The Substitute Teacher

I walk into the main office. Shoulders squared, eyes straight ahead, careful to keep the corners of my mouth slightly inclined. No grimace. No perma-frown. Perhaps not happy to be here, but grateful I suppose. At the very least not dreading the day. Intimidated, never. Scared of these kids? No. Eyes straight ahead, avoiding the yellowed paint peeling from the dungeon walls and the musty-red carpeting from the 1910s that makes my thinning hair seem extravagantly plush. Sign in. The single secretary is brusque here. Here is your visitor’s badge, your room is down the hall to the right. She doesn’t say good luck. She doesn’t say welcome. Her eyes are dull and her hair is flat and her eyes set deep in her face and creased like an old t-shirt worn dozens of times. Tired like the building.

This isn’t one of those I wander in and know immediately I’m going to change some dust bunny-sized portion of the world for the better days. It’s not even one of those yell a little to assert dominance, read the instructions to the class, and then kick back to read the online paper while filling out pointless job applications and hollering every 11 minutes and 32 second to get off that YouTube and do your work days. This is a hold your head above the water and pray no kid under your jurisdiction starts swinging at another for calling his mama a homo sort of days. Just avoid the undertow.

The job title said Special Education. I know via a very sideways route the woman normally in charge of this grouping of miscreants. She isn’t paid enough. This is ED. Emotionally disturbed. Two of the students are swearing up and down, left and right, frontwards, backwards, crossways, any strange, overly imaginative grouping of insulting words they’ve either found or created. One girl, maybe 250 pounds to my 190, glints maliciously at anyone who comes close to glancing at her, thick fleshy fist thunking into open, flat, fleshy palm. Thunk. Thunk. I try to redirect, do the teacher thing. Why don’t you take a stab at your work? They ignore me. One kid perks his ears at stab and I mentally smack myself in the head. I actually look at their work. Something your average three-year-old could do. These kids aren’t unintelligent; they’re bored out of their minds and have too much time on their hands. They’ve been deemed a behavioral issue and this is the easy place.

The armed cop pops in to check on me, thanks me warmly, profusely for filling in. A stark contrast. This place needs teachers desperately, he says. Subs, too. If I want a job here, I could probably get one. No thanks. I like him, though. Just last week, he says, they couldn’t get a Spanish sub in. Kids had to sit up and down the hallways, so teachers could keep their eyes, at least their ears, on them through open doors. Huge safety hazard. It’s better when you keep them interested, keep them busy. He’s no “education professional” but he is smart so he knows this. He finds a Mexican food menu online all in Spanish, prints it out, gives it to the kids. Asks them to help him figure out what to order when he takes his wife there for dinner since they are the experts after all, and they do. They pour over that menu and break apart and piece together the Spanish to give him suggestions. The union rep for the building reports him for not doing his job. You want me to keep a building safe when you can’t hire enough teachers? That’s exactly what I was doing. He has several extremely valid points here.

A bell rings. He needs to be on his way. As do a couple kids for their inclusion classes. Angry girl decides this is not for her and lays in the middle of the hallway. She closes her eyes for a nap. I observe, mildly intrigued, then ask the woman who shares a wall with me. Leave her, this is what she does, we can’t move her. Ok, then. I wonder what happens to these kids when they are home. I shut my door.

There are pleasant kids, too. Hopeful kids. They do not belong here. In fact, my favorite kid is switched out by the end of the day. He is better off someplace else, but I miss his small semblance of sanity. Counting the second strikes of the clock on the wall, I imagine jobs I am supposed to have but do not know the right people to get. Connections are everything; intelligence and resourcefulness, soft skills and a voracious desire to learn are not. The swearing is growing in intensity. Someone has to teach these kids something to prevent them from ripping chunks of hair out. Anyone interested in World War II? No one answers. I talk about it anyway. Maybe someone absorbed something. You never know.

Finally the bell rings. The best bell, and although it sounds exactly like all the others, it signifies freedom and fresh air and escape. You sure you want a different career? You could get hired here, the armed guard reiterates. You never know.

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