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In certain circumstances it may be just as satisfying to be the runner-up as being named the winner. For instance, according to the International Ice Cream Association, vanilla is by far the preferred ice cream flavor over #2 choice, chocolate. Not one to dither over arbitrary titles, I’ll happily take a scoop of each.

In most cases, though, we don’t want to be the alternate, the understudy, the substitute. When the man of her dreams is kneeling before her with an open box in one hand, she’d rather not hear, “You weren’t my first choice but you came in a close second. Will you marry me?” On the highlight reel of her life, that invitation would come just before getting her older sister’s hand-me-downs and finding out her new ride is the family’s old minivan.

That’s the educational equivalent of walking into a classroom and telling the students you are their substitute teacher. Every child responds differently. Some greet this news with anxiety. Others welcome the occasional change to liven things up. Then there are those streetwise and entrepreneurial students who quickly size you up to determine how much of a fool you are and what they can get away with. When I recently filled in for a second grade teacher while she was away on her honeymoon, I met one such Machiavellian eight year-old. I had read them a story about a group of friends who build a clubhouse. After we finished, I dismissed them to their desks to draw a floor plan of their own clubhouse.

One little girl grabbed me and said, “Whenever we design a clubhouse, we alwaysget to use pipe cleaners and beads and glue and googly eyes. I know where they are. I can get them out.”

I gave her the look I’ve been perfecting for the last year and a half I’ve been substitute teaching. It’s a mixture of my “I’m-shocked-by-your-behavior!” look and my “You’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me” look. It involves some major eyebrow acrobatics but it’s pretty effective. I gave her a blank sheet of printer paper and sent her to her desk.

My no-nonsense approach is meant to convey that though I’m not the real thing, I’m the next best thing…and I’m all you’ve got today. A substitute teacher who wants to survive must have this approach or she’ll hear “That’s not the way Mrs. _____ does it!” all day long.

I wasn’t the only one who had to deal with the reality of being a substitute that week. I was surprised to learn that in the second grade, there is note-passing. Here’s the first one I found:


Boy: I like you, _______. (I erased the name to protect her identity.)

Girl #1: Cool. Will you give me candy?

Boy: Yes ________.

Girl #1: Fun dip please! OK?

Boy: OK. Don’t tell nobody

Girl #1: OK. And I want lolypops

She’s playing him like a violin made of Fun Dip and lollipops, right? Well, the saga continues. I found another note crumpled under a desk, same boy but different girl. It read:

Girl #2: Who do you like the most?

Boy: You, ______ (Girl #2. He’s a player.)

Girl #2: Can you tell me who you like the 2nd best?

Boy: You, ______ (Girl #2). Okay

Girl #2: What about 3rd?

Boy: You, ______ (Girl #2).

Girl #2: 4th?

Boy: You, ______ (Girl #2).

Girl #2: 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th?

Boy: You, ______ (Girl #2). All the time.

Girl #2: Really?

Boy: Yes. OK but for the record I don’t like you. I like _________ (Girl #1)


Girl #2: Who do you like more, me or _______ (Girl #1)?

Boy: I will think about it.

Love is not for those with fragile hearts! The second girl was smart to check where she stood with Casanova, Jr. After she realized her iffy spot in his affections, she was gone. No matter how much Fun Dip you’re promised, it’s not worth it to play second fiddle when the fiddler’s a player.



No Substitutions, please!

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