The Misadventures of Mr. Tomato, Substitute Teacher
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I am a substitute teacher.

How I wish there was another name for my job title. The word "substitute" carries such a negative connotation. Whenever we substitute something, we usually replace it with an item that doesn't measure up to the original. For example: "We've just substituted Mrs. Jones' favorite coffee with a cheap, inferior brand." Or that well-worn line: "Accept no substitutes!"

Still, someone has to take over the reins when the head cowboy is too sick to control the herd. Sometimes Chewbaca has to fly the Millennium Falcon when Han Solo is incapacitated from too many drinks at the cantina. You get the idea.

A substitute teacher's day begins early. Mine usually starts with a phone call at 5:30 A.M. The voice at the other end belongs to Maria from the Brand X School District.

"Good morning, Joe. Would you like to teach a fourth grade class today?"

It never fails to amaze me how effervescent Maria is at such an early hour. I must ask her what brand of espresso she buys at the market.

I accept the assignment, and a few hours later I'm in a beautifully decorated classroom. The atmosphere is calm, and not a word is being spoken. Of course, it's five minutes before the bell rings, so all the students are still in the hallway. I hear them outside, and I know they're talking about me. I saw the gleam in their eyes and the horns on their heads as I walked past them and inserted the key -- a substitute key -- into their classroom door.

There's the bell.

A few minutes later, I'm standing in front of 30 nine-year-olds. I scan the crowd. In front of me is a little girl in pigtails. She probably has a paper airplane in her desk, which will take off in my direction the moment I turn around to write my name on the chalkboard.

"Good morning, boys and girls." I smile to show them I'm their friend. Making no sudden moves, I turn around and pick up a piece of chalk. The largest one is about a half-inch long. I quickly turn around to see if the little girl in pigtails has launched her airplane. Not yet.

I write my name on the board and pronounce it. "Mr. Tore-toe-mah-see." Almost every class never fails to shoot back with snickers and confused looks on their faces. A hand shoots up. "Will there be any math homework tonight, Mr. Tomato?"

The class giggles. I smile to show I'm a good sport. There will be homework for you, my little ferret.

I tell everyone to take out their math books and open to page 137. Everyone does, except for the ferret. Every substitute teacher has a ferret in their classroom. He's the one who makes you question why you changed your major from philosophy to education.

"Mr. Tortilla, I don't have no math book."

"It's Mr. Tortomasi. The Queen of England has outlawed double negatives. And where is your math book?" I ask.


Here's where years of educational experience come in. I tell the ferret to sit next to a girl and share her math book. He grimaces. Checkmate.

When the math lesson has ended, I assign 12 multiplication problems for homework. I look at my fallen angel. "Does that answer your previous question?"

"Yes, Mr. Tortoise."

The rest of the morning goes pretty well, considering that a few students keep using the same tired ploys to wear down the substitute. Going to the bathroom is a top ten favorite. My ability to discern if a student really has to go is based on years in the educational field. I have three ways to identify an exploding bladder.

Number One. Be wary of students who are calm when asking to use the restroom. I'm over 50. My prostate and I know what a full bladder feels like.

Number Two. Learn to recognize pain in the eyes. Don't jump to conclusions if there is a yellowish tinge in skin color. This may simply be jaundice.

Number Three. If two boys have been talking to each other all morning and ask to go, do the math. What are the odds that two nine-year-olds have identical size bladders? A lesson on statistics would be appropriate here.

By the time lunch rolls around, the kids are hungry (and probably have bladders the size of Alaska if they didn't go to the restroom at recess). The ferret, especially, is walking with crossed legs, which brings a smile of Grinch proportions to my face.

After lunch, I hit my stride. The kids are pronouncing my name correctly, except for you-know-who. We read and discuss a chapter on the California Gold Rush of 1849. They write a short summary of the chapter, along with an illustration. My special friend outdoes himself on the artwork.

"Miners did not use cell phones in 1849," I say.

"Sorry, Mr. Tortilla."

The last bell rings, and most of the kids make a break for the door, except for the ferret. He is one of the last students out. He stops at the threshold, slowly turns around, and, wearing this incredible smile, says, "Good-bye, Mr. Tortomasi."

A quiet warmth rises in my chest, just long enough to divert my attention from the paper airplane headed my way.

I was right about that little girl with the pigtails.

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