Guest Writers

Substitute Preacher by Zach Sparer #twits

Zach Sparer. Isn

Today’s guest blogger is Zach Sparer. I first met Zach in 1999 as a student in my 11th grade English class. He was in 5th period. I remember this because I was pregnant, and I usually hurled right before 5th period.

Zach always came to class. And he quickly stood out as an outstanding thinker and writer. His papers were flawless. His thought-process was sophisticated. I started to wonder what he would be when he grew up.

Zach watched me gain 65 pounds, and we have stayed in touch since 1999 — which some people might think is weird. Maybe it is. But whether he likes it or not, he’s pretty much stuck with me.

You can read Zach’s blog Faux Outrage HERE. Here’s his teacher memory.

• • •

Substitute Preacher

Nobody asked for my opinion, but I eventually decided that she deserved some time off.

Ms. Jacobson was pregnant after all, and pregnant women should not be required to teach fifth period English. In fact, I came to realize, pregnant women should not be required to teach any period of English. Or anything else for that matter. For a brief time, pregnant women should be entirely devoid of periods.

They should also say goodbye to: colons, ampersands, and Oxford commas. They should take a semester off — or a trimester, at the very least.

Nobody asked for my opinion, but it was settled: She should leave.

And so she did leave, in the same unremarkable way that every important person in your life leaves: quietly, the syncopation of careful footsteps echoing like a heartbeat muffled by the floorboards.

Twenty-four hours later, there was a stranger standing in front of the classroom.

• • •

The man before us wore a red scarf and was enveloped in a dark brown tweed jacket devoid, amazingly, of professorial patches on each elbow. I immediately begin to wonder whether he was disappointed that New York state law prevented him from smoking a pipe in a high school classroom. I learned that he was there to teach us F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s The Great Gatsby, among other lessons, but realized rather quickly that his outfit and demeanor were not the result of an elaborate plan to introduce and discuss the social cultures of East Egg vs. West Egg.

We paused, mouths agape.

Who was this guy?

Suddenly, it became clear what was (or wasn’t) going to happen. The students in the classroom, looking bored as usual in their tiny metal chairs, came to an immediate, telepathic understanding: This was not going to work. No one discussed the plan — there was nothing to be discussed — and nobody winked, smirked, nodded, or passed a note.

We just knew.

Looking back, our banding together so quickly was actually a beautiful moment. Pushed together between those off-beige, pockmarked concrete walls sat the girls who never picked up a pencil off the ground in their lives and the Jocks who bought them wine coolers, the Nerds and Geeks who argued about which group encompassed the other, the kids struggling with learning disabilities and the Goths who struggled with most everything else, the Motorheads, the Motor-mouths, and Chameleons — like myself — who happily blended into the background.

We quickly recognized our substitute teacher as a bitter, spiteful man. He monopolized classroom time with personal tales of woe, of his past rejections — in love and in life and in publishing — uncomfortable stories not normally shared with still-developing high school students. He sprinkled in what were to be understood an episodes of personal triumph, but we could tell that he didn’t believe his own hype. More importantly, we could tell that what he did believe was that he was superior to the substitute teacher responsibilities that he was expected to carry out, and that he felt he had been dealt a bad hand, in life and every fifth period Monday through Friday.

Throughout his tenure (a word, thankfully, I am using to mean “period during which something is held” as opposed to “status of holding one’s position on a permanent basis”), he had an unnerving habit where he would make a negative example of certain students in the classroom. He denied those deemed unworthy the right to speak up or to ask questions. He broke up groups of friends and allowed others to remain. He didn’t play favorites; rather, he played Whack-A-Mole with the young adults he felt were not worthy of dignity or confidence.

He thought that he was too good for us.

One day, he sent two of my peers to the principal’s office. They had been tossed aside because they did not show appropriate reverence to our substitute preacher. They had spoken out of turn. They were non-believers, heretics.

A few minutes after they were sent out, our “leader” began to speculate about the quality of their home lives. The students tossed from the classroom were hardly my friends, but at that moment, they were my brother and sister. I sat there shaking my head slowly, and then faster, and then not at all.

I was listening to a grown man — someone hired to inspire — ridicule his students behind their backs, in front of their peers.

I was done blending in.

My hand was raised, high in the air.


What was it doing there, I wondered?

He was wondering, too.

“I don’t understand why you’re talking about those people. They’re not even here.”

“Why should I stop?”

“Because that’s the way I was brought up.”

He froze.

The chameleon, no longer camouflaged, seemed to have startled him.

There was a long, sweet pause.

The tension that day in the classroom eventually subsided and, a few weeks later, the congregants of fifth period English were reintroduced to a less barfy, more maternal version of Ms. Jacobson.

Time has a way of passing.

• • •

While I am uneasy with the tidy conclusion that this short-lived experience in the classroom changed my life in a truly fundamental way, I do believe that publicly speaking out that day, against a person in a position of authority, helped shape my perspective of what it means to be engaged in a functioning, polite society.

Though I am loathe to overstate the importance of this singular event, this substitute teacher — a “negative experience” by all accounts — did help me realize that the social hierarchies and classes we are crammed into (e.g., “teacher,” “student”) are not by themselves sufficiently descriptive. We are so much more — or less, as they case may be — than mere titles suggest.

I guess I learned a little bit about The Great Gatsby after all.

Got any substitute teacher stories to share?

• • •

If you have writing chops and are interested in submitting a piece of writing for #TWITS: Teachers Who I Think Scored / Teachers Who I Think Sucked, write a specific memory about one teacher you had and explain how that person helped you (or really screwed things up for you), as well as the life lesson you took away from the interaction. Essays should be around 700-800 words.

