“I saw you introduce yourself to my father and heard your name. Did you by any chance once substitute my class?”
This was getting interesting.
“It must have been a while back,” I said, considering his height.
“It was about three years ago.” He quickly added that he had grown a lot since then. Obviously, he was used to not being recognized.
He mentioned his name, which rang a bell.
“So you were in that seventh grade class,” I said, finally chapping.
“Yeah, and I remember a lot of what you had taught us that week.”
Just to double-check, we went through some of the boys in the class, and when enough names matched, we confirmed that we were both talking about the same class.
It was a busy summer Sunday afternoon about three years ago when my good friend Rav Simcha Susna, s’gan menahel of Yeshiva Ketana in Lakewood, called. A rebbi had rushed out of class earlier that day. His father had been critically ill, and the unfortunate had happened. The class now needed a teacher for the week of shivah. Was I available for the rest of the week, through Friday? He’d prefer one rebbi to teach the entire week; it would create routine in an unsettled situation.
I told him that I’d get back to him shortly. Mulling it over, I figured it would be a unique opportunity.
It was, but not in the way I had imagined.
Anybody who has walked into a classroom as a substitute knows to expect the unexpected. The students view it as an off day. They’re not learning their regular curriculum, and the new rebbi doesn’t understand the dynamics of the class. It’s time for the boys to let it out, most often directed at the teacher. It’s not that he did anything to merit their wrath, but since he’s the authority, he’s the target.
We learned a different inyan than the regular curriculum, the Gemara and halachos of pas and bishul akum. With Rabbi Susna’s assistance, I even gave a test at the end of the week. Some boys took it more seriously than others, but when promised ices if they would do well, it was at least tempting.
We branched off during the week to discuss a wide-range of topics, some of which included life as a bochur in Eretz Yisroel during the first Gulf War, being a yeshiva bochur in the ancient days before cell phones and air conditioning in the dormitories, and other stories and nuggets that held their attention span.
I often wondered about that class. They were a good group of boys, and we formed a bond during the five days we spent together. We’ve met occasionally since then, a boy here and a boy there. We smile at each other, acknowledging that we had once crossed paths on the street of life.
Until Nosson Meir said hello that night. His vivid details of the discussions we had that week put the role of a substitute rebbi or teacher in a different light.
There’s no way a substitute, who is in one classroom today and another classroom tomorrow, can impact a class as much as a rebbi, who lives, breathes and sleeps his class day after day. Rebbi teaches them the necessary skills to master Chumash, Gemara and anything else, and instills within them by personal example how a ben Torah conducts himself. Rebbi spends hours with parents, figuring out the correct method to connect with their sons.
However, sometimes, with a change of scenery in the front of the classroom, the boys’ guard is down. They know today is going to be different, a bit less structured, and they’re open to different ideas that the substitute can discuss more freely with the class. They would never admit it while talking to their friends and shooting paper airplanes at each other across the classroom, but perhaps they are listening, interested in what the substitute has to say.
So thank you, Nosson Meir, for saying hello and sharing your memories.
And an ode to all substitutes, who get their instructions at the last minute and drop everything to run into a strange classroom: You may never know how substantial an impact you will have on your talmidim of the day.