11:4: “Sub”, by Sara K. Ellis

11:4: “Sub”, by Sara K. Ellis

Sub’s trying to act cool and it’s your job to call him out. He’s telling the class he saw Nirvana play in 1990.

“At a concert for Africa,” he says, flicking spit all over the front row.

A couple of kids laugh, but your work ain’t done, so you slacken your jaw and make your eyes real big.

“Who’s that?” you ask.

“Who’s what?” says Sub.

“Nevada.”

The whole class explodes. Sub, Mr. James or Jaynes, there’ve been so many you can’t keep track, drops his hands to his sides and lets out a big loose sigh like he’s covering a fart. Then he turns nervously to the boardskin where our objective blinks like a warning light on a self-destructing space ship.

“What’s a SELP, Ms. Podesta?”

“A what?” You grin as you sit up, a few of the kids still snorting behind you.

Sub waves a hand over each letter, causing them to bloom all bright red on the screen. He’s staring you down, mouth drawn, right eyelid twitching.

“A SELP. Today’s learning objective. What does it stand for?”

But you know what he’s really saying. “I tried to communicate with you like a human being and see where that went? Now, can you just tell me what a SELP is, so I can get my pay slip signed and we can all go home?”

You don’t memorize the learning objective by the end of the week, and Mr. James or Jonz, gets his check docked. You heard from some kid in the lunchroom that he gets up to twenty dollars per kid, per class if they get it right and can remember all the way until Friday’s tests. Fat chance. Be lucky if he can afford the gas to get him on the freeway. As for you, you get demerits and Saturday school, but no one really expects you to show up. Not you. This is your third try at your freshman year.

“A SELP stands for…”

Sub licks his lips. For a second, he’s actually hoping that you won’t say what he knows you’re going to say.

“Shit Eating…”

The class bursts into applause and you do a half stand, hands in the air oh-so-modestly pushing back your fans.

“Damn, girl!”

“Don’t she know it!”

“Secondary English Lesson Plan,” says Sub. “That’s today’s objective.” His voice is high and croaky above the noise and you think that just maybe you can see a little blood where he’s been biting his lower lip.

He won’t be back tomorrow. You hope you get the sub from Newport. That blonde bitch who wears a white coat like she’s a doctor on TV.

*

The Greeley bell crackles from what’s left of the hallway speakers, and you take your time out of the building and through the gate. At school, your size and age keep you on top, but outside, it’s a different story.

You make your way down the concrete wheelchair ramp, leg dragging like a zombie after Hali Colorado dumped hot oil on it. There’s a brick planter running along the ramp with some weeds and a few dead bits of brush, and you sit down on it and bunch up your knees. It smells like tires. They let the plants dry up years before you started in this dump.

Hali Colorado still doesn’t believe you, even though you screamed so loud you thought your throat would shred, imagined your windpipe tearing into little strips of meat. Hali Colorado thinks you stole from him. He thinks you sold his product and kept the money, and that your story about Hector taking it is a lie.

“Hector?” he said, bunching his scarred up knuckles in your face. “Hector and me are like this.”

In truth, Hector wants him gone. Boasted it to your face when he tucked your weed into his vest pocket. But you try to stay out of those things. You only wanted to go to the beach.

You’re supposed to pay Hali every week or he promises he’ll do it again, and so you’re thinking about running for it, imagining yourself asleep under freeway overpasses, clutching a red bundle you’ve got tied on the end of a stick. Then you reach over and touch the spot on your calf, the pus wet outline of the bandage and you know you’ve got nowhere to go.

*

No Blondie today. Sub’s back and this time he’s even jumpier when he enters the class. You’re shaking, too. Rubbing your sweaty palms over your desk, delighting in the bumps and scratches carved by the hundreds of classmates who came before you, a whole history, years and years and years. You’re shaking with a love so deep it hurts, but Sub won’t even look at you.

“Today’s learning objective is,” he says, scrawling with a green light pen on the screen, “PINCS. Does anyone know what that means?”

You left extra early this morning thinking you’d be safe cause nobody’s up before seven. But when you dragged your foot down the pavement past the rats and ripped up burger bags, you saw Hector at the end of the block, head cocked, arms folded like he was trying to squeeze them into cannons.

“Where you goin,’ little girl?”

He was smiling at you, genuine warmth and chewing gum beating out a slow rhythm of menace. You were dead if you ran, so you kept walking, your palms sliding against your backpack straps. As you got closer, you saw him reach into his pocket, pull out a vial, and you stopped.

“Hali’s got somethin’ for you. A second chance.”

The vial was used, had little scratches all over it, but the rock inside glowed a faint green from within. On the news you heard it called something long and hard to say, but where you’re from they call it ratgum. Ratgum makes people so happy that after awhile they don’t notice that they’re chewing off their skin, gnawing away at it like little rats.

