(Photograph by Matthew Girard)

I have been subbing only at Calvert Middle School for the last five years. When you go from school to school,
day to day, you don’t get to know the faculty and staff very well; you don’t get to know the kids very well. You’re really not part of that school’s community. You hand out papers; you collect papers. And that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So when I started doing just one school, I found that there was more of an acceptance on the part of the students and the staff, that now I’m becoming a known quantity. They learned to trust me, and I learned to deal with their routines more effectively. The faculty knows me; I know them. I’m reasonably familiar with their lesson plans. I know which classes are challenging and which classes don’t need much prodding. I know every kid in the school.

One thing that I offer these kids that some of the teachers don’t is a world of experience. I’ve been around the world more than once. I spent 28 years in the Marines — the first 20 years as a pilot. I’ve been in strange places. It gives you a totally different perspective. We had a lesson a couple of weeks ago on the Arabian Peninsula. I’ve been to the Arabian Peninsula; I’ve experienced it. So when I talked to the kids, I said, “I don’t want you to do a thing but listen and ask questions.” The next day the regular teacher was back, and he gave the test. He said nobody got below a B.

I see the role of a substitute as someone who tries to keep things moving forward. There is a lot of, “Yay, Mr. Garner is here,” and there is a lot of “Harrumph.” I’d say it’s about 50-50. They know that I have my standards, and they know that I’m not going to change that. A lot of times even the boneheads will tell me off to the side, “When you’re in the class, I get more work done.” Because I am not a sitter; I am a pacer. I am all over the classroom, and at any given time, they have to know that I might be standing over their shoulder. It makes them a little bit nervous, but it keeps them on task.

Middle school is a turning point for so many young people, and I tell them this all the time. Your body is changing; your relationships are changing. If you make it through middle school intact, you’re on a good path. I think that middle school kids are in need of guidance that I might be able to provide. I’m like the grandpa. I am their grandfather’s age. My grandson is in seventh grade. So I’m nonthreatening to them, unless they’re knuckleheads. I can say the same thing that their parents or the administrators or their teachers say, but it’s different — because I’m not part of the system.