The first week of schoolwhich is this week in Metroalways crackles with excitement. The bus doesn't stink yet, and the teachers are nice. But it won't be long now before the thrill of clean, white paper will wear off and the happiest thing a student can hear will be this simple, glorious phrase:
"We got a sub!"
Why? Why is there such joy in having a substitute teacherI mean guest teacherwhen education is supposed to be a privilege?
Mrs. Jones always lets us brings snacks to class, Mrs. Jones always lets us work in groups, Mrs. Jones always lets us have class outside on Thursdays.
It can really do a number on the psyche to hear a clump of prepubescent boys doing the hurrah in the hallway just because you exist, and not in a good way. Such is the life of a substitute teacher, who must grow...um...nerves of steel. You must make them understand that "We got a sub!" is not a call of the wild.
I did it. I gave it my best, for three semesters. Teachers have always been my heroes; now I know I am not worthy to lace up their comfortable shoes. God love them, and the substitutes, too. So say a prayer, light a candle, sacrifice a virginwhatever you can do to help. It's a long haul from August to May.
Those who have lived through times of great suffering and persecution will attest: What does not kill you will make you stronger. I know. As a former substitute teacheractually, I'm still officially in the systemthis phrase keeps running through my mind: You'll never work in this town again.
For the record, this was never a covert operation. I was not the Valerie Plame of substitute teaching, planning to Robert Novak myself when I had enough good stories in the bag. Although, when people (like real teachers) discovered the truth about my other life, they had to ask.
THEY: "So, you are going to write about this, aren't you?"
ME: "What, and ruin a promising career as a substitute teacher? Of course I'm going to write about it."
It was supposed to be a mental health break. My therapist and I agreed that it would be a good idea for Ms. Freelance Writer to do something structured, but not toosomething with a routine, one that I could refuse on any given day. Something that would serve my off-the-charts extroversion, as being indoors with a computer (supposedly) is an introvert's job, and it can make me crazy.
So, last school year, I signed up to be a substitute teacher. For middle school. Which just goes to prove that I am certifiably, without a doubt, mentally ill. By the way, they didn't ask about that on the application. It's against the law, for one thing. But think about itand you are, aren't you? You just did a quick memory check to see if your kid ever said, "We had a sub today, and she was, like, totally whacked." Good Lorda manic-depressive in my kid's classroom? With all those pointed instruments?
I met a womancan't remember where, due to the drugswho told me she worked for a psychiatrist, and they had just done a study showing that the professional group with the highest incidence of manic-depression (bipolar disorder) was...teachers.
I don't believe it. Bipolar, no. Control issues, maybe. There's nothing in the world like leaning over a podium, peering over the rims of your $5 reading glasses at two dozen eager 13-year-olds, who await your every utterance.
"Good morning, boys and girls. My name is Ms. Sheahan."
"Good morning, Ms. Shee-in."
"I'm glad to be here, and I'm looking forward to a great day of learning. When I call your name, please raise your hand. Meanwhile, please open your books to page 37...."
OK, that's a crock of poo.
In the real world, real teachers could probably pull that off. In the real world of 1952. Actually, I've seen it done, with middle-schoolers. One teacher I sub for can get her sixth-graders as quiet and calm as we were for Sister St. Thomas More at Our Lady of the Assumption. To my knowledge, Mrs. Yost does not solicit the aid of the Blessed Virgin. But she's got this "classroom management" thing down. So does her teammate, Mrs. Clark, in another way. Clark's room may not be as quiet, but it's controlled. And the kids they teach, who change rooms for different subjects, seem to thrive on the differences. One room is neat as Jerry Seinfeld's apartment, the othera little more like my house. And both rooms are lively with learning. That's why I love getting calls from them. They've taught me more about teaching and classroom management (you can't have one without the other) than anyone else.
My alma mater's "Learn By Doing" philosophy came in handy when I showed up in teacher clothes Without Much Training.
