About 23 years ago, when I was fresh out of university, I did what all neophyte B.Ed. graduates embarking on a personal mission to save the world one teenager at a time does: I became a substitute teacher and quickly discovered that it was arguably one of the most difficult, thankless jobs on the planet…if you allow it to be, that is. Though high school students are rarely as happy as when they find out they will have a substitute teacher, they tend to demonstrate their affection for the profession by offering a grand total of zero respect to the person occupying the role on any given day. Of course, this is normal, even understandable, behaviour due to the fact that the supply teacher will only be around for a day at a time and will, during the normal course of their contract, be replacing a single teacher at a time, offering each student the opportunity to encounter them for a single period of that day (40-75 minutes). An hour or so is clearly not enough time to become attached to, be enthralled by, or to develop any kind of kinship towards someone, outside of a hostage situation that is, particularly when the person in question is giving you work to complete without having the required expertise to offer any advice, understanding, or help of any kind whatsoever. For many sub teachers, the last time they came across some of the topics that the students are attempting to grasp, was when they themselves were in high school. I have been teaching for over twenty years now and I would definitely end up in summer school if I was asked to take an eleventh-grade calculus exam, so how could I possibly hope to help a struggling 17-year-old with that very subject, other than to tell him to go sit next to a smart kid. The problem most substitute teachers have is that they take this lack of respect personally. Being wrapped inside a bubble of narcissism, they feel unloved, disliked, and threatened as they discover that high school is no longer all about them and that most students do not need or want to be saved from the big, bad, harsh world. This ego hit tends to result in one of two scenarios: either they back down entirely, and, desperate to be friends with the students, end up being taken advantage of and get completely walked over, OR they become irrational, unreasonable tyrants, neither of which is remotely constructive as an approach to getting through the day with the will to live intact. What the vast majority of substitute teachers fail to understand is that they will not be, nor should they be, anything or anyone that the students will remember more than 12 minutes after the bell rings. If a student remembers you, there is a better than even chance that you fucked up (whether you realize it or not).
During my six years at Mountainview Elementary and another five at Richelieu Valley Regional High School, I must have had 50 or so substitutes, but I can only remember one, which is exactly one more than I should. She made several mistakes that day starting with the fact that she was subbing for the only teacher my friends and I actually liked. Ms. Fournier was our English Language Arts teacher. She was young, energetic, caring, and most importantly for a bunch of teenaged boys in 1984, she was hot. The substitute, by contrast, looked and sounded like Mrs. Doubtfire, only not quite as hot. Her second mistake was that rather than simply do a roll call, or ignore the attendance portion of the class altogether, she decided she would call out our names one at a time and have us tell her a little bit about ourselves. As a result, she received a flurry of sarcastic bullshit from most of the boys while the girls sounded like contestants on Wheel of Fortune. This pattern carried on until she got to the name of my best friend, PJ. She called out his ‘official’ name which is Patrick to which he replied, “I pre…pre…pre…I pre…prefer just P…P…PJ if you don’t mind”. None of the students even noticed his stutter because we were so accustomed to it and because it meant nothing to us. It was no different than the fact that I have blue eyes and Scott Mikulis could run really fast. The moment Mrs. Doubtfire heard him speak, however, she could not mask the pitiful look that appeared on her face, making it seem like she was gazing condescendingly at a mistreated, mangy Labrador retriever found in an abandoned puppy-mill on an SPCA television infomercial. She also instantly (and incorrectly) concluded that PJ must be stupid and most likely deaf because she spoke to him very slowly and loudly to ensure that he would understand her, saying, “Why, what an unfortunate speech impediment you have. Your parents must be heart-broken”. PJ was somewhat accustomed to this sort of treatment (though rarely at quite this level of ignorance), so he kind of blew it off hoping she would shut up. She finished the attendance and, ignoring the work that Ms. Fournier had left on the board for us to complete, decided to do her own thing and try to actually teach us stuff, pontificating and asking questions all over the place. Not wanting any part of the way she was butchering what was supposed to be a free period, no one really gave an enthusiastic answer to any of her queries. At some point, she asked an inane question about The Catcher In The Rye, a book we hadn’t yet read and, therefore, knew nothing about, that no one could answer, except for PJ (a voracious reader and the smartest person I know) who had his hand raised high in the air. She peered in his direction momentarily, then cast her gaze at the rest of us and said, “Oh, come on. This is an easy one. Look, PJ has his hand up. Even PJ knows the answer; the rest of you should be able to figure it out if he can”, obviously insinuating that the class idiot was at least pretending he knew the answer. She never called on him and decided to change direction to ask each of us what we wanted to be once we were done with school. We all answered as quickly as we could, usually lying through our teeth, causing her to move onto the next student without much hesitation or thought, until she came to PJ, who she had purposely saved for last. When it was his turn, she changed her voice completely from the monotonous, distracted tenor she had with the rest of us, and with that pitiful look in her eyes, asked him, in a tone that suggested he was in the second grade and that indicated that she expected him to reply something like, “I wanna be a firetruck”, what he wanted to be when he grew up. Now, I have known PJ pretty much all my life and he is still my best friend to this day (in fact we ride together a couple times a week), and I have never heard him speak for more than a few seconds without stuttering or at least pausing to quell a stutter. That is, except on this day, when she asked him what he wanted to be. He was obviously fed up with her sorrowfully patronizing obtuseness and stood up, moved to within three feet of her, and replied, face to face, in the same loud, slow, careful manner she had been using on him: “WHEN I GROW UP I WANNA BE AN ASSHOLE, JUST…LIKE…YOU!”. When he was done, he turned, collected his things, and marched his way to the VP’s office where he assumed she was going to send him anyway. Once he was gone, the substitute looked hurt by what had just transpired and retreated to the chair behind her desk to pout while we attempted to complete the work Ms. Fournier had left for us. Clearly, she had misjudged PJ.