“I got school,” you said. “I got a test.”

Hector laughed. “Who’s keeping you?”

He opened the vial, dipped a long pinkie nail into it and scraped off a thin streak of green, rubbing it over his gums. That’s how people do it. Ratgum will kill you if you snort it. Better to put it where your gums bleed.

“Try some,” he said. “Hali says you got a week to decide.”

You could have run, but another week sounded like such a long time, and you didn’t want him to change his mind, so you let him pull you closer, put his mouth over your own, make it numb with the dust and force of his tongue.

As you pulled back for air, you sucked in the world, the sunlight finger painting the sidewalk, the dried out trees that aped the two of you, branches groping above your tangled limbs.

“I gotta go.” You laughed as you pushed him away. And he laughed, too. His head tilting back, sharp chin gutting the morning heat.

“Go to school, little girl.”

You pulled him back in for one last kiss. You swore you felt half in love with him already, as if your parting was like one of those shows on in the daytime, the ones that make your grandma cry.

Ratgum just makes you fall in love with everybody though, and you almost feel guilty as you sit there grinning, loving all your classmates, even as they sneer and cuss and toss balled up pieces of paper over your head into the bin. You feel so warm in the chest, you bet you’d even do Sub, or that security lady in the uniform. Oh, you’d do her.

But Sub doesn’t care that you’re paying attention. He’s following the script today. That’s what they’re always supposed to do, ‘cause they don’t trust anybody to teach anymore. He’s reading out the words on the boardskin as they come, trying to push the clock forward, past you, past this building, this neighborhood.

“It’s a hotdog stand in WeHo,” says one of the dumbshits up front. “My dad’s been there. Says they’re real good.”

They’re the only ones listening except for you. Weren’t for them, subs at Greeley wouldn’t eke out minimum wage.

“PINCS stands for Problem, Integration, Need, Convergence Solution,” Sub says. “It’s a thinking skill. If you can remember PINCS, you can remember how to think your way out of problems. So PINCS, kids,” he sighs. “Repeat after me.”

P stands for Pussy, I for Idiot, N for No Shit Sherlock.

You don’t say it this time, ’cause you’re already starting to come down. A couple of kids start a pencil war in the back of the class and you duck, the pinkety-plink of wood on desks and floors stabbing spikes into your brain. Things are starting to blur at the edges as the warmth you felt for everybody recedes like a green tide coughing up trash.

You stand up.

You don’t even know what you’re saying, but when you finish, the kids in back stop and fall back into their seats. You snatch a pencil that’s landed on your desk and hurl it so hard, it snaps off the back wall and hits a kid in the shoulder.

“Ow!”

The whole room shuts down and you sit, fold your arms and pull into yourself. The sweat on your skin turns cold and you can feel the ratgum oozing out of your pores like ground glass. You don’t like this. You don’t want to go back to Hector and say you want to sell it because he knows that eventually you’ll sneak some. And then you’ll be in for more than just that bag of shit you tried to sell for Hali Colorado, just so you could feel your bare feet in the ocean. There’ll be no more ocean, no more shuttle fares and fast passes into Laguna shores. You’ll be done.

Sub starts in with the hotdog stand again.

“Problem. Integration. Need. Convergence. Solution.”

One of the dumbshits asks how to use the words in a sentence, but Sub just points him back to the screen. He’s like Hali Colorado, counting up letters instead of numbers.

*

Most of the kids have cleared out and you’re deciding your route home. You don’t want to see Hector or Hali, who’ll be waiting along the usual route to tap kids the way those day contractors do your parents. You’re thinking about waiting until dark, when the heavy school doors swing open and out pops Sub, his skin all shiny. He’s just washed his face in one of the sinks and bits of pink powdery soap stick to his chin. You don’t say a word, just watch him as he slouches, belly sagging over his belt across the courtyard toward the chain link fence surrounding the faculty parking lot.

Problems. He’s got ‘em.

You’re on him in two minutes, leaning on his car, your leg throbbing as you lean down where nobody can see you.

“Mr. Jaynes,” you say.

He halts, rears back like a spooked horse.

“Ms. Podesta.”

Need. You’ve got one.

“You don’t holler and cuss those kids out once in awhile, you don’t get respect.”

He smirks and reaches for his keys. “I’m not allowed to yell at the kids. District policy. And you do know you’re not allowed beyond that fence.”

“I bet this was your best day yet,” you say.

He folds his arms and leans against the hood as you limp around the front of the car. On the passenger’s seat, you spy a bottle of Jack Daniels peeking out beneath a girly magazine. It’s sad being this guy.

“I bet those kids is gonna remember what you said.”

