[This piece was originally published in Barrelhouse back in December 2009, but seems to be offline now, so I'm posting it again here.]
A substitute walked into our 6th grade math class. He was thin and old and wearing a black suit. A frayed cuff appeared from under his sleeve as he tapped out a name full of Ys and Zs on the board. In a measured voice, he read out the instructions from our teacher. “There is a work sheet,” he said. “You can complete for homework if you do not finish today.”
Instead of going behind our teacher’s metal desk, the man sat in one of the empty student desks at the edge of the room. Then he pulled out a small book in some strange language and adjusted a pair of wire-rimmed glasses on his nose. His hair, only half white, was carefully combed.
“Let me know please,” he said softly, looking up, “if you need help.”
No one said anything and the man retreated into his book. We were quiet for a while simply out of amazement that we had been given such a gift, such a helpless man to keep us under control! Within a few minutes the worksheets were put away. The talking started, then laughing, squeals. Desks screeched across the floor as friends moved closer to each other.
“Children,” the man said a few times. Whenever he spoke, we would lower our voices for maybe half a minute and then get loud again.
And soon we were very loud. The desks were vibrating with energy — so much noise, and in a place where there was always silence! The man put his book away and got up, but we knew he didn’t have the energy for real anger. He said something, I remember, about how we could have another activity if the worksheet wasn’t interesting. But we were all laughing too much to hear. A few people were crawling under desks. Even the inveterate rule followers were talking now, no longer warning of dire consequences when our real teacher came back.
The man stared at us and tried to say a few things. Then he put a finger in the air. I remember recognizing it as the gesture that cartoon characters made when they had an idea, except the man went very slowly and there was no joy on his face. He reached into another pocket of his coat and took out a book. Standing at the head of the class, he tried to read it to us — God knows what it was; presumably it was in English. No one paid attention. Without any reproaches he returned to his chair, rubbed his face a little, and waited until the bell released us from the room.
The next day our teacher came back. As she drew a diagram on the board, she said it was nice to hear how well we had behaved with the substitute. We looked around and realized that she was serious. The man had apparently written that all of the classes had behaved well. He wasn’t even willing to let someone else punish us — the height of weakness! Little looks of celebration went around the room. We handed in the worksheets we had finished at home and dutifully began copying down the diagram. We prayed that we would have the old man again as a substitute, but we never did, and now I can’t remember his name or a word of what he read to us, no matter how important it might have been — a just and merciless punishment.