Substitute teacher orientation consists mostly of learning how to use the phone system, which is how we get our job assignments. We watch a video, created at the dawn of the video age, with a disembodied voice intoning the mysteries and vagaries of the touch-tone phone. If you're old enough, you can imagine this in filmstrip form, with the accompanying LP, and the "ding" that tells you to advance the frame. We follow the pair of hands that press the magic keys that enter the secret employee codes and PINs.
Our orientation class loved it. We were students again, mocking something behind the teacher's back. We snickered, made noise, tried not to be noticed by the orientation staffjust like the kids we were about to face in the K-12 classrooms.
And all we had to do for that responsibility (besides apply and have two references) was pay for the FBI background check (whewI cleared it), pass the TB test and have at least 60 hours of college credit. I have way too many, but just the one bachelor's degree, which grants me five extra bucks per diem. That's two cafeteria lunches or a six-pack of domestic beer.
If I had a teaching credential, a master's or a Ph.D., I'd get another five bucks. Yet another reason to finish grad school.
That's not all we learned at orientation, of course. We got a packet with our Substitute Teacher Handbook, which includes this important rule on page 12: "Do not leave students in unlighted and/or unventilated closets." This is under the heading of things we shouldn't do as disciplinary actions: making students miss lunch, administering corporal punishment, etc.
I'm not kidding. You can look it up.
So I made double-dog sure, whenever I left a kid in a closet, that he or she could see and breathe. Also, it doesn't say anything about leaving more than one child at one time in one closet. I made sure they all could see and breathe.
If you've ever watched King of the Hill, then you know Peggy, Hank's wife, my new hero. She's a three-peat Substitute Teacher of the Year at Tom Landry Middle School in Arlen, Texas. She has two years of community college. I have the superior education. But her especiality es Español. So you can imagine my delight when, on the second day of my sub life, I get a late call to do Spanish at an inner-city middle school. I had two years of high school Spanish, during the Nixon administration. But I was raised in California, by gosh. They can't posible saber mas Español than yo.
I hustle to the school, which I happen to know has a distinctive place in our city's history. Note to self: if Spanish craps out, vamos historia de escuela.
"Hi, I'm the Spanish sub."
"Oh, the principal will take you there."
It's at the end of the corridor in the basement, the farthest possible spot from any official help, and next door to the very noisy band room. If something goes wrong, no one will ever hear my cry.
We enter, and the room's jammed with kids speaking lots of loud English. The principal tells them to can it (or such) as he rummages around for a lesson plan on this teacher's desk, which is messy. I am professional-grade messy, but this desk apparently had its own tiny weather system, complete with tiny Class IV tornado.
"Nothing here. Well, I'll get the library to send you down some videos. Good luck."
Bueno suerte to you, too, Señor.
Hola, Clase! Buenos días! Como esta? Me llama Señorita Sheahan!
I proceed to tell them, in what I think is correct Spanish, that I am their mistress for the day, all day, and that they would very much like to have me right now.
Six girls with café-colored eyes and long, dark hair find this particularly amusing. (Ten minutes later, they signal to me that English is their second language. So what en el infierno are they doing in Spanish class?) I soldier on, and read aloud the label of a Mexican chocolate drink I brought with me, just in case. I do boys-vs.-girls challenges on colors, numbers, días de la semana, I go loco en la cabeza trying to practice Spanish with these kids, who claim to have no books and will not tell me what grade level this is.
From the library come the videos! The VCR, the tapes, then...the buzzer sounds. Adios, clase! I'll watch the tapes now, during my planning period, with no kids. National Geographic, Mexico: The Conquerors. Reenactment of Spaniards meeting natives andSancta Crappa! Huge womanly breasts, flapping naked in the Mexican breeze.
I call the library and suggest they maybe take it back, and out of circulation.
According to the sub experts at Utah State (they've done the good research), the average American student will have a sub for the equivalent of one year of instruction before high school graduation. How 'bout that? (They say teacher absenteeism is considerably higher in "high-risk" schools. For a sub, those are the Army assignmentsthe toughest job you'll ever love. If you survive.)
If we're not there, teachers have to cover for teachers, who have to cover for other teachers, and the whole thing winds in on itself like a giant Möbius stripand if you're impressed by that analogy, don't be. I like the idea of higher mathematics, but I can't teach above seventh-grade math without faking. Maybe sixth. I could get into Harvard on my verbal SATs, but Fresno State would turn me down on the math.
