Chapter Two: Mr. Pooh-Bear
I had made the rounds of all the schools in the county, dropping off my resume and introducing myself as the new substitute.
If a teacher called in sick in the morning, the school would begin phoning substitutes to see who was ready to make it to school before classes started. From the beginning I was ready to leave the house by 6:30. Sometimes I got a call. Sometimes I just went back to bed when the phone didn’t ring. Pretty soon schools began calling me in the morning or sometimes even during the school day to ask if I was available the next day. I substituted in several middle schools and a high school. But, eventually I must have become the substitute of choice for one middle school because nearly every afternoon they told me to come in the next day.
Whenever I entered a class for the first time, I wrote on the board Mr. C.D. If the students asked what the initials stood for, I would tell them. But, from that first day in sixth grade, the students in every school and in every class were happy to call me Mr. C.D.
That is, every student but one.
Although I was never told, I concluded that the dress code for male teachers was slacks and some sort of decent shirt. I decided to add a tie to this uniform. I don’t know why I wore a tie. I must have felt that I needed something to make me look more formal since I was only a substitute.
All my ties had cartoon characters on them. One tie had Mickey Mouse figures. I wore Mickey Mouse for a few days but soon began to feel that other teachers might think I was trying to make a statement about public school. Of course, none of them were even paying attention, but I decided to put Mickey Mouse away just the same.
Next was a tie with my favorite cartoon character: Daffy Duck. But the one I chose to wear most often was blue and covered with little Winnie-the-Poohs sitting next to honey jars.
Carmen was an African-American girl in eighth grade. She had a bubbly personality and she must really have liked Winnie-the-Pooh. The first day I wore my Winnie-the-Pooh tie, Carmen decided that the name, Mr. C.D., might be OK for the rest of the school, but not for her.
As soon as she saw my tie, she declared loudly to the whole class, “My name for you will be Mr. Pooh-Bear.”
“I like that,” said another student. “That’s what we’ll call you: Mr.Pooh-Bear.”
Carmen turned on the student. “Oh, no you don’t!” She was incensed. “That is my name for him. I made it up. You have to call him Mr. C.D.”
“Why can’t I call him Mr. Pooh-Bear? Just because you made it up? That’s not fair!”
“Doesn’t matter what’s fair,” warned Carmen. “That’s my name for him and no one else can call him that. Understand?”
I was really taken back by this dialog. How weird, I thought. What was the big deal? What was Carmen going to do if someone did call me Mr. Pooh-Bear? But, I let them work it out and I became Mr. Pooh-Bear to one student exclusively.
I developed a ritual whenever I entered a class for the first time. After letting them know they could call me Mr. C.D. (except for Carmen, of course), and after explaining my one rule about being rude, I told the students a little about their substitute teacher.
“I have been a teacher for over twenty-five years, but never in a classroom”, I would tell them.
“What do you mean? How does that work?” they would ask.
I threw the question back to them.
“How does that work?” I asked.
“You are a coach.” “You teach students online.” “You are a homebound teacher.” “You drive a school bus.” All of which I answered “No” to.
Finally someone guessed, “You taught your own kids at home?”
“Yep,” I answered. “I am a homeschool Dad.”
The same question always followed: “Why did you do that?”
I was honest: “Because, I hated school and, when I graduated, I decided that if I ever had kids of my own, I would never send them to school.”
Mostly the kids were stunned by this honesty. They wanted to know how old my sons were now and how they were doing.
I answered, “All of them are grown up. Eventually they will be OK as soon as they get out of prison.”
The shocked look on their faces was worth the joke. The kids’ eyes were as big as saucers. “Really!” they said.
“No, I’m kidding,” I reassured them. “Each of them is doing exactly what he always wanted to do.”
Then the class asked what each of my children was doing and how they got the opportunity to do such interesting things.
They wanted to know more.
“Look at you,” I answered. “You have to sit still at these little desks all day and learn things you know have little meaning for your futures. I just couldn’t do that to my kids. I wanted them to flourish at the things that were in their hearts to do with their lives.”
I hadn’t noticed a little, African-American child sitting to my right. “Mr. C.D.,” he said in a small voice, “Would you be my daddy?” There was no humor in his question, but a longing I couldn’t quite read. What was behind his request I could only guess.