is she going to call my mom? No, she can’t. I’m a teacher. Well, half a teacher. But can She?

My fingers are trembling. A minute goes by. It feels like ten. Finally, Principal Micheals slowly folds down her laptop and asks if I would like to stay and teach with an open-ended contract.

I was green. Excited beyond belief, with no idea what to expect. I accept.

Wasting no time, the following Monday we begin reading To Kill A Mockingbird. Remember this book? Most of you read the spark-notes, but that's okay. I appreciate the effort.

Warning signs are plenty. This is going to be an uphill battle. Are they going to listen to me? They know I’m a sub. In my personal opinion, I believe that 8th grade is too young to be reading To Kill A Mockingbird.

For Example, I attended a California Distinguished Public High School, and we read To Kill A Mockingbird Junior Year. It wasn’t the content I was worried about. It was their reading level. To Kill a Mockingbird uses very difficult southern dialog. Along with the dialog, this novel uses a southern vocabulary which is Alien to teenagers from Los Angeles, California.

Matthew would test my patience daily. Every teacher has that “one” student. That student that you learn from. Within this learning period, you and this student will battle. He will generate a scene and you must stand your ground.

Every day is constant. “Matthew, find your seat” I exclaim. It made no sense why this 8th grader would never stay in his seat. One day I found myself constantly repeating “Matthew find your seat.”

“Matthew, Find your seat.” I kept on repeating. To the point that it sounded like a broken record.

“Matthew, Find your seat. Matthew find your seat.”

This drove me crazy. When teachers become frustrated we sometimes have internal dialog conversations with ourselves. Sounds crazy but it keeps us sane.

My internal dialogue was running ramped like a failed comedian at an open-mic. My thought “Mark, You can’t keep repeating his name like that… He’s not an animal.” Then the internal comedian dropped the punch line, “True, but I’m sure the dogs from Homeward Bound had a higher IQ than him.

To be fair, Matthew is smart beyond his years. He’s the type that's experienced more than any 8th grader should. Unfortunately, these experiences allowed Matthew to gain street smarts, leaving his academics untapped and unused.

We began every chapter with vocabulary words. For homework, I assign every student to define the words and use them in a sentence. Grading this assignment is easy street, as it’s easy to tell if someone did their work.

In chapter 3, one of the words assigned is… Alien. Yes, the same word that appeared earlier.

-The correct definition I was looking for is

Alien- “Someone who has been estranged or excluded”

-If you didn’t use a dictionary an 8th grader might put

Alien- Creature from another planet.

Matthew wrote:

Alien- An illegal immigrant.

I didn't know how to grade this because he wasn’t wrong.

Three weeks pass and now it’s Parent-Teacher Conference week. I’m hesitant to participate at first. As a substitute, I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries. After discussions with the Principal and my partner Teachers, it was decided that I would sit with the teachers and provide support.

Matthew is next. The mood downshifts. Mentally we prepare for the worst. It’s hard to know what to expect from the parents. How will they be? Are they mirror images of their kids?

Ready for battle, I have my resting bitch face engaged. When Matthew enters the room we keep it cordial. For two minutes. Then, Ms. Tomkins laid into him first. It was like Jaws feeding on the helpless beach. It felt good. Then, Ms. Tomkins asked a real question. One that changed the landscape forever.

“Matthew, was your mom deported?” Asks Ms.Tomkins.

Everyone stops. Matthew shrinks into his shell like a turtle. His father leans back in his chair.

“If this is true, we are with you, and need to know if there is anything we can do for you.” Says Ms.Tomkins. I’m caught off guard. I had no idea. Matthew breaks down crying.

“Its true. It happened two weeks ago. They came in one night. And that was it. They took her. Now, I only get to see her once a week. Every Saturday me and my father drive down to Tijuana to see my mom.” He tells us.

Time to pivot. Yes, all us teachers want to keep swarming him like sharks chasing a bucket of chum, however the world has changed. I missed this. And it pissed me off. Now, I knew we had to correct course.

His father and I developed a plan. It was simple, I would give an extra day for weekend homework. If something was due on Monday, Matthew’s was due on Tuesday. We were trying to make this situation work. To be honest, I would have no clue how to function if my mom was taken away from me in 8th grade.

Chapter 7 vocabulary was due the following Monday. To my surprise, Matthew's homework was on top. I look at this, then I call Matthew over to my desk. I remind Matthew if he needs an extra day, we allotted for that. His response blew me away.

“Mr.Marks, My mom and I talked about it. And she told me I need to have my homework completed when the assignment is due. This is why she risked her life for me to be born here. This is why I am here and she is there. The way I do my mom well is by completing all my work and getting the best grades possible.” He says.

This moment rocked me to my core. I learned something. Yes, this is why she risked her life to immigrate to the United States. I see that I was trying to help out Matthew… But maybe I was hurting him.

I understood that I need to hold Matthew to the same standard as everyone else. We can work together, but getting him the proper education is vital. I understood where his mom is coming from. By holding him to the same standards it wouldn’t allow him to use his “home life” as a crutch. But instead Motivation.

From that moment on, Matthew was able to find common ground. His grades changed. And I learned to be more understanding.

Matthew and his family brought a new light, into my life. They showed me resilience. They showed me how to fight. By being empathetic to their circumstances, I felt the hardships Matthew was going through. Which enabled us to create a working environment that does his mom proud, and allows him to prosper.

I am happy to report, Matthew went from Failing to Passing.

Also, all the names in this story have been changed to protect their identity.