I worried about this, how to do the math thing. I couldn't avoid it. As it turns out, I'm not the only faker. Carl Edwards, the NASCAR guy, used to be a sub before he started racing full-time. I read this in a magazine. A kid asked him a question, and Edwards said to himself, "Oh, my God, I have no idea."
I am glad to know I share the speed and agility of a rising NASCAR star. He and I both know that's when you say, as he says, "all those good teacher things'let's look it up together.' "
I'm sure Mr. Edwards also used the technique of finding the early arrivers. "Hi, what's your name? So, is math your favorite subject, Lamont? Yes? Good for you!"
Then when kids ask for help, you say, "OK, it seems a lot of folks are having trouble with number fourwho's got the answerLamont? OK, Lamont, go to the board and show us how you got it." If you could see my thought cartoon balloon, it would read, Because I'm older than the principal, I have a degree from a highly respected university, and I have no freaking idea.
Only one kid in three semesters seemed to have any inkling of the ruse. And he didn't tell. Just one little raised eyebrow. And if you're reading this, kid, just go to college, have a nice, successful life, and keep your mouth shut.
I only subbed in elementary school for four days, which was four more days than I meant to. I love little onesbut I am psychologically and temperamentally unfit to teach the same kids all day long, what with all the ADD and crying and such (mine). Still, my friend and college roommate, Susan, the finest first-grade teacher in town, begged me to take her class. She, of all people, should have known better. "You'll be sorry," I said. "You'll be fine," she said.
She left me a detailed schedule, planned out minute-to-minute, hour-by-hour, which I kept losing, minute-to-minute, hour-by-hour. First-graders have a cow if you divert from their routine by five seconds, and I threw their tender little psyches into utter panic.
When things got really out of whack, I'd just launch into my quite convincing Irish brogue, and they'd snap right out of their first-grade angst. "Ooh! Are you a leprechaun?" "Why, yes! And boys and girls, why don't ye help me find me special medicine? Hand me that little bottle, therewhy yes, it does say 'Old Bushmills'well, aren't you the good readers, now!"
They're darling, the little ones. But middle-schoolers don't hang on your leg and say, "Ms. She-in, my finger hurts. Will you kiss it?" Or, "Ms. She-in, I have to go Number Two really bad." "Ms. She-in, Jeremy pooped in his pants, and it stinks." "Ms. She-in! EEW! Kyle put a BOOGER on my DESK! GROSS!"
Middle-schoolers are much more sophisticated. To wit, the two words most often uttered in the presence of a middle school sub: "WHO FARTED?"
Hacking, scattering, general mayhem, followed by, "EWWW! That's FOUL, MAN! GET THE SPRAY!"
Happens all the time. I stay calm, as if Laura Bush is my parent helper that day. "Alright, it's part of life. Perfectly natural. As if you've never done that...."
Meanwhile, my eyelashes are curling. I can't see the back of the room, and the science projects are mutating. Holy cow, what are they feeding these kids?
If you spend your days with middle-schoolers, you live, for better or worse (there is no better, really), in the realm of the scatological. Bodily functions still fascinate. Boys get stinkier as they travel through the years, until they figure out that girls matter, and that matters to girls.
Once again, this was supposed to be a mental health break. Has subbing for middle-schoolers made me more, or less, mentally ill? Along with everything else, it seems I've developed Multiple Personality Disorderwith just one extra personality: Mean Lady. She manifested herself the first week of class, and I wondered why I had spent so much money on therapy getting in touch with my anger when all along I could have been getting paid for it.
She's not really angry. Just stern. She has to be, but that doesn't mean I have to like her. Her voice is louder than mine ever was. She lays down the law with her little rules first thing, every morning. She won't smile until the class is under control. As my brother, the career teacher, says, "Don't smile until Christmas." To a sub, lunchtime can feel like Christmas.
