My Time as a 'Cool' Substitute Teacher and a Complete Trainwreck

I showed up hungover, sent kids to Starbucks for coffee, and let my students do whatever they wanted. They loved me.

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Feb 18 2015, 3:50pm

Photo via Flickr user chrislstubbs

In the summer of 2004, I had just graduated with a degree in screenwriting; I was also drinking heavily and riddled with anxiety. I had zero prospects as a professional screenwriter, and my persistent laziness, coupled with my even more persistent belief that I was too good for work, left me unqualified for most jobs. Except substitute teaching. So I took the CBEST, a standardized test that proves you can both recognize alphanumeric symbols and operate a pencil, and forged a couple of letters of recommendation. With those accomplishments, plus a pulse, no criminal record, and the unmistakable stench of hopelessness, I met Beverly Hills Unified School District's stringent expectations for their subs. At least, I'm assuming they hired me because of those qualities, and not the adult braces I'd recently had strapped to my face. (It was a bad summer)

Everything about my first day back on a high school campus was comforting: the Flamin' Hot Cheetos for breakfast, the ever-present smell of body spray and freshly stubbed-out cigs. I had been paying my own rent and avoiding my own bill collectors for two harrowing months, so when I pulled up at 7 AM, the gangsta rap that blared from expensive subwoofers was like mother's milk: a chance to march the wrong way down to escalator that is life and spend another chunk of time worried about when third period was over and whether the cute boys liked me.

I have felt like a fraud at many points in life, but perhaps never as distinctly as the first time I walked into a room full of dull young minds and introduced myself as their teacher. I might have even been nervous if any of them had acknowledged my existence.

"Hi, I'm Miss Barker." Miss Barker. I hated the sound of that. "You guys?" One friendless kid looked up from his phone.

"Are you our teacher?"

"Yes. OK. Quiet guys. Quiet. I said quiet!"

"How old are you?"

"Look, you guys have to watch this video and take notes. OK? You guys? Please?"

Two girls grew tired of their conversation about whom had performed fellatio on whom this weekend. One of them looked at me on accident. "Can I listen to my iPod?"

I thought about it for a moment. iPods were definitely on the list of things not allowed in school.

"Sure. But if another adult comes in, I'm going to lie and say I didn't let you."

"Seriously?! You're the shit!"

"We can listen to our iPods?!"

"What do I care?" I shrugged, trying to clue them into the fact that I was just a teenager who had gotten four years older.

"She is the shit!"

And with that, all 30 of them immediately went silent and took out their headphones. This is when I learned the most important rule of substitute teaching: Just let the kids do whatever the fuck they want. The less effort I put in, the higher my approval ratings would be. I knew this was the perfect job for me.

The author in her adult braces

It didn't take long before my reputation as "that cool sub" spread like Flamin' Hot Cheetos powder. Every walk through the hall was filled with high fives and patronizing remarks from coworkers, who felt the need to tell me that I "might want to cover up" because bare midriffs were against school dress code.

I had forgotten, until I became one, what a miracle substitute teachers were. That name on the board, that glorious video cart, meant world civ test answers could be stolen from the teacher's desk. Hall passes could be magic tickets to an afternoon of smoking weed in the parking lot while listening to Britney Spears. At the very least, none of us would be saddled with any of that oppressive learning bullshit. Now I had finished school and jumped right back in as that angel of mercy. I was that sigh of relief. My presence meant there would be no test, no lecture. There would be naps and 45-minute bathroom breaks. Outside the walls of this hollow institution, I was another email for an agent to ignore, an asshole with adult braces in line for improv classes. Here, the mere sight of me literally brought people to their knees with joy and gratitude.

It also afforded me a lot of time to do whatever I felt like. I read the classics. I wrote a 30 Rock spec script. I gave permission for kids to go to Starbucks during class, as long as those fuckers bought me coffee too. I got pulled, once again, into the principal's office for yet another suggestion that "maybe I could cover up a little more." I watched The Lion King in Spanish umpteen times. I stole snacks from stranger's desks. I slept off countless weekday morning hangovers during recesses and pass periods.

Once, while trying to recoup my losses at an open bar "entertainment industry networking event" that had cost $75 to attend, I accidentally accepted a sub job by phone while blackout drunk. (I know. I can't believe I paid to go to a networking event either.) I woke up facedown on my friend's couch to the sound of my phone ringing. The district's number was on caller ID. Fuck. I told some lie about how I was stuck in West Hollywood with a flat tire. Luckily, I was still so drunk that there was no way I could drive to school anyway. I stood up and immediately vomited, begged my friend for an Adderall, and called a cab.