In the summer of 2005, I made the decision to make the jump from the marathon distance and attempt an ultramarathon in Bozeman, Montana titled, “The Devil’s Backbone” despite the fact that the race website clearly states, using uppercase, bold lettering, “THIS CANNOT BE YOUR FIRST ULTRA”. I have never been particularly good with blind authority and the capital letters felt like I was being yelled at and told what to do, so, figuring that any race of 80 km in length was going to be difficult anyway, I signed up nevertheless. The race itself didn’t have the largest field in the world (clearly this was not the Boston Marathon), and from what I could glean from the prerace meeting the day before, most competitors looked incredibly fit and appeared to have taken their fashion cues from Ted Kaczynski and Grizzly Adams. Apart from me, the lone international athlete, all the other runners were from somewhere in the Rockies with most residing somewhere in Montana. From the little chats we overheard at the meeting, it was obvious to me that some people had no idea where, or even what, Quebec was, and when they heard my girlfriend speaking French to our son, they pretty much left us alone assuming we wouldn’t understand them anyway.
On race morning I took a good look around at all the other competitors, as you do, to get an idea what I was in for, and what I saw left me feeling like I was definately out of my element. They were all wearing super aggressive-looking shoes with brand names I had never heard of, doo-rags, fancy hydration packs, and, most disconcertingly, they all sported t-shirts from previous events they had done: Hardrock 100, Wasatch 100, Leadville, and even Western States. I, on the other hand, was wearing a pair of Saucony Jazz shoes, a worn-out Montreal Expos baseball cap, and a powder blue t-shirt from the 2001 Toronto Waterfront half-marathon (in which I finished fourth on account of the fact that it took place exactly a month after 911 so no one was there). Clearly, I was outclassed. Of all the male competitors, I saw maybe about three that I might be able to beat, but as we approached the START/FINISH line I noticed that two of them were in the RELAY division and would be stopping halfway at the only aid station on the course. That left one guy I knew I could beat. When I got a better look at him, the panic I had been feeling since the pre-race meeting dissipated a little because I knew that at the very least, I would not finish last. This guy looked even more out-of-place than I did because he was wearing cut-off track pants, completely worn-out Nike Pegasus runners that looked as though he had stolen them from a homeless person on the way to the event, and a short-sleeve dress shirt (the kind worn by an accountant or a 1957 Hewlett/Packard computer programmer). He finished off the look with a pair of black, thick-rimmed Clarke Kent glasses. Unbeknownst to him, Clark Kent had just become my best friend because he was the guy who was going to deliver me from the shackles of last place. Other than him, the rest of the pack was loaded with guys who had been born for this race while it appeared that Clark and I were the only two who had ignored the warning on the race website about this not being our first ultra.
Seconds after the gun went off to start the proceedings, I knew two things for sure: 1. The dress-shirt guy was definitely a total noob because he took off sprinting followed by another dude who looked like he would be the eventual winner of the event. 2. I didn’t understand Ultra Racing because every other athlete began the race by walking. This second thing confounded me because, though we started at 7500 feet and went straight up right away to 10300 feet, I just couldn’t understand why everybody was walking. What, I asked myself, do these people know that I clearly do not? Not wanting to look like Clark, I walked as well, but after 500 metres or so I couldn’t bring myself to do it any further. Yes, I expected to have to walk at some point during the race, but not at kilometre 0.1. So, I began to run. As soon as I did, I started passing all of the walkers, many of whom told me to slow down and walk because the course was way too difficult to run the whole way. Some of them even had the gall to call me an ‘idiot’ or ‘stupid Canadian’, of course assuming I didn’t understand what they were saying. They had a point, however, as the course is completely unmarked and is all above 9500 feet, though it does mostly follow a ridge of a mountain in the Gallatin Range making navigation simple most of the way. There were several spots along the trail where the track descended into the trees making it a little difficult to find your way back up to the ridge. In fact, when I went down one of these descents to do a number two, I got quite lost and had a 15-minute detour trying to find the course again. When I reached the halfway point, I never thought to ask what place I was in, nor did anyone offer up that information freely. It didn’t really matter because all I wanted was to finish…and hopefully not in last place. The course was an out-and-back making navigation less of a concern on the return trip due to there being several runners who hadn’t reached the turnaround. On my way back, I counted three guys who passed me looking very fresh. I didn’t see Clark or the fast guy from the start, so I assumed that first place was way ahead and that there was a black bear in the forest somewhere who was wiping his ass with Clark’s dress shirt.
When I arrived at the FINISH line, I was in a state of shock for two reasons: 1. I had managed to come in third place (the dudes who had passed me on the way back had been in the relay division). 2. Clark Kent won the fucking race. He beat 2nd place by 1h43 and me by 2h08. In other words, he beat me by the amount of time it takes for the winner of the Boston Marathon to do the entire race. And he did it in a fucking dress shirt. Once I had a chance to walk around and see the ‘official’ results posted, I noticed that the winner, whose name is Mike Wolfe, was (is) exactly 10 years younger than me. After I read that, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “I guess Mike wants to be an asshole…JUST LIKE ME”.
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