When you do have control of the class (I do from time to time, even without Mean Lady), there's nothing like it. You actually get to teach, and it's a joy. I come home high as a kite. But when Mean Lady has to deal with discipline issues, it can be ugly.
One day, an eighth-grader called me something quite unsuitable for publication, and I said, "You're OUTTA HEREoffice!" Baseball fan that I am, it came with the umpire-to-manager signal, in-his-face, nose-to-nose, point-to-dugout signal. I reenacted that scene for my friend Scott one day after school. He's a grown man, a homeowner with a responsible job, and he almost cried. "I've never seen that woman before, I never want to see her again, and I fear doing whatever it is that might set her off."
I had a permit to carry a walkie-talkie for three weeks at the end of the year. Thought it was a teaching gig, found out I'd be a "campus supervisor" (hall monitor, cafeteria cop, Woman-to-Be-Feared). The story was, the woman I replaced sat on her butt in a chair (this is a walking job, if it's anything) and let the kids use her cell phone to call their parents and gripe about their teachers, which the administration found unsatisfactory. Hoo, boy. The kids missed her real bad when Deputy Sheriff Ms. She-in rode into town.
I'd say, Go To Class. Pull Up Your Pants. Tuck In Your Shirt. All with a smile and a firm voice. I could smile in the hall. Not so easily in the cafeteria. Three solid hours of lunch duty. Got a headache every day. (Also got lots of unopened chocolate milk before it went in the trash.)
SIT DOWN, NOW! It was an absolute freaking zoo. I kept hoping Dr. Pedro would do one of his surprise visits, so he could see the so-called 2 percent discipline problem I read about. We had an honest-to-God riot the last week of school. Lockdown and everything. Scared the poo out of me.
The custodian had the solution. "They need a whoopin', is what. I'd whoop 'em myself if I could."
I think it was during that gig that I sent this terse email to my best friend Carolyn in Canada: If you get a call from the Metro jail, take it. I may need bail money. I may kill at least one middle-schooler tomorrow. Film at 11.
I could not do this forever. I said at the end of last semester I probably wouldn't do it much anymore. (I think once this hits the streets, that will not be an issue. Besides, I didn't turn in my re-enlistment forms on time to the friendly folks at the sub office. Oops.)
But then I would miss the doe-eyed girls who approach me as if I am the lone adult who can solve every adolescent crisis. They'll whisper, "Can I go to the rest room? I'm having female problems."
I used to be so sensitive. "May you go. Sure, honey. I know how that isI was a girl once, too. Are you OK? Here's the hall pass." Then I started to notice that girls would leave my desk with a pained expression, without their purse, and be smiling by the time they hit the door.
Female problems? Yeah, right. Eventually, I got wise and started to answer like this: "Uh-huh. Your female problem is hormonal, all right. Your hormones want to meet your boyfriend's hormones out in the hall. Sit, please."
You start to discern the real ones. Same with the pee thing, with boys.
"Ms. She-in, I got to go!"
"Are you going to wet your pants?"
"Well, let me know."
There's a little dance that boys do, when they need to "go," and it's nothing like the dancing in the music videos. It's hard to fake that with just the right expression. So that's what you wait for, like a drama coach. "Give me 'pained.' Hmm. OK, that's good. Take five."
Occasionally, especially in the fifth and sixth grades, a fart is not just a fart. Quietly, discreetly, I suggest: "Did you ask me if you could use the rest room?"
"No..." "Because you can now." Translation: "HOLY TOLEDO, GO, BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE!"
I'm quite sure this has happened more than once in my presence. I just hope it wasn't the fear of Mean Lady that caused the accident.
Some kids will always forget to bring pencils, if you let them.
I got hip to this, finally. Soon I was a pawnbroker with a history degree.
“Got a quarter? No? Whatcha got? Jacket? Makeup? Shoe?"
Girls never give shoes. Boys will. I'd have to place them far, far from my desk. The bigger the boy, the stinkier the shoe.
Perspiration was the mother of invention, after one semester of this. I bought a big box of yellow pencils, a brand-new black Sharpie (perhaps I borrowed it from a teacher's desk) and lettered a big, fat MS. SHEAHAN'S RENT-A-PENCIL halfway down each one. You know a kid's desperate for school supplies if he keeps that.
