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'My So-Called Life' nostalgia recap: A fable

Season 1 | Episode 6 | “The Substitute” | Aired Sep 29, 1994

School is an important feature of every episode of My So-Called Life, but this episode turns things around a bit to focus on the teachers. “Maybe teachers have a hidden life, where they’re actually, like … human,” Angela ponders.

An eccentric substitute, Vic Racine, shows up in English class one day and turns the students’ lives upside down. He obsessively chews on toothpicks, wears one black sock and one white sock, and treats the kids like human beings right off the bat.

He is also played by the late, great Roger Rees, whom we so sadly lost just last month.

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Brian Krakow is, of course, only concerned with what’s happening to the work they completed with their old teacher—specifically, their submissions for the school’s literary magazine. After agreeing to look them over, Mr. Racine is unimpressed and literally throws them out the window, calling their work uninspired crap. Brian is understandably horrified, whereas the others don’t even know what to make of the drastic action.

Angela confronts Mr. Racine the next day, saying she found his disposal of their hard work to be disrespectful. He insists he did it to clear the slate and wake the students up, and urges them to start over with new pieces for the literary magazine—pieces that are more honest, angry, and “naked.” Mr. Racine is becoming somewhat of a legend at Liberty, to the point where students who aren’t even in his class, including Rayanne and Rickie, are crashing just to see what the hype is all about. Before long, the class is standing-room only, the students are more engaged than they’re ever been, and Mr. Racine is beginning to see “signs of life” in their papers.

One day, Mr. Racine has the students blindly select someone else’s anonymous piece of writing and read it aloud to the class. Rickie reads a “fable” that is obviously Angela’s—it is unsurprisingly poignant. While the other students find it confusing, Mr. Racine loves how thought-provoking it is. Brian draws a very sexual haiku and refuses to read the entire thing aloud. It is essentially a sex scene with a lot of furnace metaphors that takes place “in the cold cement basement of love.” Based on her reaction and reputation, it appears Rayanne wrote it.

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Mr. Racine fixates on Jordan Catalano right away and keeps urging him to participate more in class, giving him extra reading to do. He is incredibly frustrated when he discovers Jordan can’t read, a fact his other teachers seem to have somehow missed. Graham visits Mr. Racine to collect the literary magazine submissions to print, and is also fascinated by what an unusual man he is. Back home, Patty looks through the submissions and tries to figure out which one is Angela’s. She and Graham worry their daughter could be the author of the sexy “haiku,” causing Patty to hilariously exclaim, “We don’t even have a basement!” Patty confronts Mr. Racine, saying she doesn’t feel comfortable printing the sexy piece. He accuses her of censorship and refuses to tell her if Angela wrote it. As he tends to do, he wins Patty over, convincing her to print the magazine, haiku and all.

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The magazine is published, and the sexy haiku becomes the talk of the school. Sharon jumps to its defense when a couple of girls make fun of it. Rayanne overhears and is stunned to realize Sharon is the haiku’s real author. The two reach an agreement—Rayanne intentionally gave off the impression that she wrote it, and wants people to keep thinking that, while Sharon doesn’t want people to know she wrote it.

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The principal gets wind of the magazine and cuts off its distribution. The students watch from the window as Mr. Racine exits the school, presumably having been fired. Angela, Rayanne, and Rickie chase after him, and he simply urges them once again to wake up. Angela is not satisfied, and is determined to find a way to fight the school’s decision to censor the magazine.

Graham learns from the principal that Vic quit after being subpoenaed for abandoning his family and not paying child support. He tells Angela, effectively shattering the illusion of this man she had looked up to, who is actually just as damaged as everyone else. She finds him in the phone book (haha) and confronts him. He refers to his family as “a prison of his own making” and suggests Angela drop out of school. Disappointed, she tells him she doesn’t think leaving is ever the answer. Graham also takes a moment to reassure Angela that what Mr. Racine did to his family will never happen to them—a conversation full of meaning that goes right over Patty’s head.

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After a funny scene where Brian sees Angela getting a ride home from Mr. Racine (“Is there, like, anyone’s car you won’t get into?”), our protagonist takes matters into her own hands, copying and distributing the magazine herself. This obviously lands her, and her parents, in the principal’s office. Angela is proud of her decision, and in fact disappointed when she is let off with a warning rather than being suspended. It does appear, however, that she and her classmates have woken up a bit, just as the substitute intended.

Best Angela-ism: Angela’s “fable”: Once upon a time there lived a girl. She slept in a lovely little cottage made of gingerbread and candy. She was always asleep. One morning she woke up, and the candy had mold on it. Her father blew her a kiss and the house fell down. She realized she was lost. She found herself walking down a crowded street, but the people were made of paper, like paper dolls. She blew everyone a kiss goodbye, and watched as they blew away.

Claire Danes Cry-Face Count: Zero. This was more of an angry-face episode.

Most Ignorant Teenage Moment: Angela obliviously telling her parents how it’s nice to “finally” have an adult (Vic) to look up to.

Angst-o-Meter: 3/10. No real tears to be shed here.

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