September 8th 2015: Substitute teachers
We Don’t Know You but We Know You
by Michael Harris Cohen

We hear your lungs wheeze as you huff into the classroom two minutes before the bell.   You set down a stylish leather satchel that screams, “I wanted to be a writer but wasn’t good enough.”  You remove some papers and straighten them on a desk that is not yours. Your eyes move down our narrow rows.  We conclude that your glasses are fake, a prop designed to command respect or obscure the bags under your eyes.

You sport an earnest expression.  Your expression states that you know none of us wants to be here. You smile as if to say you want to be here and you’re looking forward to the long day ahead. We know better.  Your palms sweat like a slave’s back. Your teeth are the color of a lion’s pelt.  We know you’d rather be in the parking lot smoking a cigarette, eyeing the high school girls. You’d rather be home jerking off to laptop porn.  You’d rather be at the dentist getting a root canal.  You’d rather be anywhere else.

Even in the back of the room we smell your fear.  It hangs over you like a net of stink, the reek of vinegar poured on hot asphalt. Your body is a collection of arising tics. Your shaky handwriting on the board tells us everything.  It tells us about the children who don’t return your phone calls.  The loops of your O’s and R’s reveal the mechanics of your next nervous breakdown.

We understand your dreams: to write a profound novel that will catapult you out of your shithole of a life; to travel to Belgrade and make love to a woman whose name you can’t pronounce.  You dream of rooms where people hang on your words and lean into your pauses.  You dream of  your tombstone eroded from the tears of thousands.

We understand it’s not easy being a substitute teacher.  We understand it’s not easy being any kind of teacher.  Teachers are underpaid and overworked.  Broke and burnt out.  We’d feel sorry for you if we didn’t hate you so much.

We shed no tears over the ulcer materializing in your gut or the cancer that will be diagnosed when it’s two stages too far to do anything about it.  We envision your lonely death.  Your sparsely attended funeral makes us smile.

The bell rings.  You clear your throat with a sound like a cold engine turning over.  Your voice, when it finally comes, sounds like a rusty machine.

“I’ll be your teacher today,” you declare and point at your name on the board.  As though it matters, as though your name actually meant something.


Michael Harris Cohen keeps trying to write fiction that his delicate mother won’t cringe when she reads and keeps failing at it better and better. He’s a recipient of a Fulbright grant, fellowships from the Djerassi Foundation, The Jentel Artist’s Residency, The Blue Mountain Center, and the Modern Grimmoire Literary Prize as well as Mixer Publishing’s Sex, Violence and Satire prize. He is a graduate of Brown University’s MFA program where he received the Weston Award for best graduate fiction manuscript. He has published numerous stories, both online and in print, and his first book, The Eyes – A Novella and Stories was blurbed by Brian Evenson, Robert Coover and Stephen Graham Jones. He also slept in the bathroom at the Louvre for several hours. It’s a lovely bathroom.

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