On Substitutes and Glitter-Bombs

Since I’ve been home since the end of last semester, I’ve been finding odd ways to use my time: I made a newsletter for my fraternity, designed a flyer for an environmental activist group on campus, visited Wesleyan a few times, and I got a job as a substitute teacher for a local school system (K-12).

Substitute teaching is psychologically strange. Especially for the younger grades, where kids are less socialized and perhaps more genuine, the substitute enters their lives, inhabits a position of importance for a day or a few hours, and then— leaves. For the kids, this means games of name-swapping, musical chairs, and mass misbehavior among the ranks. For me, the wide-eyed substitute, as I clean up the shrapnel from Joe and Allen’s glitter-bombs and separate cliquey Maura-and-Jess from jealous Andrea, I gain a glimpse of twelve or twenty-five future-adults, all of whom I will probably never again meet; I am left knowing of twenty-five people that I will never really know.

The word for this feeling is sonder, defined unofficially as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” It’s a feeling we should encounter a lot, really. Every time you step anywhere and see anyone, whether he is next to you on the bus, or she’s down out your skyscraper window getting onto a bus, or across the world being hit by a bus— there are simply billions of people that we will never encounter, each of whom might be perfectly invaluable companions.

I alternatively react to this feeling with either renewed motivation to meet people and see things and go places, or with extreme and impenetrable apathy towards people and life. Some days I’ll remember meeting Thomas while subbing in a 5th grade special education classroom and feel proud and bolstered by having boosted his day with my (hopefully) helpful presence. But only one second later I’ll remember how inevitably difficult life will be for Thomas, that his own biology will continue to conspire against him for the rest of his life. Thousands more are like Thomas. Millions of people lead tremendously difficult lives. Billions of salmon swimming upstream. Perhaps we’re all in these waters together, but some streams just seem unjustly gradated.

It’s the easy conclusion to announce loudly to oneself that “that’s just the way it is.” Some people have it rough. What could I do about that? Welcome to the world, bad things happen. Nasty people win the lottery and good people never play it. And that’s the gut-crunching truth behind it all— it’s luck. As you sit and revel in your satin-eyed armchair, remember that you could have been born anywhere, anytime. Of course, we shouldn’t live guiltily for having begun where we did, but we also shouldn’t forget how vast a quilt this civilization has become.

Unfortunately this leads back to the same fork-in-the-road: will this substitute teacher be left with renewed motivation to meet people and go places and experience life, or will he saddle up and hunker down with impenetrable apathy against the world?

There is no answer for everyone, but I think the worst sin of all is to ever become jaded: to life, to love, to happiness, or to despair; to take for granted that which you have inherited, earned, or lost; to never feel sonder.

Stay curious. Throw a glitter bomb at a stranger. Don’t let apathy become your default.

And if you ever find yourself too complacent in your ways— try substitute teaching.

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