I stumbled into the front office a half-hour late and still wearing my spandex dress and stilettos from the night before. Fake eyelashes dotted my face and it felt like droplets of vodka oozed from my pores. The Adderall had kicked in, which wasn't sobering me up so much as making me enthusiastic about how inebriated I still was. I licked my lips, pulled my dress down over the bottom of my ass cheeks, and marched into the principal's office to get my room key. Amazingly, no one said anything to me about how I was dressed.

When I got to my classroom, the kids applauded and whistled at me. "You look hot, Miss Barker!" "Damn! Are you a model or something?"

"Oh, stop." I meant it. I was even too hungover for compliments. I threw up a little in my mouth. "You guys, I drank a lot last night."

Silence. Shit. I shouldn't have said that.

"No problem, Miss Barker. Everyone, be cool," demanded Anthony, a junior who regularly reeked of marijuana.

For the entire rest of the class, out of respect for my apparent alcohol poisoning, every single kid was quiet. People give teenagers such a bad rap, but they really can be considerate if you just get on their level.

I was even too hungover for compliments. I threw up a little in my mouth. "You guys, I drank a lot last night."

But in subbing, as in life, just when you get comfortable—when you've hit that sweet spot of showing up to work violently hungover while managing to not get fired—the (literal) man upstairs throws you a curve ball.

One day, during a history class I had been put in charge of, there was a that echoey ding over the intercom. "Attention students. Officer Dixon and his K-9 unit are conducting a random search in Lot B." The voice droned on but my head went dizzy. I swallowed hard. Lot B. I parked in Lot B. K-9 unit? I mentally scanned the garbage-lined seats of my car: the week-old fountain drinks, the rotting sports bras, the flecks of marijuana that had settled into every seam of the interior. I quickly searched the room for the coolest looking kid.

"Hey. You. Jude?"

Jude, a senior with facial hair and a Hooter's shirt, approached my desk.

"Are they talking about drug dogs?" I asked him through the side of my mouth.

"Yeah. They're randomly searching us now. So weak."

That was exactly the answer I had been hoping for.

"Jude. I need you to move my car." His eyes widened and his brow furrowed. I handed him my keys and my substitute teacher badge. They really should have put pictures on those things. I quickly scrawled my number on the back of a hall pass and told Jude he could go to Starbucks, and to text me when he was safely off campus. For the next five minutes, my eyes darted back and forth from the second hand on the wall clock to my cell phone screen. I envisioned my imminent arrest. I paced around my desk. This job could be so stressful. Finally, my phone vibrated with a magical "OK."

The trick really is just trusting kids to do the right thing.

After four years of subbing, I was so popular that I couldn't walk through the halls without people stopping to tell me that I was their favorite sub. Real teachers regularly requested me because they didn't know any better, and frequently, when walking around the surrounding area, I would stumble across a couple kids getting stoned in broad daylight. They would freeze, panicked, before one of them realized, "It's just Miss Barker. She doesn't care." I loved high school the first time, but the second time, with a paycheck and without any of that homework nonsense, I was really loving it—and that was the problem.

One morning, while listening the the Beatles and free drawing in an art class, one of my kids blindsided me with one of the most depressing questions I've ever been asked: "Miss Barker, are you going to be a substitute teacher forever?" The worst part was that she was smiling. Like she was happy for me. My eyes welled up with tears. I was going to have to graduate myself.

"Guys. Listen up. I'm gonna be your teacher for the rest of the semester, so just a heads up, I'm going to give you all As. Show up if you want. Don't if you don't."

As luck had it, as soon as I decided to quit subbing, I was offered a two-month job as a the long-term dance sub. I had my own office next to the head cheerleading coach, and was getting paid to make up dances to Pink songs. This would be the perfect swan song to my storied career as a sub. Two of my classes were full of actual dancers who I think might have resented the fact that I wasn't a real teacher (at least that's what I surmised from their frequent eye-rolling and dismissive remarks like, "That is not hip-hop"). My favorite class, though, was my seniors—a bunch of lazy underachievers who had clearly signed up for dance because they had failed PE at some point and needed the credits to graduate. These were my people.

On my first day with them, I surprised them by asking them all to sit quietly. "Guys. Listen up. I'm gonna be your teacher for the rest of the semester, so just a heads up, I'm going to give you all As. Show up if you want. Don't if you don't." They stared incredulously at each other. "I'm quitting this job, and I may as well hook you guys up on my way out. What are they gonna do, fire me?"

That moment, watching the sheer joy on all 30 of their little underachieving faces, is the closest I have ever felt to being Oprah. There really is something to be said about committing random acts of kindness and gross negligence. The world is full of hard asses and rule followers who will always be ruining everyone's good time with their attempts to do the right thing, and I'm so glad that for four glorious years, I had a chance to counter that, because everyone deserves a break every once in a while, even alcoholics with adult braces.

Follow Tess Barker on Twitter.

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