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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Substitutes

One of my favorite high school teachers was my Psychology teacher, Mr. Marcucci. Not only was he good-looking and a sharp dresser, his class was a great learning experience. As a matter of fact, I learned so much from his class that I wasn't required to take the final in my first-year college psych class.

Something that made Mr. Marcucci and his class so appealing was the way he treated us. We were used to being treated as kids, younger and therefore to be talked down to. On the first day of class, he told us that since we were Seniors we weren't babies anymore. We would soon be going out into the world as adults, so he was going to treat us accordingly. Instead of following the usual policy of having a parent or guardian call in to excuse any absences, we were required to take care of it ourselves. We would be the ones writing our excuse notes. Actually, it was brilliant on his part, because it taught us to really think before missing class. This morphed into really thinking about it before not going to work. 

Mr. Marcucci's class wasn't easy, but I enjoyed it every day. He made learning such a joy, and was very candid about things that had happened in his life. No other teacher ever opened up to us about the stress and shame he felt living with an alcoholic parent. But he did. And he told us about his grandmother, who helped raise him, and how he'd get embarrassed by her doing things like going to the store in her slippers. After he got out of his teen years, he realized that, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't that big of a deal. He also shared the tragic story of losing his wife and firstborn in childbirth. I know it couldn't have been easy for him, but he wanted to just be up front with us rather than have inflated rumors spread.

One day, my friend Colleen and I headed to his class, ready for our next learning experience. Before we got to the classroom, the word had gotten out. Mr. Marcucci wasn't at school. There was a sub. Everyone decided they would rather skip class than spend the time with someone who would be, in our opinion, a poor replacement. And I mean everyone. Colleen and I went to the supermarket and got some doughnuts before heading off to our other classes.

The next day, Mr. Marcucci was back, and he was furious. I imagine he was embarrassed by the fact that all of his students had shunned the substitute teacher. After all, our behavior had reflected poorly on him. When class started, he calmly told us that he was disappointed in our immature behavior. He informed us that we had two choices. Either we could have our parents write us an excuse like you'd do for a kid, or you could have an unexcused absence for the class. I knew I was not going to be in trouble, because I had already told Gram that I skipped the class, and Colleen had told her folks as well. So we decided to write our excuse letter together and take the unexcused absence.

I don't want you to think that we just said something to the effect of "we decided to skip class because we thought we'd be bored." Oh, heck no! We decided to have fun with it. So with a combination of our honest story about what we did that day and my interest in creative writing, we wrote something that was more like a story. We talked about how we had been heartbroken to find out that he was not there, and that we heard the doughnuts at the store calling our names. We also made note of our guilt and shame, and promised never to behave that way again. Since I was taking a Spanish class, we signed it with "hugs and kisses" in Spanish.  

It turned out that we were the only people in the class that didn't ask our folks to bail us out. But our story pleased him so much that he read it to the class the next day. And even though we received an unexcused absence for our actions that day, we had earned our teacher's respect. We had done something we shouldn't, and took full responsibility for our actions. And instead of reacting to the consequences with anger, we chose to use a mixture of acceptance and humor. I think that on this particular day, our teacher realized that we had learned something from him, and that he was helping us to become adults. And I like to think that for that feeling, Mr. Marcucci would have accepted no substitutes.