He still doesn’t get it.

Inheritance. Whatever. Convergence. You think you know what it means.

“How about it keeps going that way. I help you. I get a cut. Kind of like I’m your agent.”

“Ms. Podesta,” he sighs. “I’m afraid that’s not how education is supposed to work.”

“Far as I can see, that’s how it does.”

He drops his head back, parts his lips as if he’s going to argue, but you can see he’s tired past arguing. His eyes are sunken, and he’s starting to take on that glassy eyed look that all subs have before they either hit a kid or quit. He’s like you. Nowhere else to go.

“Watch me,” you say.

*

It ain’t so hard to remember.

First there’s your ELSERS, which mean all of this stuff about being a reflective communicator and responsive questioner. Think about your shit and the shit other people say before you say anything back basically. They think you’ll remember it easier if you just pare it down to letters. Then there’s TIP for Technologically Integrated Planning, and you’ve got to know your ALPOS if you want a diploma. New law in California says all the kids in the poor districts have to know their ALPOS to prove their parents aren’t illegal immigrants or some shit. It’s so easy, you wonder why you didn’t just go along with it in the first place, keep Principal Ferrara out of your face.

By the end of three months, Sub’s got a fat bonus and you’ve paid Hali Colorado back with interest. When you drop him that last wad of liberating cash, Hector’s eyes bug out like he’s watching a kitchen fire on a food show. He’s been waiting all this time for you to let him finish what he started, but you take one good look at him and see all that was just the ratgum.

Hector leans in, blowing the reek of a forty ouncer in your ear. “How many tricks that take?”

Hali shoves him hard, and you almost laugh at Hector when he pulls you out of earshot.

“Who you workin’ with?”

Problem. Need. This is all yours, you tell yourself. He can’t go beyond the school gate. You shove your hands deep down in your pockets and stare straight back.

“A sub. At Greeley”

When you tell him your plan, Hali Colorado throws his head back and laughs.

*

Kid acts up, fucks up on the learning objective once, he gets off with a warning, but kid does it twice, and it’s back around the building for a talking to, and if he’s really stirring up shit, you get a couple of Hali’s boys to convince him to transfer to Vocation Village or drop out. You’ve got captains now in other classes, whole other grades shaving off teacher bonuses, cause Sub’s got his other sub friends in on it, volunteering ’cause everybody else is too scared to teach here.

Principal Ferrara walks down the hallways grinning like she’s on ratgum and your class is breezy as a country club. You learn the letters and shoot the shit. You show off your new shoes, the boogie board you’re going to take next time to Laguna Shores. Sub’s just signed a full-time contract, and even better, he’s in charge of bringing in other Subs. The Greeley High miracle they’re calling him. And you, you just stay behind the curtain.

Smothered, just a little. Empty.

Last Saturday, you spent forty dollars on a shuttle bus and pass to Laguna Shores. Took two hours to get you through the checkpoints set up from Santa Ana to Corona Del Mar, and by the time you got in the water, it was almost time to go home. You’re thinking you should save your money. Your leg ain’t bothering you these days, and you’re thinking if you can just get enough, there might be other places you can go.

*

You’re scratching your name into the desk when Sub comes skidding into class. His eyes are bugging out and his puke yellow tie hangs loose around his neck.

“They’re coming.”

“Who?”

“District.” He ducks his head out the door for the second time. “We’ve got to make this look good.”

“Or what?” You pick at a piece of gum you’ve found in one of the grooves, flick it at the dusty floor.

“Or?” he looks at you like you’re nuts. “We got any construction skins in here? Maybe we should decorate this place, add some cheer.”

He thinks they’re going to sniff him out, throw his fat paychecks and his promotions in the trash. He looks out into the hall again, mouths a cuss word.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

You shake your head, rise to silence the class with the meanest look you can muster as Sub steps behind you. He punches a few letters into the boardskin and smiles like he’s selling cars. It’s good timing, cause the suits open the door unannounced. Principal Ferrara is with them, too, whispering all respectful, like she’s showing them a secret rite.

And Sub, he slides right into it.

“Now,” he says, as if finishing up a final point. “Who can sum up today’s learning objective?”

We all shoot up our hands, and Sub rolls his head back and laughs warmly at our drive. He lifts his hand in the air and moves it from side to side like he’s choosing something tasty from a platter.

“Kenny?”

Kenny stands, stiffens like soldier and belts, “Learning objective 1.2a stands for AEL or Age Equivalent Language. All students will be able to speak and write at their grade level.”

“Excellent, Kenny,” Principle Ferrara claps her hand together.

Sub turns toward the door as if he’s surprised to see them.

“We’ve got visitors class. Say ‘hello.’”

We wave. “Hello!”