Interested but have questions? Email me!

My information is under the Contact Me tab.

21 thoughts on “Substitute Preacher by Zach Sparer #twits

  1. Zach! Thank you so much for this! All I remember about my leave of absence — besides a lot of crying and puking on my part — was that when I came back, you all looked positively shell-shocked.

    You all seemed so relived that I had returned.

    Now I understand why everyone did everything I asked for the remainder of the year without any grief.

    Thank you for being my guest blogger here today.

    I hope people will head over to Zach’s blog and check out is stuff. He has some great stuff there, he does. 😉

    1. I *do* have some great stuff at my blog! I also have some crummy stuff, but I’ll leave it to you guys to figure out which is which 😉

      I’m honored to be a guest blogger today! I’ll be putzing around this comments section to answer any questions and make awful puns.

    1. I think part of what was so shocking about this one particular situation is that we generally were pretty lucky with subs at my high school. By then, we were all used to some sense of aloofness from our subs, but never this brand of straight-forward, unapologetic jerkiness.

  2. We call our substitute teachers, “subs.” I assume this means that in other parts of the country, they’re referred to as “hoagies” or “grinders”?

  3. Fantastic post. If I had been in class with you, I would have applauded. But, it would have been creepy because I would have been a 27-year-old high school student and probably they would have arrested me or something. The world could use more people that speak up and speak out against injustice, big or small. Nice to meet you, Zach!

    1. If you applauded, you would have been the only one 🙂

      Thinking back, it is entirely possible that the only person who was listening at the time was the intended recipient of the “advice.” In the Disney version of this story, everyone would have cheered and we all would agree to learn a very serious lesson, but the reality is that no one cared much at the time. It was a pin-prick. A sharp, staccato painful moment followed by — nothing.

      We just moved on…

      (Nice meeting you, too!)

  4. Wow! First of all 65 pounds and your back to your original weight? I have new respect for you Rene. Hahaha!

    Zack – You can tell a story! I hope you are writing a book. Your story brought back a memory of a heinous teacher I had in 7th grade. I love your description, “Pushed together between those off-beige, pockmarked concrete walls sat the girls who never picked up a pencil off the ground in their lives and the Jocks who bought them wine coolers, the Nerds and Geeks who argued about which group encompassed the other, the kids struggling with learning disabilities and the Goths who struggled with most everything else, the Motorheads, the Motor-mouths, and Chameleons — like myself — who happily blended into the background.”- Excellent!

    I also liked how in a very mild mannered way, you put your teacher in his place!

    1. Thanks, Susie!

      I probably should add this epilogue: By the time Renee came back to the classroom, this substitute and I were on good terms. I “put him in his place” — it’s true — but we both moved on pretty quickly. In the moment, he knew that what he was doing was wrong (even if it took someone holding up a mirror for him to *really* realize) and I could tell he did immediately feel regret. My story ends with an exclamation point, but it’s worth noting that the target of my ire (I think!) learned the intended lesson.

  5. Great post Zach and good for you for standing up for what was right! Sadly the thing I remember about most of the subs I ever had was they always seemed so disorganized and unprepared… perhaps because they had been called just that morning to teach some class they knew nothing about?!?! That’s got to be one of the most difficult jobs out there, to be a substitute teacher. Still no excuse for being a complete ass! BTW your writing skills are excellent, nice work!

    1. Thanks!

      Also: You’re right. When we think of substitute teachers, we tend to gravitate toward the idea that they are scatterbrained or disorganized (although in retrospect, I’m guessing they were probably just insanely nervous or called into school 15 minutes before the homeroom bell went off).

      I think my classmates and I were expecting a cliche to walk into the classroom — and we did get one — just not the specific cliche we had in mind. The fact that this guy seemed to have such a specific, awful plan (“I’ll be the professor from Wonder Boys and they will love me!”) is probably what made it so easy for this gang of 5th period misfits to band together (were we a gang or a band?) and, as a group, refuse to learn.

  6. Great post Zach – the conduct of yourself and your classmates speaks to Renee’s positive qualities even more than it does to the substitute’s negative qualities. I was reminded of the subsitute teacher I had in third grade when my teacher found herself in the same interesting situation. But the substitute was actually pretty nice and more lenient than our regular teacher. Although we all liked our regular teacher, I think we were all a little disappointed when she returned because we wouldn’t be able to get away with the same nonsense that the subsitute tolerated.

    1. Sometimes you get lucky. I was usually partial to the subs who bought us off with candy — it usually worked.

      You bring up an interesting point, too: Did Renee plan this whole ordeal so we would miss her and long for her return? The plot thickens….

    1. A few years ago, my roommate at the time actually wrote me in for an unopposed local government position. I promise you that he did not vote for me for the reasons you listed. I was just the first name he thought of to write in the line. In any case, I “lost” and the District of Columbia was spared my wrath. Whew.

  7. Wonderful story, Zach! Thanks for sharing it. I don’t know if I have any memorable substitute teacher stories, but I will never forget my college freshman Psych 101 teacher. He was about a thousand years old (I don’t know why you think I’m exaggerating) and racist. I don’t know why no one ever stood up to him. Then again, you’re the exception, not the rule. *this is me cheering for you*

    1. I think we are all secretly the exception to the rule. I mean, it’s not as though I’ve been living a life standing up for injustice since that day. (I am a lawyer, after all.) The subtext of the story, I think, is that this kind of courage is in all of us, if we just allow ourselves to raise our hands. I think we are all capable of surprising ourselves — for better or for worse — when we open our mouths in key situations.

  8. Of course, having read the post that follows this, I know that the real reason Zach missed his proper teacher so much was her double entendres.

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