THE FACE ON THE COIN
Eddie Martinez, a seventh-grade student, throws a penny at a fellow student that bounces off the intended’s shoulder. Eddie laughs. “Pick it up,” I say, trying to assert a little authority, a precious commodity for a substitute teacher, which is what I am. “Pick it up or I’ll write down your name.” With a smirk, Eddie Martinez picks up the penny and sticks it into his pocket, and I walk back to the teacher’s desk. I look at the clock: twenty-five minutes to the end of class, five hours to the end of the school day, and with a sigh I glance down at the book I’ve been looking at, a collection of poems by Jorge Luis Borges. The poem I see is called “To A Coin,” and it is about how Borges, leaving Montevideo, throws a coin from a boat, watches it sink in muddy water. Borges identifies with that piece of metal sinking into oblivion, and he feels caught in a similar fate. And here I am subbing at a junior high and thinking this isn’t oblivion, but it sure feels close.
When the bell rings ending third period, Eddie takes the penny from his pocket and again flings it at his friend. The shot misses and lands in the corner, I start to say something but—hell with it—I don’t say anything, saving my energy for fourth, the students already beginning to enter.
Once they’ve settled down, more or less, I call roll, explain the lesson, pass out workbooks, and holding the notebook in which I write, I walk around the room. My footsteps resonate. Since I’ve become a substitute teacher, I’ve learned to wear shoes made of some strong, resonate material. Resounding as I pass over hardwood floors, cracked linoleum, or thin carpets mottled by dried chewing gum, my footsteps are heavy on the heels and have, I hope, an authoritative thud. I want to sound like Ahab walking the deck of the Pequod, without the peg leg of course, but with the same sense of acoustic menace.
Making my rounds, I saw how the penny had fallen, pitched up against the wall at a forty-five degree angle. It’s the kind of lodging that you could not get if you had tossed that coin two-hundred times. A voice interrupts my thought.
“What are you writing about me?” one student demands.
“Just making notes,” I say, in a quiet, minatory tone. “Just do your work.”
Meanwhile, I do mine. My job as a sub teacher is a Trojan horse, a cover that allows me to write. In this regard, Borges has been one of my inspirations. He went to work as a librarian in Buenos Aires in 1939, a job low-paying and incommensurate for a person of his emerging stature. Yet the work wasn’t too hard. In fact, his fellow employees told him on the first day to chill, don’t sort and shelve so quickly. They had to stretch out the day to make themselves look useful. Borges learned to work for a couple of hours and then hide in the basement where he’d do translations or write. I sometimes think of him in that library basement. While it probably didn’t smell like many a junior-high school on the East side of Los Angeles, a faint odor of Axe, not-always washed bodies after gym, and hair oil, I’m sure he smelled the same stale whiff of despair as I do on days like this. I too know what it’s like to feel like a tossed coin, floating to the bottom of the harbor.
As a writer at work, I take courage from my heroes, Borges, Ludwig Wittgenstein, revising the Tractatus in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp, and William Faulkner, who by 1929 had published a couple of books including The Sound and the Fury, though the good reviews didn’t translate into sales. To make ends meet, he went to work in a powerhouse at the University of Mississippi. After he shoveled coal for two hours, he could rest and write using a wheelbarrow for a table, near a wall where a dynamo ran. “It made a deep, constant humming noise,” Faulkner wrote. I’ve heard that sound myself, though a different kind of buzz in another dimension, as I’ve walked inside the bubbling room of some junior high.
Yet I write not in praise of silence. It has its uses, and I’m sure writing in the basement of a library—and being paid for it—would be good for most writers. For me, however, silence can be good, of course, but other times it is nothing, a void, the world before the word. I’ve stood in the desert and felt my mind squirming for the resistance of sound, my eyes for the structure of structures. And I’ve talked to my new neighbors, who tell me that the street I live on, where motorcycles race at nightfall, is much more quiet than where they lived in Hollywood.
I’m saying that I’m used to a constant humming noise, something like that which Faulkner heard. It’s the energy of the classroom I hear as I circulate among jokes, japes, and jeers. The words I run through my scribbling pen and imagination come out in another dimension. Sometimes, it feels as if it’s either use this ambience for stimulation or have a heart attack. And yet, in this atmosphere, I’ve found inspiration to come from the most unlikely places. I’ve even discovered, by the oddest complexity of association, that a fight in class—chaos that calls for security and, later, the muse—leaves in its wake good creative insights.
Sometimes I’m not writing as much as gathering information. For my fiction the students around me form a kind of gene pool. I’ve noted eyes, hair color, bits of speech, and gestures. They’ve later showed up in my fiction. Many times, I’ve passed over the attendance rosters in various classes, scrawling down unusual names that I’ve thought of incorporating into my stories, and some have done so, though with surnames changed.
