The following anecdotal story was originally part of the 2016 compilation “Here’s to You” created by the Chicago Writers class of 2016.
As a high schooler, there is a certain feeling you get when you realize it isn’t your teacher standing at the board, ready to promptly begin the lesson, but an unfamiliar, bewildered adult stands in their place. A feeling of relief. A feeling that for fifty minutes you can kick back, relax, and watch a movie instead of take notes on Newton’s billionth law. When the teacher is absent and a substitute is present, no one is on their best behavior. The class clowns become a little more clownish, the slackers slack like never before, and even the soft spoken students reach a whole new decibel. The respect conducted by the regular teacher disappears for the day and students turn barbarous, because, well, there is a substitute, so who cares?
It takes a special kind of person to not only take on this notoriously ruthless job–laden with extended trips to the bathroom, phones on every desk, and the like–but master it. It takes someone like Mrs. Obiala.
It sure isn’t an intimidating appearance that forms Mrs. Obiala’s presence in a room. She stands at merely 5 feet 6 inches, with a thin frame; her dirty blonde hair is perfectly manicured into a short bob, resting just above her ears. Often sporting brightly colored sweaters and big, bold necklaces, it is hard to miss her standing at the door of her ever-changing classrooms. Often times you can catch a blur of bright colors wisping through the hall at passing period. You’ll know that it’s Mrs. O, quickly traveling to the next classroom, by the infinite amount of “Hi, Mrs. O” you’ll hear along her route. Knowing a sub by name is rare. However, it is different with Mrs. Obiala. Freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors are on a name, and even nickname basis with her. Mrs. O has a way of making such an impersonal job, personal.
Freshman year I had Afro 1st hour of the day, a class notoriously stacked with all the talkers and trouble makers who weren’t quite up for taking World Civ. The class was outnumbered by sophomores who felt a sense of authority, being in their second year at Lake Forest High School as opposed to us timid freshman. When it wasn’t them wreaking havoc with their newfound sophomore confidence, it was the freshman trying to impress them. Jokes were told, then repeated an extreme amount of times, until even the students in the far corners let out a laugh. Class was often a free for all, more profoundly even, with a sub. Students shouted out answers, played on their phones, and did way more talking than listening.
This was the first class I ever had Mrs. Obiala as a sub in.
When I arrived to class that day, there was a short line forming out of the classroom door. Students were smiling and shaking Mrs. O’s hand, as was her protocol, as she stood at the door greeting each sophomore student by name.
“Hi I am Mrs. Obiala. It is very nice to meet you,” she said to all the faces she didn’t yet recognize, all while doling out her customary handshake. Although she didn’t recognize me yet, I recognized her. That year the theme of the yearbook was “selfies” and a schoolwide Facebook page existed to post various selfies you took around the school. I remember scrolling through the cluttered page one day and seeing a girl post one captioned “with the one and only, Mrs. O.” The photo had over a hundred likes on a page where two seemed impressive, and tons of comments expressing love for Mrs. Obiala, from freshman to seniors, from the bookworms to the jocks and everyone in between, even the kids who loathed school. I was curious who this woman was and why she was so important and admired amongst LFHS students.
By the end of Afro class that day, I knew.
When you have a sub, it is almost a given that the first ten minutes will be designated to laughs and conversations drowning out a seemingly everlasting attendance list. Not with Mrs. O. She didn’t even have to call out the names. She skimmed down the list whispering “saw her” and “he’s right there” to herself as she polished off the usually daunting task in 30 seconds.
When she was present, the classroom was different. Everyone was sitting down quietly and obeying the seating chart to an exact T. Mrs. Obiala stood in front of the class, possessing a confident demeanor, uncommon among substitute teachers, and introduced herself. There was no need for her to scribble her name up on the board, everyone already knew her: she was Mrs. Obiala, a familiar face as the mandated Social Studies or English teacher. Next, she then laid down the law: “no phones out, no partners, and no talking ‘till the packet was done,” she calmly stated while peering at the class over the rim of her glasses. But she didn’t do it in a bossy, strict manner, but more of a “trust me, just get it done” kind of way. So we did.
And that, to my surprise, is what everyone did. Not a single student dared to disobey her. Even sophomore Mac Montagne silently grinded away at the packet. He knew better than to cross Mrs. O.
I was stunned. This was the exact opposite of what I had expected. Never did I think this class would behave like this, let alone with a substitute. But I quickly learned that there are substitutes, and then there is Mrs. Obiala.
She conducts a type of respect unparalleled to anyone in the building. And it isn’t just by chance, there is a reason.
Mrs. Obiala’s dedication to the students is easy to see. It isn’t uncommon to see Mrs. Obiala, popcorn in hand, cheering for each player by name at a Scout’s game. Home or away, basketball or football, it doesn’t matter. She has earned the respect she receives in the classroom by being such a present figure to everyone in the school. Seeing her in the hall doesn’t typically consist of just a hello, but a genuine conversation about how your test went or what you have planned for the weekend, or, at this point in our lives, our plans for next year. Mrs. Obiala makes an effort to support and connect with students inside and outside of the classroom, something unheard for substitute teachers. Which is exactly why teachers view her as a counterpart and students consider her a companion.
As a Lake Forest high schooler, there is a certain feeling you get when you arrive to class and see it isn’t your teacher standing at the door, but Mrs. Obiala, holding out her endearing hand to partake in her customary shake. It’s a feeling of happiness. A feeling that today you get to be in the presence of one of the most amazing, kind hearted and respected women at the high school. A feeling that this class is going to be a good one.