Subbing Turns Mom into Fly on the Wall

Ever want to be a fly on the wall at your teenager's high school? Flapping your tiny wings a million times per second, you'd buzz from room to room for an insider's view of life as a teen. Assuming nobody swatted you, you might even learn a few things.

For an entire semester, I've donned the buggy-eyed, swift-winged existence of a housefly, flitting from classroom to classroom as a substitute teacher. That's right — I'm “The Sub.”

As a writer and mother, subbing seemed like the perfect part-time job. I work as little or as much as I like, accepting assignments on days when it's convenient for me, declining when I'm already booked with writing, housework, or activities for my children.

Without a teaching certificate, my subbing alternatives are limited to the parochial schools in my area that require only a college degree and some relevant work experience. I ruled out the elementary grades as I've already heard enough flatulence jokes to last a lifetime. I have a fifth grade son, after all.

So after obtaining an OK from my daughter, a sophomore, I signed onto the sub roster at our Catholic high school.

My first assignment? Art. Never mind that I can't really draw much beyond stick figures. I was headed to the classroom.

The night before my subbing debut, I lay in bed practicing what I'd say at the start of class. I figured I'd offer an abbreviated version of my résumé, bolstering my credibility and creating an atmosphere of respect to offset any assumption that I was just a glorified baby sitter.

Within the first 60 seconds, I realized I was, in fact, just a glorified baby sitter. Nobody needed to know my name, much less my professional or educational background.

What they really wanted to know was whether I would liberally grant passes to the bathroom or if they'd have to hop from foot to foot to convince me of their urgent need for indoor plumbing.

After a few substitute teaching assignments, my daughter let me know my reputation: I'm “The Cool Sub.” Ironically, this is the first time I've ever been cool in high school. I'm not putting too much stock in this information, though. I know I'm only cool because I don't consider myself a teacher.

Instead, I view my role as a human sedative. As long as I keep noise and energy levels from escalating beyond “reasonably rowdy” to “completely uncontrolled,” I'm doing my job. Also, I don't mark people tardy, I don't report dress code violations, and I don't make a huge fuss about chewing gum unless it passes through a student's lips and becomes a potential health hazard for everyone else.

If there's a trick to subbing, it's “never let 'em see you sweat.”

Case in point: To kill time with a roomful of freshmen I introduce them to a party game called “Personalities.” Each person writes the name of a celebrity on a slip of paper, and then the names are read aloud twice. Players can't make a list of the names — they have to remember them. The game is to guess who wrote each celebrity name, testing memory and insight into the other players (my educational excuse to play).

I explain the rules and pass out slips of paper, roaming the room to collect their entries. Resuming my place at the podium, I slowly read the names aloud. “George Bush” … “Britney Spears” … “Shaquille O'Neal.”

All the celebrity names are familiar to me except one. I read it anyway — it's something like “Bambi” or “Fawn.”

As soon as I say the name aloud, all the boys fall apart. One student literally tips backward in his chair and lands on the floor. A few guys laugh so hard they start crying.

Clearly, this is the name of a porn star. I've been played.

I decide to prove I can't be rattled so easily. I read the celebrity monikers again, in the same order, only when I get to “Bambi” (or was it “Fawn”?) I say it louder, enunciating clearly, smiling right at the student I think is responsible. He shrinks a little in his chair. Probably, it's dawned on him that I know his mother.

Subbing doesn't pay enough for this kind of stress.

In fact, I think they should compensate subs in chocolate and Merlot. After you figure in the cost of working (taxes, transportation, dry-cleaning, the inevitable pizza or Chinese takeout), that's about all you can get out of it.

Then again, it's enlightening, if not lucrative. My occasional stints as a sub remind me how much pressure teenagers feel to fit in, to stand out, to be invisible, to be recognized — all while enduring pop quizzes, acne, and the scrutiny of their peers.

There are surveys and studies that tell us things are different for today's teens than for generations past. The impact of technology and the standards for success have raised the bar.

Still, buzzing through the harrowing halls of high school, the atmosphere feels to me a lot like it did 25 years ago.

If nothing else, subbing helps me remember this every afternoon when I ask my sophomore daughter, “How was your day?”

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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