And yet …the image of the tossed coin prevails. My writing career hasn’t produced many results, and there is no sensation of hellish oblivion quite like a sub teacher, an aging one, stuck in some junior high assignment. And yet this is the career I’ve stayed with for over twenty years, and that’s the tossed coin metaphor in another dimension. You chose to follow your dreams, and yet the other side of that coin is to watch others succeed in far more lucrative fields while you work as a sub teacher because it gives you time to write. I’m not alone in this. I’ve known sub teachers who are failed lawyers, actors, and screen writers. Failure is always the flip side. “Before us the iron coin,” Borges writes in another poem, “The Iron Coin,” “Now let us ask/ The two opposing faces what the answer will be…” Perhaps every choice we make is like a coin, whose flip side we don’t know. “Any coin,” Borges writes in a short story called “The Zahir,” is “a panoply of possible futures.”
So here I am in that future. Working in the belly of this particular beast, I’m trying to steal some time as it slips between my fingers by scribbling ideas, first drafts, and making revisions, all to be codified later when I get home and am seated in front of my word processor. Of course, there are times when I have to be actively teaching, those unavoidable occasions when I have to proctor a test or read a story aloud or monitor the class as they read one, though sometimes I do pick up on some usable insight. (On the other hand, may I never have to read “The Monkey’s Paw” by WW Jacobs again!) And on those occasions when no lesson plans have been left I fill the time with my own copy-and-correct, dog-and-pony-show, though I’ve memorized this spiel so much that I don’t even have to look at the paper from which the students work. (By the way, I don’t let them do it on their own. Most of them will just copy the material, mistakes and all, and hand it in.)
I’m a thief of time, hiding in plain sight. If blurring the line between one’s work and personal life is a sign of success, I’m a success. I recall years past. Living in Sacramento in my mid-twenties, I worked in a mailing house. It was a crappy job, boring, and being a college graduate I considered myself superior to my fellow workers, though I wouldn’t have thought so if you asked me then. From my present perspective, I know that it wasn’t only the work and the noise that made me unhappy. (Oh, the noise, the grind of the Cheshire machine as it glued address labels on envelopes, the whoop-whoop-whoop of the printing presses in one corner of the room, and the blare of the AM radio playing a Bay Area, top-forty station. May I never hear “Brother Louie” by Stories, “Half Breed” by Cher, or “Delta Dawn” by Helen Reddy again.) I’d spend eight hours in that din, and then I rode home on my bicycle, go upstairs to my apartment, and on a manual typewriter try and write, taking pot or beer or tea for stimulation. Soon, the weariness of the day, the pounding in my ears and feet, would sink into my bones. Even reading would be difficult; tapped out, I would fall asleep in front of the television, only to rise tomorrow and flush away another eight hours on the minimum wage.
Now that I’m older, I multi-task, you might say, conserving my time. Though I’ve compared my job to that of a window-washer whose impact is minimal regardless of the quality of his work, I can say that in over twenty years I’ve never gotten a bad report on the job, no assistant principal has caught me reading the newspaper, listening to headphones, or sleeping on the job, all things I’ve heard happening to other subs. I’ve never told a student, as one former employee did to a junior-high kid, “I bet you have more sex than I do.” The student complained, and a year later, I saw that same ex-sub walking down the street and wearing the uniform of a security guard.
I avoid those pitfalls, do my job, but my mind I reserve for myself. The scribes asked Jesus, Is it lawful to pay the tax to Caesar? I’ve put my own spin on his answer. Jesus asked to see a Roman coin, and when it was produced his response was direct, enigmatic, and circumspect. He told them to render into Caesar what is Caesar’s, and that’s what I try to do. I live, as it were, on the other side of the coin, that is, within the school district’s conventions, and yet apart from them at the same time. In a way, I too am a face on a coin, a middle-age man whose features the kids will forget tomorrow, speaking my lines by rote: “Watch talking!” “No cell phones!” “Do your own work!”
Meanwhile, I do mine. At the day’s final bell I have scribbled down three pages, edited a couple of others, and read a short story at lunch break. The last kid leaves. Oh, the silence of the last departed class, like the lull that follows a scream. I walk around the room, moving chairs, picking up trash, and just as I am just about to leave I see the single copper penny, lodged vertically, the one Eddie Martinez threw hours earlier. I’d forgotten about it. I pick it up, and I think of that coin that Borges once tossed from a boat. That ducat went to oblivion, yet I feel I have rescued this piece, as some combination of luck and effort might rescue me some day. I polish the coin between the folds of my coat, and when I’m done it glows, almost like new.