a note from the sub

the things i forgot to tell you today, because i was too busy botching all of your quiz scores.

Month: January, 2014

positive reinforcement

Dear Children,

I understand that your teacher keeps the triumvirate of shitty kid candy (pixie sticks, nerds, laffy taffy) in his desk so as to reward you for good behavior.  I came to understand this when I had to bear witness to one of you do the following:

1. you notice your classmate’s shoe is untied

2. after first checking to see if I am watching, you ask said classmate loudly if he wants his shoe tied

3. not giving him adequate time to respond, you kneel over and poorly tie his shoe, as he quietly protests

4. you shove him out of the way as you barrel over to me, to report that you tied what’s-his-face’s shoe, and can you please have some nerds now.

Positive reinforcement land is a tricky one.  Let me tell you a little about my other recent run-in with positive reinforcement, because this has been a hot topic of discussion in my house of late.  And since I live alone, that means me talking to myself.

A little backstory: I own a dog that is, occasionally, very hard to love.  He’s stubborn, moody, fiercely independent, and holds a grudge like a motherfucker.  Much of my life is spent attempting to cajole, trick, entreat, and otherwise motivate my dog to do things that are entirely to his own benefit, such as: coming out of his crate and over to the goddamn door for his walks.  And let us be clear: he loves his walks.  It is the idea of compliance that he finds utterly repulsive- hence his refusal to come out of his crate, as he now knows it is one place from which I cannot forcibly retrieve him (after many attempts, I can safely say it is too small for full-size humans.)

Enter my dog trainer, who believes in positive reinforcement.  No, he tells me, it is actually in no way productive for me to tell my dog, “You know what?  You’re being really shitty right now.”  The trick is to catch him doing the right thing, and then handsomely reward him with praise and treats so that he begins to associate the “right things” with treats and effusive compliments.

So here’s what happened.  After a few weeks of handsome rewards for good behavior, the only change I have noticed is that my dog doesn’t give a shit about treats anymore.  It’s too easy, so he no longer cares.  He apparently came to the conclusion that the satisfaction of giving me the “fuck off” was way more rewarding than those little Trader Joe’s snacks that look like tiny pitas.

So now here’s how I get my dog to come to the door.  I have to pretend to drop the treat accidentally.  And it isn’t just the sound of the treat hitting the floor.  I then have to say, in my most convincing voice (all those acting classes are finally paying off,) “Oh shit!”  And THEN he comes running, to snatch up his ill-gotten gain.  I have to rely on my dog’s steadfast devotion to doing things I don’t want him to, to get him to do the things I want.

So what’s the deal with positive reinforcement?  Why did I eat three pixie sticks for lunch that day when I swear I hate pixie sticks?  And at what age do you finally become capable of effectively tying your shoes?  I guess it all comes down to knowing your animal.


Miss What’s-Your-Name-Again?



Dear Students,

A very important, very major milestone happened for me a few weeks ago. A handsome man approached me at a bar (this, exciting as it was, was not the milestone.) Throughout the course of our conversation, he revealed to me that he was 35, couch-surfing because he was kicked out of his living situation, collecting unemployment while getting paid under the table to run errands for his Uncle, and was using the money his mother sent him every month for his “health insurance” to pay for acting classes. Then, he asked for my number.

Here’s the milestone: I said no.

When I relayed the story to my friend, she shrugged his red flags off with all the grace and bliss of someone three years younger. In the end, it’s just nice to know that a handsome man wants me. And here’s where the milestone came in: I realized, I no longer cared. So what if a handsome man found me appealing enough to want my phone number? I no longer needed validation from a man to feel pretty, I know I’m pretty! I actually got choked up hearing myself, finally realizing my own worth had absolutely nothing to do with who wanted me.

So here’s the second part of all this. Over winter break, I was involved in a very minor and entirely self-generated incident that left me in the ER on New Year’s Day with eight stitches in my lower lip. However, being my newly empowered self, I knew I was strong enough to walk around with a fat lip with my head held high, and I did so, for many days.

Until the stitches came out.

For the first 24 hours, it looked fine. It looked bloody and crusty and gross, like I had been injured in a minor and entirely self-generated incident. And then it began to heal. And now, it looks like a fucking cold sore.

So now, it’s one thing to walk around with a fat lip. It’s almost funny. But there is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT COLD SORES. NOTHING. And you know what’s even less funny? When you arrive at school to find that you’re working with a teaching Unicorn: a terribly cute, charming, funny, and TALL male teacher.

All day, I was aware that I was slowly retreating into myself. My posture was hunched, I wrapped my cardigan around me like a cocoon and had trouble looking people in the eye. I felt my self-congratulatory bullshit crumble around me, I left it in pieces all around school like breadcrumbs. I was constantly trying to cover my mouth; I stared at it in the bathroom, willing it to go away. By lunchtime, I had a migraine from the sheer misery of it all. I hid in my car while I unhappily ate my yogurt, feeling too self-conscious to sit in the break room.

I wish this story had a happy ending, but it just ends in me skulking off to my car at the end of the day, feeling miserable. The new/old me might have cheekily left my phone number on a post-it on his desk, but all I could see was my imagined self through his eyes: that occasionally funny substitute teacher who very unfortunately has the herp.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how much therapy you do. Self-confidence is a fucking traitorous cunt. And I’m sorry for the times when you were facing something horrible like a zit, or a bad hair day, or a stained shirt, and I told you to suck it up. I mean, you had to, I have to, there’s no other option; but it fucking blows anyway and we all deserve a little empathy.

And, on Monday, if you find a good moment to slip it in, can you please tell your dreamy teacher that I don’t have herpes? Only if it comes up.


Miss What’s-Your-Name-Again?