Lethal Teaching Tricks: Mr. Killstudent, Substitute Teacher
The self-titled debut. And just like our finest rappers, I have decided to use my first release to introduce myself. I would have written it earlier, but I’ve been all Brian Wilson kinds of obsessive about it. I’d have an idea, sit down to type, then get distracted and end up wasting the rest of the night on YouTube. I wanted to have a perfect posting career, then retire with a batting average of 1.000. I wanted to be the Ian Curtis, or Steve Nebraska, of nonpretentious. But I suppose instead I’ll take that crappy old advice that has gotten me absolutely nowhere with women: be yourself. After all, Curtis hanged himself after two perfect albums anyway, and Nebraska nearly went direct-to-video.
And debuts haven’t been my strength. My first day of substitute teaching I forgot to even write my name on the board. This is big because a substitute teacher has very few responsibilities: 1) put your name on the board; 2) attendance; 3) hand out the worksheet or push play on the VCR; and 4) shushing. Missing one of these quickly knocked me down to a 75% (a “C”, I suppose), and my substitute teaching career was barely an hour old.
But I realized that no one had asked for my name or noticed that it wasn’t there. Rather than feeling insulted, I began to enjoy the anonymity of the moment. Because when someone feels they know who you are, they instantly begin to have expectations that you will continue to fit that image – and we too often adjust our own behavior to comply. I felt that just by writing my last name – preceded by “Mr.” – on the board, I would already be surrendering to the inertia of professionalism, and soon I would become just like the teachers that bored me for 12 years. Instead, by going nameless, I was momentarily freed from the tyranny of identity, and wanted to see how long I could milk it.
Two weeks went by, subbing at the high school I graduated from, completely unrecognized, unnoticed, and unnamed, except the occasional “hey” or “Mr. Sub Dude” – until one fateful day, my first one subbing at a high school the next town over, which was decidedly smaller, less wealthy, less white.
I took attendance and assigned the classwork, and as usual did not mention my name. Then, about fifteen minutes into first hour, a girl raised her hand for help and squinted at the chalkboard.
“Mr….uh….Mr….um….why ain’t your name on the board?! Ain’t you know all substitute teachers ‘posed to put their name on the board?!”
I looked at her, startled by her aggressiveness, not sure what to do. I felt somehow this was an important test. I think the class felt it too, because I noticed that everyone had looked up from their assignments and were completely silent, waiting for what would happen next.
I didn’t want to refuse to tell her my name. She had simply asked for my name, which wasn’t such a tall order. Yet as I turned around and grabbed a piece of chalk, I thought of how lame it would be to simply write my name, and how lame I would look to the other kids, having sheepishly appeased her demands. So instead, for whatever reason, I wrote “Mr. Killstudent.”
I turned around and looked directly at the girl, trying to sustain my best poker face
“Mr. KILLstudent?! That ain’t your real name, is it?” Pause. “IS it?”
I calmly replied, “you can call me Mr. K, for short, if you want.”
That’s when their stares warmed over into smiles, and for the rest of the day, the kids delighted in raising their hands, calling me over to help them with their Biology: “Mr. KILLstudent! I need he-elp!”, followed by a smattering of giggles.
“You don’t have to make fun of my name,” I’d say, keeping a straight face. “Kids in school always used to make fun of me.”
I was having too much fun to wonder what my bosses – or the kids’ parents – would think if they heard about this, and how a Mr. Killstudent could exist in a post-Columbine, post-9/11, post-fun world. I didn’t really think about how all those serious people out there, with jowls and furrowed brows, wouldn’t get the joke.
The important part was that the kids got it, and two days later I was back in the same class – the students had requested me back (I never found out exactly how they asked for me). First thing in the morning, two girls walk through the door and one says to the other, “ooh look! We got Mr. Keelstudin’, he coo’.”
I went on to use several other names – “Mr. Miyagi,” “Mr. Whiteman,” “Mr. E” (when they ask what it’s “short for”, I pretend to not understand the question, and tell them my last name is simply “E”) – depending on who I felt like that day. Sometimes I even use my legal name. But Mr. Killstudent remains my favorite. It reminds me that no one really knows who they are or what they’re doing or, most of all, why they are being so deadly serious about it. Particularly those who run schools. Mr. Killstudent wants everyone to learn, yes, but he also wants everyone to just go out and play.
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