What's So Funny

Back before What's So Funny was able to parlay writing C- comedy into a regular paying gig, this savant scribe of the nation's finest dick jokes was a substitute teacher for Denver Public Schools. It was while subbing for a class of Spanish-speaking first-graders that I was asked a baffling question that I'm still struggling to answer. I'd just ushered the kids off to gym class or allowed them to walk the three blocks to 7-Eleven unmonitored -- I can't remember the exact details -- and rather than sit in the classroom eating paste as I normally did during off periods, I decided to do some field research for a study I was working on titled "All Lunch Ladies Are Fat and Have Enormous, Hideous Moles." (It was in its early stages then, far from the award-winning thesis I would later submit to the United States Department of Education.)

I came across a little Hispanic girl, standing alone in a dark, back hallway.

"Hey," she whispered to me as I walked up.

"Yes?" I asked.

"Are you looking for a boy named Federico?"

She looked nervously over her shoulder as she spoke.

"Excuse me?"

"Are you looking for a boy named Federico?" she repeated.

"No," I said.

"Oh," she said doubtfully. "Okay."

She walked past me, continuing to glance back suspiciously until she rounded a corner. It wasn't until she'd disappeared that I started wondering what would have happened if I'd said yes? Had I just botched my first elementary-school drug deal? Was Federico a code word, the key to some of the choicest sniffing glue around, swiped directly from the private stash of the hippie art teacher? Or was it a Waiting for Godot, existential-crisis kind of thing? Like, in a way, aren't we all looking for a boy named Federico? I didn't know. So I found the school security guard, described the girl and told him that I thought she was carrying a knife.

As a sub, you have to think on your toes.

So many moments in my sub tenure required similar alacrity. Whether being punked by gangster-ass high-schoolers in both Spanish and English, helping change the thoroughly be-shitted tighty-whities of a kindergartner who'd experienced an ecstatic moment on the playground, getting pimped to seven different classrooms in one day during CSAP preparation, and losing my best Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards to three fifth-graders who were better than me, I had to be ready for everything.

One day I led a field trip of fifty four- and five-year-old Early Childhood Education students to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Everything was fine until we rode the down escalator at the end of the day. As the first kid toppled like the end of a Jenga game, I realized that these kids didn't even know what an escalator was, let alone how to safely navigate one. The next few minutes were a frenzied blur as I stood at the foot of the escalator, sweating, screaming and frantically hoisting children into the air, struggling to avoid the long string of wrongful-disfigurement lawsuits that would surely follow were I to lose my cool.

At the end of days like that, at least I was comforted by the prospect of a decent paycheck. Now subs don't even have that luxury.

Last school year, DPS and the teachers' union struck a deal to lower substitute-teacher pay from $120 to $80 a day. Area subs have been understandably upset, with many refusing to work on Mondays or Fridays, typically high-demand days. Since the start of school this year, the number of subs signed up with DPS has dropped from 1,400 to 1,100, and nearly 9 percent of schools' requests for substitutes have gone unfilled. The situation has reached near-crisis level, with many schools plucking whoever is around, from coaches to librarians, to cover classes -- at an additional $19.60 an hour for the babysitting duty. So rather than pay subs sufficiently for their labors, DPS is paying overtime to angry staffers who don't want to be filling the spots in the first place.


DPS, it's time to get a clue and pay the subs what they're worth. The teachers will be happier that someone even partially qualified to teach is in charge of their classes, and the subs will come back in droves. Substitute teachers, get on with your bad selves. We here at What's So Funny will continue to support you -- with the time we can spare, that is, from our continuing search for a boy named Federico.

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Adam Cayton-Holland

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