When I was in high school, we were total terrors to our substitute teachers. Why they didn’t equip our subs with ringmail armor, mace (the spray kind, not the spiky hand weapon kind) and duct tape, I don’t know. We were uncooperative and rude. It was just what we did. Well, some of us. (I’m sure my more upstanding classmates will be saying “oh, not me!” – bullcrap. You too.)
In my tenth grade year, I was in a generalized speech/drama class. Once you got into your junior year, you could stick with that program and specialize in either drama or debate. Both had a heavy slate of competitions and events across the state, competing with drama geeks and debate teams from other schools. It was as competitive and, with the 4:30am wake-up times to get on the bus to make the long trip, as grueling as anything the athletics departments subjected themselves too. There were no pads and no helmets to hide behind. You dressed up to the nines (well, okay, I tended to kind of do my own thing there, setting a lifetime pattern that has led to this moment, in which my unemployed ass is sitting here before crashing for the night, telling you this story), you were judged on your appearance and your voice. There was no defensive line to take the heat off of you if you sat through the awards ceremony at the end of the day and won nothing because you simply weren’t good enough to merit a mention. I think I would’ve rather been tackled to the ground sometimes, honestly.
The teacher was a lovely, if slightly scatterbrained, lady named Mattie McCray. In some small way, she seemed to be just slightly “out of it” at all times. (As I’ve gotten older and had a kid, I’ve grown to sympathize.) She was terribly patient, but not fond of being ignored. She’d just been gone for a day, during which we were assigned busy work by the sub. It was literally the only time that year that we’d had to crack open our otherwise dust-gathering textbooks. Naturally, I hadn’t bothered to read the material. On the ond hand, I found it insulting, and I was a rebellious teenaged dipshit. On the other hand, I had five fingers which were more inclined to draw fiddygibbers on a blank sheet of paper. It was just how I rolled: downhill, very fast, in an academic sense.
The day Mrs. McCray came back, she was not amused with the reports of our behavior. I can’t really say I blame her. Me now, as a parent, would probably time travel back and knock the snot out of me then.
Our sentence was a pop quiz: we had to write essay answers to questions about the material.
A lot of it, on the structure of and preparation for a public presentation, I was able to bluff my way through, crapping out minimum-effort answers which barely met the minimum requirements of being coherent sentences in the English language. After a while, though, my stubborn streak returned: this was an insulting waste of our precious time. We had better things to do. And so I threw a curveball for my final answer.
Mrs. McCray took up all of our papers, her body language putting us on notice: she was still pissed. We were still in hot water.
Perhaps not the best of times to throw in a smart-ass jokey answer to a quiz question. I wasn’t really good at judging “the room” back in those days.
And boy, could I tell when she got to mine. Her face went beet red. I had a feeling my dad would be getting a call about this one.
Then she got to that last answer. My last answer. Boy, was this ever going to be my last answer.
Q: When does delivery [of a speech] begin?
A: After labor ends.
She just stared at it.
And then she cracked a smile. And then she burst out laughing.
She and I never said a cross word to one another, even once, after that.
I was in her drama class for the rest of high school. And whether it was for competitions, or whatever play we were doing at the school that semester, I worked my ass off. Once I knew I could make her laugh on a day like that, I tried never to let her down and tried never to abuse that trust.
As scatterbrained as she could be while trying to keep all the plates spinning, she was one of my favorite teachers, and one of the few who got what I was about at that age. Along with my English teacher, Pat Werner, McCray gave me something of a safety net and a safe haven. I was prone to lashing out in those days, especially in my senior year, and doing stupid and hurtful things to myself and others. There was no one to answer to at home (which was the real problem in a nutshell), what was to stop me?
The safety net that kept me from doing anything more stupid than I was already doing was that I was worried about what two of my teachers would think of me. And back then, that was a pretty good safety net to have. Years after I graduated (barely), I dropped by, said hi, and awkwardly tried to let both of them know that they’d changed my life. I got the equally awkward embarrassed response: we were just doing our jobs.
They did (though the word “just” absolutely doesn’t belong in that sentence up there), and that made more of a difference than they could’ve imagined. Because, even though I’m sure they both had far more troubled (and maybe far more memorable) students than me, at that time when I needed to feel like I mattered to somebody, I felt – just for a while – like I did.
I’m sure that, for them, that was one labor that never ended.