Lessons in the Fictional Life of a Substitute Teacher: Q&A with Emil DeAndreis

Emil DeAndreis (photo by Sam Lowther)
Emil DeAndreis (photo by Sam Lowther)

For the last four years, Emil DeAndreis has been substitute teaching while he completes his MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State. Educated in San Francisco’s public schools, DeAndreis never dreamed of being a sub, but the position has granted him an intriguing view of the classroom and the current state of learning. His new collection of short stories, Beyond Folly (Bluecubiclepress.com; 150 pages) is a hilarious, brooding, and sometimes frightening portrait of the life of the substitute in the city today.

Beyond Folly follows 27-year-old substitute Horton Haggardy on nine different assignments—from librarian to AP English teacher to Computer Lab Specialist—for which he is always under-prepared and sometimes overmatched. Initially, Horton gets into substitute teaching so he can have time to work on his poetry after college: “It was a great job for someone in a transition period; only, he had been transitioning now for years.” Still struggling to be published, and writing less, Horton now must face his vanishing youth, the unlikelihood of his dream being fulfilled, and the fact that no one ever plans to become a career sub.

I met DeAndreis almost ten years ago, when we both were students at Lowell High School, and last spring, we coached the Lowell baseball team to a city championship. We talked about his work over coffee at a small café in the Outer Sunset.

ZYZZYVA: There has been a long history of literature about teaching, but very little of it has focused on substitute teaching. Why did you decide to write about the life of a sub?

Emil DeAndreis: It was easy to write about, because I was doing it on a daily basis. And the beauty of substitute teaching is that you have a lot of time to sit there and think because there’s really nothing else—in a lot of cases—nothing else that you have to be doing once you issue the kids their assignment. Sometimes, when I was subbing, I would just sit and write stories. A lot of the stuff was inspired by things I saw, but a lot of the stuff that I wrote was a result of me being able to sit there and think: what if this happened? What if an administrator was actually like this? What if a kid actually said this?

Z: Horton exists in that bizarre place where many people find themselves after college; supposedly killing time while trying to pursue his passion, but creeping toward the moment when that paycheck becomes a career. Usually, those characters work at cafés or in sales; in your opinion, what about substitute teaching accentuates that moment?

ED: I think because it’s so incredibly rare to envision someone who ever thought of himself as being a career sub. And I think people who are career subs feel like they have to defend it, like, “Oh, this didn’t work out” or “I’m still working on this” or something like that. I wanted to show that, because it’s a real part of substitute teaching: trying to justify to people why the hell you are doing it to begin with. It’s fun to put Horton in these situations where he has to defend it, to himself and to others.

Z: Some of the strongest and funniest parts in the collection are the interactions Horton has with other substitute teachers. The first story, “The Ballad of Seamus,” takes place at the annual orientation for San Francisco’s substitutes, which allows for some of the outlandish educators to shine. Were your characters based on actual co-workers, or were they products of your imagination?

ED: I think just having interactions with people in general, throughout the course of your life, inspires characters. But I mean, I’ve noticed that there is a strong uniqueness to the substitute crop. There’s a wealth of characters among substitutes. I wouldn’t say that I’ve met those specific people, but it’s very easy to meet someone and sort of assign one of my subs their characteristics.

Z: Early on in Beyond Folly, Horton escapes from a stressful day by savoring a stick of string cheese. In another story, the coffee drinking and faux-intellect of an AP English class disturb him. Why do you keep returning to the loss of innocence? Have you come across this attempt to prematurely age a lot while working with kids?

ED: It does seem to creep into all my stories in some form or another. Horton is at an age—that coincidentally is my own age—when you’re still close enough to your youth that you can remember it tangibly, but you can also see it getting further away everyday. I think he is trying to come to grips with something that you can hold in your hands, but at the same time know is leaving you. And everyday, he sees all these kids that don’t understand that at some point it is going to come to that. I think that as a 27 year old, that’s in the back of my mind a lot and ends up coming out in my writing.

Z: The collection is named after one of the stories called “Beyond Folly.” In the story, an AP English student exclaims, “This is beyond folly,” during a wonderfully preposterous class discussion. Where did you pick up that term, and why did you choose it as the title?

ED: I was in an undergrad class with my professor in Hawaii and we were reading a short story by Kate Chopin. In the story, this flat, well-to-do guy was getting upset with his wife, because she was acting unsatisfied and erratic. He hurled this insult at her that was meant to be incredibly heavy: “This is beyond folly.” For some reason, it cracked me up; my professor and I started saying it at each other.

Hopefully, if my stories do what I want them to do, they all are beyond folly, they all are beyond absurd. The whole circumstance of Horton substitute teaching in the public schools is beyond absurd. Every day of his life is completely beyond folly, so that’s kind of where it comes from.

Z: Horton dreams of being a published poet, but admits he has not been writing as much as he should. In the story “Day Off,” you write: “When he sat down with a pen and pad, he had a difficult time starting—he couldn’t seem to get past the fact that no matter what he wrote and rewrote, no matter how polished and poignant he thought his work was, there was a good chance it would go unpublished.” I think a lot of struggling authors can relate to that anxiety; is that a problem for you?

ED: That quote comes at a point for Horton where nothing’s going his way. He just can’t get anything published and even if he does, what good is publishing a poem, what does that mean? He has to grapple with all those realizations. That’s one thing that Horton suffers from that hasn’t really affected me. It just was another tragic quality to give to this already tragic character—that he is cynically realistic about his promise as a poet.

Personally, I’ve always just expected rejections and not in a reverse psychology sort of way. It’s a game of numbers; there’s just statistically no way that you’re going to get published all the time. It’s not even good or bad, right or wrong writing, it’s just the nature of the math of what you get into. I guess I’ve been lucky enough to not be bothered by that and still just try to give it a shot.

One thought on “Lessons in the Fictional Life of a Substitute Teacher: Q&A with Emil DeAndreis

  1. While reading Beyond Folly it took me back to my early school years. How subs have no authority and lack of respect from students. Every chapter held my attention, leaving me feel as if I were in the classroom. Loved the book and hope to see another one soon.

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