Some teachers run little supply depots in their classrooms, which I love. It's not just handyit teaches practical economics, capitalism by example. Sadly, when Ms. Sheahan comes to such a room, it's Black Friday. The whole blessed enterprise is in the crapper before the end of first period. "What, Tiffany? Did you just give me fifty cents? A pencil is a quarter? OK...an eraser is a dime? But not the purple ones? Just take your dollar and sit back down."
Also, there's a very slight possibility I may have borrowed some coins once or twice when I forgot my lunch. No, I never did that. I'm pretty sure I never did that.
I have, quite by accident, removed innumerable white-board markers from classrooms in half the county, mostly north and east of the river, which is my territory. It's not my fault. They sneak out in my pockets, in search of whiter pastures, I reckon. I hereby apologize to all the teachers whose favorite colors went missing from January 2004 to May 2005. (I've started redistributing them, randomly. Kind of a Marxist Girl Scout thing.)
But here's the worst of it, my crime of passion: I lifted a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution from a high school government class. There were about a million in a dusty cabinet, and they looked sad. I wrote a long confessional note to the teacher, promising I'd return it if necessary, but that I was thrilled to find one and would carry it with me in my suit pocket like Sen. Byrd, for easy reference and public orations. If I ever take to wearing men's suits, which is unlikely.
I never heard from that teacher, neither to return the Constitution nor to be specially requested as his regular sub. Maybe his class told him I was a little too passionate about the workings of the federal government, considering they had two weeks left until graduation, and they didn't give a rat's patoot about the separation of powers. Would you please chill, lady, we're trying to plan our grad party over here.
I didn't sub at high schools very often. Maybe it's a Catholic thing, an innate need for doing penancebut for some reason I keep coming back to the middle schools. Funny, there's always plenty of work for the middle school subs. I think middle school teachers have to take more sick days and "personal days." They should just go ahead and officially call those "mental health" days. It would make the district look so progressive. No one needs to know that's when teachers are recovering from their hangovers.
I jest. Sort of. There are many, many teachers who don't drink. But let me tell you: after the bloom was off the rose, when my initial educator excitement wore off, I understood why Chili's and Applebee's turn into "departmental staff meetings" on Friday afternoon. And why there's often an honorary staff member named "Margarita."
Again, I jest. Sort of. Fact is, regardless of the beverage (Diet Coke seems to be the hands-down favorite, actually), teachers at most schools do respect and enjoy each othereven enough to socialize outside of school. Which is quite amazing, really.
Not so with the substitutes. I can count on both of my friend's hands (the friend with nine fingers) all the subs I have met in three semesters. If that. I'm sure I've said hello to many moresigning in every morning in the office. (But not signing out. We're supposed to sign out after school but no one does. Everyone puts their departure time down in advance, and I have just ratted out the entire army.) We have ways to communicate; in the hallways we blink in Morse code, like John McCain in the Hanoi prison: T-O-R-T-U-R-E. We recognize a fellow sub in the cafeteria because we're the ones picking up our kids after lunch, not really remembering who they are: "Which group is Mrs. Taylor's? (asking, say, the assistant principal). Oh, they already left? Which way did they go? OK, thanks!" Holy crap....
So I'm telling the worst stories. But there must have been good ones. I've had principals and front office people tell me things like, "We're always glad to see you...we know you have your classes under control...you don't let the students run all over you...they respect you."
That's when I ask if they watch King of the Hill, a subtle hint about Substitute Teacher of the Year. Or not. But I'm always amazed. I don't dare say, "My gosh, where are you getting this information? That isn't me, you know; it's Mean Lady."
I've even heard this from students:
"Ms. She-in, we think you're cool."
"But I yelled at you."
"Yeah, but we deserved it. We were bad."
And this is when I get to use what they did teach us in orientationaddress the behavior:
"You're not bad. Your behavior was unacceptable. Most of you. But I like all of you."
"Yeah, but we were really BAD. It's because T.J. farted."
And we both laugh. And Mean Lady calls in a sub.
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