Cleveland’s Favorite Substitute

Hector Cobb, in his 35th year of substitute teaching at Portland Public Schools, continues to work tirelessly in both the classroom and the Cleveland Library.


Clarion photo Alex Cheriel

Hector Cobb hard at work improving the collection of the Cleveland High School Library.

By Alex Cheriel, Reporter

We know him as the Rapping Sub. We know him as Mr. Cobb. We know him as Hector. We all know him as the most fun, lively, passionate, dedicated, and entertaining substitute at Cleveland.

Cobb, originally from Syracuse, New York, graduated from the State University of New York at Potsdam in 1976 with degrees in History and Spanish. He spent his junior year living in Spain. His host in Spain was the country’s education minister, and he even met the dictator, Francisco Franco.

“I had to kneel down and kiss his hand,” Cobb recollected. This was only one year before Franco’s death.

Upon graduation, he could not initially find a teaching position. “History teachers are a dime a dozen,” Cobb said. “You can’t teach history unless you can coach, and I can’t coach my way out of a bag. That’s why I studied Spanish.”

Despite this, he still had trouble finding a teaching job, and spent the next three years working as a janitor, among other odd jobs. He tired of this work, and eventually decided to accept a job teaching Spanish at an elementary school in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cobb did not enjoy teaching elementary school, and found himself bored in the island of 100,000 people in the middle of the Caribbean.

“This was B.C., Before Computers,” he joked.

It was here that Cobb learned to “rap,” delivering short rhymes on the spot as a means of catching students’ attention. After spending four years in the Virgin Islands, Cobb moved to Portland. He became a substitute in Portland Public Schools in 1983, certified to teach English, history, and Spanish.

Being bilingual opens up a wide range of opportunities and possibilities. In 2002, Cobb traveled to Cuba, where he worked as a translator in an anti-NAFTA conference. Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro was a prominent speaker at the meeting.

“I’ve met both a communist and a fascist,” Cobb joked.

Cobb keeps up his Spanish skills as a regular substitute for Cleveland Spanish teachers Richard Acuña and Esther Vieira. Acuña describes him as a reliable, honest, wonderful friend. “He’s a great example that you don’t stop learning,” he said.

Cobb retired in 2011, and enjoys traveling. He has made recent trips to Italy, Ireland and Scotland, and has plans to visit Mexico this year.

However, he enjoys working so much that he continues to sub two to three days per week. His passion for teaching has made him many friends and his services are in high demand.

“I used to take the first job that came along, middle school, high school, whatever,” he said. “Now I basically work on request.”

Cleveland history teacher Matt Sten counts Cobb among his closest friends. Sten attended Grant High School in the 1980s and always enjoyed when Cobb subbed for one of his teachers. Now, Cobb substitutes for Sten.

“I loved him when he was a sub, and since then, he and I have become the best of friends,” Sten said.

“He has energy and spirit that teenagers love,” Sten continued. “I always feel extremely excited that when I’m away from my class, Mr. Cobb is going to be here, because I know that he’ll take great care of the students and the students will love him.”

Many substitute teachers are taken advantage of by students, but Cobb and his reputation as the Rapping Sub never fail to catch students’ attention.

“If you say the words Mr. Cobb, or Hector Cobb, it just makes people smile, and that tells you everything you need to know about him,” Sten finished.

Around 1985, Cobb was asked by a friend, Monica George, the school librarian at View Acres Elementary School in Milwaukie, to help with a project. He enjoyed working in the library, and in 1992, volunteered at the Grant High School library, helping to transition the library inventory from a card catalog to online. The Grant librarian was absent frequently, “but he wouldn’t let me sub for him unless I had an endorsement (in library science),” Cobb recalled.

So, he decided to pursue the certification. In 1999, Cobb enrolled in Library Science courses held by Emporia (Kansas) State University in downtown Portland. Every weekend, he took 14 hours of classes, and in 2002, earned a Master’s degree in Library Science. Upon graduation, he tried to find a job as a librarian, but there were few available jobs at the time. So, he continued working as a substitute.

But Cobb did not lose his passion for working in the library. He met Cleveland librarian Bryan Smith in 2006, when Smith was the school librarian at Jefferson High School.

“He just came and introduced himself to me,” Smith recalled. Cobb became a good friend and go-to substitute for Smith.

Here at Cleveland, Cobb has embarked on a multi-year project to help improve the quality of the collection of the school library. He is moving barcodes to the front of books, replacing old spine labels, and discarding outdated books.

“At conclusion, the books in the non-fiction section will be better organized and easier for students to find,” Cobb said. Smith is very grateful for this help.

Cobb plods ahead on this huge project when he substitutes for Smith, but he enjoys the work so much that he volunteers as well. When subbing for another Cleveland teacher, he’ll come to the library during his planning period. If you see him at work, don’t hesitate to pay him a thank-you or strike up a conversation. He’ll be more than willing to tell you about his project or help you find a particular book.

Clarion photo Alex Cheriel
Outdated books removed from the library collection by Mr. Cobb.