Substitute Near-Disaster: A Memory

There is no writing material running around in this girl’s head–her pot of beans lately includes two main things:

  • trying to convince a baby that bright-orange soup on a tiny spoon is desirable over breast milk and that one does not need the wonderful warmth of a mother’s arms for every nap and every bedtime;
  • fighting through her body’s version of the cold that has left her husband a wheezing, coughing-like-an-old-smoker mess.

But this girl still has the need to write. And a series of one-liners that appear on Facebook status updates just do not satisfy that need.

So here, instead of what-is-happening-lately, is a memory.

This happened sometime in 2008, while this girl was a substitute for teachers. This was one of my first assignments as a substitute. This particular assignment was a two-day stint for an English-as-a-Second-Language class–the classes that taught English to kids who spoke mainly Spanish. There were one or two kids in each class who were foreign exchange students from Asian countries or Slavic countries, but the classes held mostly Hispanic and Latino kids.

You see, most of my assignments were for less desirable classes. I discovered that there are some substitutes who are on the privileged list: they get personal phone calls from school staff, requesting their presence. The rest of us scrabbled for the leftovers; the best of the leftovers were English classes, History classes, and fourth and fifth graders. I got classes like shop (which is another story to tell), photography, and a week of kindergarten and first grade, during which I got a cold from one class and called in sick for the second class because I’d lost my voice. But that was the one day where all the substitutes in the whole district had assignments, so I ended up subbing with no voice.

This was one of those bottom-of-the-barrel assignments. It was clear why no one else wanted this one: I was babysitting kids who wouldn’t understand my verbal discipline if I served it out in dollops. Since physical discipline is shameful and scandalous, I just hoped through the two days that the kids would be typical high school kids: do the easy-not even-peas-y worksheet I handed out and then sit in their desks and not leave the room.

Those teenagers never know how tenuous the substitute’s hold on discipline was over them. Verbal discipline is only effective if you know the student’s name: “Hey, you. Um, kid with the black hair and the red T-shirt. Yeah, you, in the back; yeah, I’m looking at you. Sit down.”

If the kid walked out the door because he decides he doesn’t want to be there, the substitute can’t grab his arm and drag him back in. And the sub can’t write down his name for later discipline from the teacher unless there’s a seating chart.

And if the kids don’t follow the seating chart, the sub might notice, but what’s she doing to do about it? “Okay, guys. I can tell you’re not sitting in the seats you’re supposed to because that seat is supposed to be empty and you are not a girl. Switch seats to where you’re supposed to sit. Ready….now.”

Blink. Blink. Stare. Snicker.

So, on those two days when even verbal discipline wouldn’t work, all I could hope to do was be as nonchalant as they were. Intentionally sound as bored as they were. Call roll, stumble over names like I’m supposed to, hand out the worksheet, and watch them text, gossip, do their makeup, or sleep. Yes, I know they’re not supposed to text, but they’re certainly not supposed to do anything else. And it’s better than other things they could do.

Like rip up their worksheets and toss them out the window.

Yep. They did. And I blame the teacher. She printed off a huge pile of just one worksheet for all her classes. It reviewed basic English stuff, but for kids who spoke English naturally, this was third grade stuff. And she had one class who did speak English naturally.

She told me, in her Note To Whoever You Are, that I should just give her Homeroom kids the worksheet, too. So I did. But it was obvious to everyone in the room that she wasn’t going to grade this or even give them a point allotment for filling it out. Homeroom was a study period or somewhere they had to be for an extra half hour; a new concept for me, since I didn’t have homeroom as a teenager.

But the desks were filled. And a group of guys got bored and started goofing around. You know the sound. I’ll tell you what it looked like from behind a book and the largest desk in the room: peering out the window at the construction work in the courtyard. Glancing around the room at the other languid and pointedly casual people. Asking me if they could open the windows–harmless enough. And soon enough, they had made intricate paper airplanes to the tune of their laughs and their jeers to each other. Out of the worksheet they knew the teacher wouldn’t miss.

I was keeping an eye on them. They weren’t hurting anybody or busting up school desks. The noise was to a minimum, and no one walked out of the open door. But one by one, I watched each piece of paper fly out the windows. After the first paper airplanes, they picked a target to shoot for. And stole all the rest of the worksheets from all the rest of the desks.

That was the interesting part for me. Some students were cajoled by these guys, but others weren’t even asked for their pieces of paper–they were turned around in their seats, so their papers were just snatched. One or two kids were actually doing their assignment, and their papers got snatched right out of their hands, leaving a penmark on the desk and a shout. Many shrugs appeared on many shoulders.

The paper turned into cannons as well as airplanes. They were ripped and crumpled–the student in me was gleeful at the sound. And all of it went out the window into the construction site. The paper entertained some rowdy geeks who invented a game to pass the time. And then the bell rang and they were off to the next adventure.

(Want more substitute stories? Well, I love comments that tell me so. Or you can read the one other post I’ve written about substituting here.)


About The Original Kate

Along with artistic tendencies, Kate enjoys unusual people and is constantly striving for some sort of nonconformity. Kate offers a perspective that is thoughtful but well-written and full of images within the words. Other tidbits that might intrigue: she has very long auburn hair, and, you guessed it, her favorite color is orange.

Posted on June 21, 2010, in From Moss-Lined Oregon and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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