Chicago Tribune: Hard times hit well-regarded substitute teacher – Homelessness proves that hard work isn’t always properly rewarded

 Henry Wolfson has been a substitute teacher for much of his life and is well regarded by the faculty at McCracken Middle School in Skokie. He moved from his Evanston apartment to a homeless shelter after being unable to pay his rent. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / August 21, 2012)
By Barbara Brotman

On this Labor Day, consider a story about labor that hasn’t worked out well.

Henry Wolfson, 66, has been a substitute teacher for 26 years. For the last 19 years, he has worked regularly at McCracken Middle School in Skokie, where he is so highly regarded that teachers often called him at home to request he fill in for them.

Only these days, they can’t call him at home, because he doesn’t have one. For the last four months, Wolfson has lived in a homeless shelter.

Teachers were stunned when Wolfson told them. He is an outstanding substitute, said Bethany Blades, who teaches eighth-grade language arts, literature and social studies.

“Henry will call me and say, ‘OK, I know we’re reading this story. Would you mind if I talk about the central concept of the story more?'” she said.

He is “an amazing human being,” sixth-grade math teacher Lillian Klein said. He is well read, she said, respectful with students — most of whom he knows by name — and known for his signature exhortation to “work diligently.”

He works diligently himself. He seeks out assignments, urging teachers to call whenever they need him. “I could call him at 4 a.m.,” Blades said.

As well as being shocked by the turn of events, teachers are perplexed.

“In this day and age, you’re thinking, how can an educated person have gotten himself to that point?” Klein said. “Why is that happening to someone like him?”

The why is more of a how. This is how:

Wolfson, a tall, slender man with the slightly rumpled look of a college professor, originally set out to be a journalist. After growing up in Rogers Park, a few blocks from the shelter where he lives, and getting his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, he began freelancing book reviews and feature stories for the Sun-Times and occasionally the Tribune.

But he couldn’t make a living. So he began substitute teaching, first in Chicago Public Schools and then in Skokie.

Subbing is a poor sole source of income. The pay is low and the work inconsistent. In fact, when Wolfson first arrived at the shelter, he encountered another sub living there.

For a time, Wolfson managed. But the group medical insurance he was buying through the National Writers Union proved unreliable. The only other policy he could get with a pre-existing condition of hypertension was through the state — and cost $15,000 a year.

He paid it for two years. Then he ran out of money.

He went without insurance until he turned 65 and was eligible for Medicare. But he had spent so much on medical insurance that he was now having trouble paying his bills.

He had no family to turn to. He is unmarried and has not seen his few relatives in years.

He took a lump-sum payout of his anticipated pension from the Teachers’ Retirement System. He got some help with expenses from The ARK, a social service agency for low-income Chicago Jews.

But he began falling behind on the rent at his Evanston apartment. He got an eviction notice, fought it in court, and lost.

And so April 30, a few days before the threatened arrival of sheriff’s officers, he moved into The ARK’s Sarnoff Levin Residence.

“It was culture shock,” he said.

It is a fine shelter with an expert and helpful staff, he said, but it is still a homeless shelter.

“It’s frightening. It’s limiting,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of being poor, but I’m not proud of it, either. It’s demeaning.”

He took a few clothes and his clock radio, but “I left behind a whole lifetime,” he said. “Everything I ever wrote.”

However, he did bring his substitute teaching certificate.

Because he was determined to keep working. And with remarkable effort and the help of the staff at McCracken, he did.

Because he had no telephone, to get work he had to call the Skokie Substitute Cooperative as many as 50 times every morning to keep checking for sub requests. And though it is a toll-free number, most pay phones charge for toll-free calls.

So every day, he left the shelter at 5:30 a.m. and took a bus and a train to a nearby hospital where he was allowed to make toll-free calls for free in the lobby.

He called the cooperative, sometimes for hours. And at 7:30 a.m., by previous arrangement, he called a secretary at McCracken to see if anyone there had requested him.

He kept working.

The new school year has begun, and Wolfson is still at the shelter. He has a cellphone now, though he frugally husbands the precious minutes. He is on several waiting lists for subsidized senior citizen housing.

He intends to keep subbing as long as he is physically able.

He is often asked a question that makes him bristle: Why didn’t he become a “real” teacher?

Stubbornness, he acknowledges.

“I would say, ‘Here I am, a lifelong writer and book reviewer. My college specialties were constitutional law and civil liberties. … I am a real teacher.'”

“Well, Henry,” a McCracken aide said after hearing this, “you really showed them.”

On Labor Day, his tale shows that there are people around us who are working hard and just barely staying afloat; that work is not always rewarded in ways we would all find fair; that effort does not always translate into decent money.

And if the labor of substitute teachers disappeared?

“The educational system couldn’t survive without them,” said Wolfson, who may not have a home but has that answer.