To the students in the schools where I substitute teach, I am “Sarge.” They call me that because I retired in 2011 as a sergeant first class, after 32 years of military service.
One of my learners is a special-needs student who always gives me a salute, which feels great. He asks if I’ll wait for him at the end of the day, and he walks me to my car. Then he runs to the corner while I drive by and yells, “Go Patriots!” I’m from the South, so I yell back, “Go Falcons!”
It touches me that a student goes to that much trouble to show his appreciation and respect. That’s the gratification of substitute teaching. We touch lives, and our students know it. For a retiree like me, now that I’m out of the military, there’s no better way to spend my time.
In my younger days, I didn’t give much thought to learning, but I came to value it later. My 32 years in the Army, including the National Guard and Army Reserve, bookended a fun 10 years with a band playing up and down the East Coast. You can even see me in the movie “The Great Santini,” playing with the band at the high school dance.
And by the way, I can tell you that Robert Duvall is just a nice, normal guy. He sat with me at the piano and sang songs.
So, before I retired from military service, I went back to college, for the higher education that had been interrupted in 1969 by Vietnam. I got my bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate. I got my master’s degree in educational leadership. I got another master’s degree in history.
At my age, it was hard getting full-time jobs in education, so I discovered the freedom and fun of substitute teaching. Today, I substitute at Annville-Cleona School District. The people at A Plus are just about the nicest people I’ve ever worked with, and they handle all the paperwork and taxes. I can accept or turn down any assignment I like.
My students know that I don’t need the money. They ask why I’m doing this. I tell them, “The only thing I ever want in life is a Corvette. I look at y’all, and you’re a bunch of Corvettes to me.”
And you know what? They laugh. They’re at ease. They feel comfortable around me. I share my story. I tell them they need to do their schoolwork because they don’t want to live the life I had to live. For some reason, they appreciate that. They like my honesty. And they know that when Sarge is in the classroom, they have a stickler for discipline, and they can’t play any tricks on me.
Through it all, I think I’m making a difference because I pay attention. I have the time that regular classroom teachers don’t always have to listen to the kids.
Plus, I get to teach a thing or two. A social studies teacher once asked me to teach about Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, the one that divided the Republicans in 1912 and gave the election to Woodrow Wilson. It just so happened that Donald Trump was running for the Republican nomination, and people were saying he could form a splinter party, so I tied the two together.
The next day, the teacher said, “Wow. They really knew something about the Bull Moose Party.” That certainly was a great way to end the day. There’s a lot of stuff we do on the fly, but moments like that make it all worthwhile.
In one of the schools where I substitute, the assistant principal told me that he can feel the difference on the days when I’m coming in. All the kids are happy, he said. That’s the impact I have. I can help kids understand why school matters. They are amazing, and they have great futures ahead of them. If I can play a part in that, it’s the most rewarding way I can spend my retirement.
George Hargrove lives in North Cornwall Township. He and his wife, Ann, raised five sons. George contracts as a substitute teacher with the Annville-Cleona School District through A+ Teachers, www.abelteachers.com