Principal Ferrara strolls past you, squeezes Sub’s shoulder and gives it a shake.

“You wouldn’t believe how many times I hear teachers saying it’s impossible,” she says to a woman in a starched blue suit, “but Mr. Jaynes here is practically running this whole program solo.”

You can tell that Blue’s the one who’s got Sub sweating. She doesn’t smile, and her lips are drawn so tight you think her face might suck itself into her skull.

“Successfully. It seems,” Blue says.

Ferrara points to one of the dumbshits in the front of the class. “The beginning of last year, Kenny was rated far below proficient. Now he’s testing far above. He knows his URPS and his ALPOS, and we don’t even have him on an IEP anymore.”

Kenny smiles, everyone does, including you, but the suit doesn’t crack. She’s nodding, looking at Ferrara like someone listening to an old person tell the same story for the hundredth time. She pulls out a skinscreen, taps a few times. It crackles like real paper as it hardens into a thin, flat slide.

“Kenny,” Blue says, her voice softer. “May I ask you a favor?”

Kenny looks uncertainly at Principal Ferrara. He takes a step forward.

“I’d like to give you little reading test.” She holds up the skinscreen, smiles primly. “It won’t count as part of your grade. Just think of it as a game.”

Kenny takes it unsteadily in his hand, runs his thumb over the stream of letters spread out across the page so crazy you can’t believe they’re for real. Maybe she’s trying to trick him. Maybe she’s rigging the game, so Sub won’t get his bonuses.

Kenny takes a breath and starts to read.

“the
        sky
             was
can         dy         lu
minous”

His voice is shaky. His tongue stumbles over the words, something about lemons, green, and chocolate, and you haven’t had that color in your head since Hector plugged your system with the ratgum. Not even the ocean’s that color anymore. You don’t know what it means, that locomotive spouting violets, but you do know as you listen that you’re somewhere else.

It ain’t Laguna Shores, or the mall, or the garage where Hali Colorado counts his vials and his money, but it’s new and it’s warm and someplace no one’s ever bothered to tell you about.

Blue pulls the skinscreen away. “Thank you, Kenny.”

Sub smiles, the relief palpable on his pasty, sweat drenched face. Ferrara pats Kenny on the back and turns hopefully back to the suit. But you, you raise your hand.

“So what’s that mean?”

There’s silence as Sub shoots you an angry, desperate look.

“It uh, means what it means, Ms. Podesta.”

Principal Ferrara nods. The suits glance at one another, sniffing out the stink of nerves or lies. You think. But then Kenny beams, opens his dumbshit mouth.

“I know what ‘can’ means.”

“Go on,” says Principle Ferrara.

He holds his head up, grins like his long dead puppy’s come back to life.

“Competency Assessment Number.”

*

You’re at home counting your money a few weeks later when you see Greeley on the news. There’s the suit, dressier this time, holding up Greeley as proof that any school can change.

“Throwing money at a problem never helps,” says someone else, a businessman or mayor, you don’t know. You do know that Sub’s scared shitless, ‘cause he’s meeting Hali Colorado tonight, he’s going to spread the miracle throughout the district. He’s got to now. Too much at stake.

TV spouts more words – “mutual respect, engagement, all kids are motivated” – and you think about the thing Kenny read. You found it in the cloud, got a copy on your skinscreen and spent all last night reading the letters of a guy named e.e.

Little ees.

You wonder what they stand for.

english equivalency.

      emotionally educable.

erased.

You know what that means.

“It’s going to be my neck,” Sub told you. “You want to lose all this, Podesta?”

He pointed to your brand new sneakers, violet. Luminous.

And you thought that maybe you did.

You do.


Sara Kate Ellis lives in Tokyo where she is a master of seat nabbing during crowded commutes. She is a 2011 Lambda fellow in genre fiction with stories in Electric Spec, The Red Penny Papers and Bête Noire. She likes soba, loves her Asagaya neighborhood, and can be found now and then at mojikashite.wordpress.com She says:

This story comes from staring too long at the slow-moving train wreck known as education reform. Although I like the insanity of thinking acronyms can save the world, someone’s out to make a buck — why shouldn’t it be the kids?


Illustration by Hans Hillewaert is provided by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.



3 Responses to “11:4: “Sub”, by Sara K. Ellis”

  1. Gabriel Squailia says:

    I’ve been digging through online publications all week, looking for a story I can see the world in. This is the first I’ve found. Thank you.

  2. Diane says:

    I thought I had the story figured out, but it kept morphing right before my eyes. Lovely ending. Didn’t see that coming. Thanks for a delightful read.

  3. John McIntyre says:

    I thought this was brilliantly written, really original, and that it somehow managed to be gripping and realistic while never presenting me with more than the nebulous outline of a system.

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