Painting, snowscape, blue journal: substitute teacher for life

By Patricia Benitez

Eth Hyman is speed walking down the school hallway, dodging the traffic of students walking in the opposite direction. Tom Heggie is the substitute teacher in science class today, and Hyman can’t keep from smiling at the thought of his familiar presence.

As Hyman enters the classroom and finds his seat, Heggie saunters to the front of the classroom where a snowscape painting rests on the ledge of the whiteboard. 

The buzz of gossip quiets as the students lean forward in anticipation and lay their phones face down on the desks. 

They know Heggie never starts class with assignments. Instead, he pulls out a blue journal from the outer pocket of his leather suitcase. He flips through the pages and begins to read his philosophy of life, a poem by Emily Dickinson. 

“If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;”

He pauses to meet engaged eyes. 

“If I can ease one life aching, 

Or cool one pain, 

Or help one fainting robin 

Unto his nest again, 

I shall not live in vain.”

He doesn’t need the journal anyway. After years of reciting this poem, he knows it by heart.

Heggie isn’t like most substitute teachers. While most only teach the same students once and never see them again, Heggie teaches at the same schools several days a week to form relationships with students. 

For more than 20 years, Heggie has welcomed students into classrooms with a spirited “Yooo baby!” and hugs. Now 84 years old and 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Heggie doesn’t fit the typical appearance of a substitute teacher either. 

When class ends, Hyman approaches Heggie’s painting. 

Heggie chats with Hyman as he always does. Before Hyman leaves for his next class, Heggie hands him the snowscape as a gift. “This is for you,” says Heggie.

“Are you serious?” says Hyman with a smile. 

Hyman still has to trudge through the rest of his classes. But he knows Heggie cares about him, and that is enough. 

“You’ll need them someday”

In high school, painting became Heggie’s escape valve. He has ADHD, which is an asset when he paints. His brush diverges from one corner of the canvas to another until the pigments all harmonize into one. 

Heggie was also a talented athlete. When it was time to apply to colleges, he wanted to pursue football. After all, he was tall with broad shoulders and a malleable personality, ready to learn the techniques of any sport. But when Syracuse University offered him a football scholarship, Heggie’s mom, Evelyn, protested.

“You’re going to hurt your hands,” she said. “And you’ll need them someday.”

She knew that Heggie’s ability to connect with people wasn’t in athletics. It was in his art.

“You’ll find a way,” she said.

And so he did. 

“Art can help children feel hope in times of suffering”

Heggie believes art can help children stop, even if just for a moment, and feel hope in times of suffering. 

So when he retired at 63, he spent his summers at a camp for grieving children. He formed a bond with a 5-year-old boy in the program, Sterling, who loved to play the drums.

But Sterling’s spurts of rhythm and joy were short-lived. His younger sister, Maleika, was dying.

Heggie decided to create a timeless symbol of her. He spent days in his studio illustrating a colorful book about Sterling’s story and dedicated it to Maleika. 

Sterling read Maleika the story once before she died. Later, Heggie painted her as an angel for her family. 

Sterling thanked Heggie with a long hug, just like the ones Sterling once gave Maleika. 

That was more than enough for Heggie. After all, Jane, his wife of 59 years, taught him that everyone needs a hug to have a successful day.

“I will make you a promise”

“Do you have to leave us?” asked one of Heggie’s art students. His year as a teacher in Staten Island had come to an end. 

Heggie had just graduated from college and, at the time, teaching was an interlude before starting his career as an advertising illustrator. 

He wasn’t prepared for the trials he would face as a teacher that year. The students attacked each other with scissors and screamed vulgar language that Heggie had never heard before. They were accustomed to indifferent teachers. 

But Heggie refused to tolerate their violence. Instead, he talked to students individually and invited them to share their frustrations with him.

By the end of the year, the students were begging him to stay. They even collected money to buy him a cake.

Heggie knew the value of a dollar. When his dad broke his back, 14-year-old Heggie weeded fields alongside migrant workers to provide for his family. So he didn’t take their appreciation for granted.

“I’ll make you a promise,” he said to them. “I will teach again.”

And he never forgot his promise. When Heggie retired, he started substitute teaching.

“You really don’t know how much we miss you”

At the beginning of the pandemic, when schools closed, Heggie didn’t anticipate being out of the classroom for so long and missed the students. Charlotte Murphy, one of his students, missed him too.

In March, Murphy visited Heggie’s house to pick up a custom painting. She wanted to support him in any way she could. Though she only planned to stay for a few minutes, Murphy conversed with Heggie for hours, taking in his caring presence during a time of heightened loneliness and isolation. To Heggie, listening to people’s stories is a privilege, one that must be nurtured and never taken for granted. 

When she stopped to admire one of Heggie’s paintings, he took it off his wall and handed it to her, insisting that she take it for free.

“That’s kind of you,” she said. “But your paintings are valuable.” As a fellow artist, she knows the value of his paintings. 

“Mr. Heggie,” she said as she was leaving, clutching his painting close to her chest. “You really don’t know how much we miss you.”

Now that schools are open again, Heggie is back in the same classrooms, with his journal and a painting showing the students how much he cares. 

Edited by Ellie Crowther and Simon Tan