Teacher For A Day
And I don't mean "teacher" in some philosophical sense, like passing wisdom down or helping someone learn a valuable life lesson. I literally mean - a teacher. A school teacher. School bells and recess and lesson plans and all.
It all started when my aunt, who is a teacher, mentioned during a routine "what's the latest with Kerry?" conversation that having a college degree - any college degree, subject matter irrelevant - qualified me to be a substitute teacher. Interesting. Not a bad way to make some money while my life continues to unfold its grand master plan, I thought, what with the decade of extreme babysitting skills under my belt. So I met with the district's human resources director on a Tuesday, was approved on Wednesday, and got the first call Thursday evening. And it went something like this:
(ring ring as I am driving home from an interview in NYC)
Automated System: There is - one - position available for grade - five - on - February 11. Press - one - to accept this position.
Wait...what? That's it? Okay, I thought, here goes nothing. And with the proverbial press of a touchscreen button, I was officially responsible for 23 ten-year-olds the following morning.
My alarm abruptly woke me up to a morning that found me feeling terribly underprepared for this endeavor, and slightly panicked. How do you know where the students are going at the end of the day? Bus passes, parent pick up, CCD, sports? I make a note in my phone with these questions to be sure to get the right answers. What if a kid acts up? Are you even allowed to raise your voice these days? The only real pointer I received during my meeting with HR was "no hitting or shaking the kids". "I know it may seem obvious," they said, "but some of our older subs have a hard time accepting this." Okay then...
Now I need to pick out an outfit. I go with the safe bet of wool pants, a crew-neck tee, cardigan, and flats. Very teacher-y, I find. But what about my hair? Is it unprofessional to wear it down? I pull it back, but the foot-long ponytail somehow still seems too...unruly? young? Eek! I wind it into a bun to be safe. And not a cute messy bun a la J Lo, but a tight small bun directly in the middle of my head.
So off I went, on my way to the intermediate school that for so long was actually my town's high school before they built the new high school. I only attended my freshman year at this former high school, before moving over to the new building, and thus only have a vague sense of washed out memories from that one year. I pull into the long entrance way and the flashbacks of senior crushes, football games, and field hockey practice start rolling in. How long ago it feels as I roam the empty hallways (I showed up super early to have enough time to review the sub plans, but apparently, no one else does). There's not a soul in sight, and it feels like I'm walking through a dream of a land long forgotten, and yet familiar. I make my way to the main office, where ten minutes and several throat-clearings later, I am finally acknowledged by one of two computer-consumed secretaries:
"I'm reporting for substitute duty for Mrs. Landon, grade 5," I stammer out like a military drill. Did I just say reporting for duty?! Nothing else came to mind.
They direct me to my "office" for the day, a quintessential classroom complete with student drawings, math posters, and apple paperweights on a desk, where I find a hefty packet of sub plans awaiting my arrival.
I race the clock trying to make my way through the plans and familiarize myself with what exactly I am doing the entire day, scanning reading, math, writing, and science subjects as the clock ticks away like a time bomb, every lost minute a minute closer to the arrival of the masses. A teacher from next door comes in to say hello, and also to heat up some unknown breakfast item in the microwave that leaves behind a mysterious smell I cannot identify. And then the kids start to roll in. And one by one, before saying hello or wondering who I am, they only want to know what that SMELL is? Are we having breakfast for Steven's birthday today? Did I make ribs? Is that french toast? This pattern continues with literally every child that enters, and one by one I have to disappoint them by saying no, I did not bring in breakfast for the class. Not a great start. But I do ask who Steven is, because everyone is talking about his birthday. They tell me he is the only super tall kid in the class, so naturally, when a super tall kid walks through the door, I grin and shout "Happy Birthday Steven!", only to be told by the quiet Indian girl, who was reading her book and already silently judging me for my obvious lack of control, that that was not, in fact, Steven. Shit.
It's time for attendance and I start reading names aloud. As I'm making my way down the list, I overhear a girl whisper to her friend, "She's so sophisticated!" to which her friend replies, "She's just well dressed." I want to laugh and tell them actually, I am both, but am forced to pretend I did not hear and proceed as usual.
There's a very cute little boy who keeps interjecting with random facts about astronomy and music, two of his self-proclaimed favorite subjects. He has two drum sticks in his hand, and won't stop talking about how excited he is for band, showing me different patterns of rhythms and beats on his desk as the Indian girl casts another judgmental look in my direction. I want to explain to her, "I'm doing my best! This is my first time at this!" but again, I refrain.
Reading goes off without a hitch, and math is well underway when a cute little blond girl with big blue eyes and a ponytail raises her hand. I kneel by her desk and listen as she asks for help regarding a subtraction problem.
You have 18 goldfish, it reads, and you end up with 9. Write a short story and a number sentence about this equation.
"Okay," I explain to her. "So maybe, you started with 18 goldfish, but then ate half of them?" She stares at me with a look that's half confused and half terrified, and replies, "Or...maybe...half of them just died? Would that be okay?" Oh. Obviously the question is referring to real goldfish, not goldfish crackers. Whoops.
During indoor recess, I listen in as one girl describes in detail the horrors that "happened to her friend" while performing the "Bloody Mary" myth, where you repeat the eponymous woman's name three times while spinning around in a dark room in front of a mirror. The two girls she is speaking to look to me for reassurance, and I calmly quell their fears by explaining this is NOT at all true, though secretly I have never and still won't do it (I'm so glad they did not ask me to prove it).
The class has a hard time settling down after recess, and I recall a helpful little tip their regular teacher had written in the plans. "Class, quiet down, or when Mrs. Landon comes back, you won't get as many handfuls of macaroni in the macaroni jar!" Cue collective gasp - she knows about the macaroni jar! Silence. Amazing. I don't even know what mysterious power the macaroni jar holds, but I like it. If only all methods of behavioral persuasion were based on the threat of withholding macaroni handfuls...
Now, this picture I am about to show you was originally meant for my sister's eyes only (sent to her in the morning to give her an idea of what I was getting myself into), and it would have stayed that way had I not received this amazingly similar drawing below it (addressed to Mrs. C) from a student, and now it's too much fun not to share them both:
At the end of the day, I line the class up by their lockers to wait for their buses to be called. A little boy who had been particularly difficult during the day (I only later learned he was autistic), takes my hand and tells me, "Ms. C, you're a good teacher," and I decide I'd happily be a teacher for another day.