Just A Sub – Story Honoring Emma Atkins
By: Courtney McVey
Hickman County Middle School
Did you know that over five-million kids walk into a classroom to find they have a substitute teacher? Some students will even spend the equivalent of one entire school year with a substitute teacher before they graduate high school. So, do you really think being “just a sub” matters?
This is the story of one woman who was “just a sub” until one day…
Emma Atkins walked into her old high school for the very first time since her graduation. She had been a full time mom to three children for twelve years; now she was a single mom of three and determined to be able to support a family on her own.
She headed for the office to sign in. She was subbing in an Algebra class. Talk about trial by fire, she thought to herself.
Students stared as she made her way down the crowded hall. She glanced at the numbers above the doors and read them in her head. 374, 376, 378, 380! Emma smiled as she entered her room.
Teenagers were sprawled across the room. A group of girls wearing pink and orange were near the corner on the left closest to the window. Another cluster of girls were crowding the back of the room in desks. The boys were laughing hysterically on the opposite end of the room.
Emma cleared her throat and walked over to the teacher’s desk. Though she knew this was going to be a rowdy first class, she was determined not to let anyone see her knees shaking. She was going to do her very best.
Once the bell rang, Emma went into teacher mode. She quietly wrote her name on the board, took a deep breath, and waited as her kids settled in their seats. The morning announcements went on and Emma scanned her classroom. There was one boy in particular who stood out.
He sat alone in the left corner and his head hung over a paper. He seemed to not be paying attention to anyone. She inched closer to get a better look. She glanced at his paper which simply said Mark Clements in scrawled handwriting.
Emma gave the daily assignment. The kids groaned and muttered under their breath. The girl two seats in front of Mark plopped some paper on the desk in front of him. He simply stared out the window.
Emma had been warned by a few teachers in other classes about certain students. They had said things like “these are the good kids,” or, “watch out for these boys.”
Weeks went by and Emma got to know the kids on her own terms, and what she found out was that the ones she had had many warnings about were not always the troublesome students.
Mainly, the teachers’ pets were some of the most demanding of her attention, and those students sometimes felt as though they were above the specific instructions left by their regular teachers. Some of the boys who were “trouble” to other teachers were Emma’s best kids. This didn’t really seem to make any sense to Emma at first. Those boys everyone had warned her about were a little obnoxious at first, but after they learned Emma was not a pushover she slowly began to earn their respect. They saw Emma treating everyone equally including the so-called prized pupils. They learned that Emma was trying to give everyone the same help and opportunities. She reached out to those who may not have had opportunities due to being labeled as the “usual troublemakers.”
One boy in particular, Mark, was acting over-the-top; he gave a lot of excuses about why he could not sit and do his class work. Finally, Emma just suggested that if he was not going to try to do his work, then he should stay quiet and let the other kids do their work. She suggested he should come sit by her at the teacher’s desk, and they would talk a bit. Emma was going to try another approach with Mark to see if she could convince him to at least try the assignment.
She asked Mark what he liked about school. At first, he gave the standard answer NOTHING. She then asked him to consider that because he had only a few years to go until graduation, that he think of at least one thing that he enjoyed about school. She asked him to choose something that he would enjoy for the next two years. He thought a few minutes, then answered that he liked baseball. Emma asked if he was on the school team. He said no. She questioned why and he replied that he only played baseball at church with the younger kids who were in the youth program there.
Emma continued quietly talking to Mark for the rest of the class period, and the other students had a quiet class to complete the assignment. Mark did not do the class work, but he did agree to bring it to Emma before first period the next day so he would not get a zero for the daily grade.
The next day, sure enough, Mark came to her before first block with assignment in hand. Emma was ecstatic.
A few hours later it was time for third block; Mark would be back in class. Emma was confident that there would be no problem getting Mark to do his work in class that day.
Emma called roll and checked the seating chart, all was good and set to go. Their assignment was to complete pages 247-249. They had to show all of their work in complete steps and turn it in before leaving class that day. Everyone groaned, and after a moment of shuffling papers and tapping pencils, everyone was quiet except for Mark. He was still grumbling that it was too much work and that he didn’t think he would need to know the square root of 349787 in the real world. All students were happy to confirm that Mark was right. Uh-oh, not again, thought Emma.
Emma firmly hushed everyone down and asked Mark to come to the back of the class to do his work. He completed his work quietly and quickly, and then he began to talk to Emma again just as he had the day before. Emma asked Mark what he planned to do when he graduated.
He replied, “I don’t know, just get a job in my cousin’s construction company, I guess.”
Emma asked him to tell her about the youth group he enjoyed playing ball with at church. He said, “yeah a lot of those kids don’t have anyone to spend time with them, and they enjoy having me there to hang with.”Emma looked at Mark and asked him, “have you ever thought maybe instead of doing construction, you could go to college and become a youth counselor for your church or maybe even the high school?”
Mark’s jaw dropped. “No, I never thought about that. No one except for you has ever listened to me before, and you are just a sub here, but you actually listened to me instead of brushing me off.”
The bell rang and class was over. Emma’s time in Ms. Jenkins class was also over, but Emma felt like she had accomplished more than just subbing in an algebra class.
Mark always would say “hello,” or “see ya later Ms. E” whenever he would see her around school. This went on for the last two years of Mark’s high school days.
Four years later Emma was volunteering at the county fair, and one of the other young volunteers ran into her as he was helping clean up the last night of the fair.
“Hey Ms. E! I remember you, my name is Mark. Do you remember me?”
Emma stopped and thought a moment. The smile on Emma’s face grew as she remembered and answered, “you liked baseball, didn’t you?”
Mark smiled and said “yes, and I just got out of college two months ago. I became a counselor because one day I had this sub in algebra class who listened to me and saw beyond the tenth grade rebel I thought I was going to be. Thank you, Ms. E.”
Emma knew at that moment that she may have been considered “just a sub”, but she had made a difference in at least one student’s life. That made her very proud.