My Momma used to say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

Most of the time she said it resentfully, because people with connections get the good things in life relying on what nowadays we call “privilege.” It was only years later that I realized I should have challenged her by asking what she was doing to help her children get to know the “right” people.

Though she had a circle of close women friends, neither she nor my father were the social sort. We would have family come visit, sometimes for the weekend, but people getting together to party was not part of their world. In fact, if she saw a bunch of cars outside a house, she assumed that someone had died.

Some recent occurrences have caused me to think about the people we know.

I have returned to substitute teaching. I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and the kids and staff and I like each other. During the pandemic, the district raised pay substantially, and that doesn’t hurt.

This fall I had planned to start on another life path, hoping to write a different final productive chapter of my life story, but obstacles blocked it, so I’m happy to return to teaching.

As the start of school approached, I was called by the substitute coordinator, desperate to cover a physics class whose teacher had left over the summer.

I said I’d never even taken physics, and I was not qualified. I was assured, in a desperate tone, that I was the most qualified unqualified person they could possibly get while they looked for someone to teach the class.

So I said yes. The school teaches physics to sophomores; most high schools wait until senior year. The kids are very young and perhaps have had first year algebra.

Fortunately for me, the first couple of chapters were conceptual rather than quantitative. The students have an e-textbook available online with hyperlinks and scientific calculators.

With the invaluable help of another physics teacher, I also got a class set of textbooks for those who left their laptops at home. That teacher helped me out with ideas and handouts until I got a sense of what to do.

I would be learning along with the kids; it was actually an invigorating challenge. Because of new Texas Education Agency rules, I was limited to 20 days in the assignment anyway.

I kept asking if they were interviewing for a permanent teacher. It’s hard in a place like Austin with all its tech jobs to find someone willing to teach high school.

This is the part where “it’s not what you know but who you know” came to the rescue.

I’ve known a man for six years, but in the last two we’ve become closer friends. I knew he was going through some life changes and that he had quit his tech job.

One night I had a brainstorm and wrote him an email saying “take my job and love it.” I asked if he might be persuaded to teach high school physics.

He thought about it for a couple of days, and said he was indeed interested. So now he has applied, is going through alternative certification processes, and is observing classes at the school, including mine, and meeting people he will work with.

That he has a PhD from Stanford didn’t hurt his application. I hope he’s happy and successful. The kids deserve a knowledgeable teacher.

I think back to Momma’s saying, and I realize that knowing the right people matters. I’m privileged to know so many good people.

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— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School. His column appears Tuesday. Contact him at