C is for Cheetos

Stewart Middle School’s drama teacher hadn’t left me any lesson plans. I know because I looked, in the attendance book, on the white board, under the stack of disciplinary reports… When I realized I had nothing from the teacher to offer the students, I knew I’d have to pull out my backup lesson plan.

The only problem was, I didn’t have a backup lesson plan. Not only have I never taken a drama class, but I’d also only subbed at one middle school up until that point. Without related experience, I could either play a movie or improvise. And since I didn’t think I could control the students during a movie, I decided to improvise: we were going to give impromptu speeches.

Quickly, before the bell rang, I wrote down the alphabet on a piece of paper and cut it into small squares, one letter per square. After quite a bit of scrounging, I located an empty container, just seconds before the kids began streaming into the classroom. I was ready.

No one knew the meaning of impromptu, so we worked on a definition first. I told them they’d each be picking a letter and that they’d have to come up with a topic for their three-minute speech that started with that letter. Next I came up with a list of criteria and put them on the board, with promises of first, second, and third-prize winners. Then, finally, it was time to pick letters.

Immediately the bartering and swapping began. “I have s. Who wants s?” “Anybody want n? I have n!” Only, I didn’t want them to escape the brainstorming and creative part of the process, so I told them they had to keep their original letter.

Nakeira went first. Her letter was b, and she chose the topic, “Big Bucks.”

“Big bucks,” Nakeira began. “We need it. We need a lot mo’ of it. But where you goin’ get it? Some of you live with Big Bucks. Yeah, you know who you are. I’m not even gonna get up and point you out.” There was a commotion after this indictment, half laughter, half gibing. “Otherwise,” Nakeira continued, “you can rob a bank for big bucks. Or,” she pointed at the street behind the building, “you can just rob the convenience store for big bucks. You know what else? You can swim to the bottom of the pool where you might find you some big bucks because pimps be losin’ they money down there.”

The “Big Bucks” speech was right before the “I Had a Dream” speech.

“I had a dream…” Nicholas paused for dramatic effect. “I had a dream… that someday… there will be Cheetos in every kid’s backpack! Jalapeño Cheetos! Flaming Hot Cheetos! Chili Cheetos! Crunchy Cheetos! Every kind of Cheetos you can imagine!” The slight, pale thirteen-year-old pounded on a nearby desk every time he said “Cheetos,” pacing the room in a flare of dramatic arm flinging and pointing. “You there!” he pointed. “What is your favorite kind of Cheetos? I had a dream you will have those Cheetos in your backpack! And what about you? What is your favorite kind of Cheetos? You too shall have those Cheetos in your backpack! Because Cheetos will be required by law! Written into the Constitution! And declared across the country! We, the people, will have our Cheetos!!” The kids rumbled the floor after the Cheetos speech. They loved it.

Meanwhile, I took notes on my clipboard, trying not to let on how much I was enjoying the class. I had them. They were participating willingly. It wasn’t perfect. Students still whooped and hollered and talked back to the speaker during a speech, but nobody was engaging in outright mutiny by leaving the classroom or huddling in a group, refusing to pay attention. Sure, I still had to say things like, “No stabbing!” after Nakeira reportedly stabbed Dominique with her pencil. But she assured me nothing would get out of control.

“I don’t do school violence,” Nakeira insisted. “I might be violent on the street, but I never do it at school. I just don’t. Uh-uh.”

I looked at her carefully before responding. “Yeah,” I nodded, “I can see that about you. You seem like a good person.” I don’t think Nakeira was expecting positive affirmation because she abruptly stopped, mid arm-display, to sit down in her chair.

That wasn’t the only touch-and-go moment. In between a speech about slam-dunks and Kool-Aide flavors, I had to answer this question: “Mrs. Norton, can I assassinate someone today?”

“Hmmmm,” I pretended to consider the idea. “I don’t know. To assassinate someone means to kill them, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then no. I do not give you permission to assassinate someone.”

“What about a fake assassination? Like this?” Before I could stop him, William was bowling over a nearby student until they were on the floor, where, fortunately, both were laughing. Still, I had to make it clear that even fake assassinations were not allowed.

At fifteen minutes before class end, all the speeches were over and the kids’ attention spans were waning. I vowed to myself not to lose control, not after everything had been going so well. Plus, I still had to grade the speeches, as promised. So in the most solemn, humorless voice I could muster, I told them to get out a piece of paper, write down their topic, and tell me why they chose it. Thus far, nothing I’d assigned came from their regular teacher, and certainly none of it would count toward their class grade. I wondered if they’d follow my instructions.

Nineteen students turned in the assignment. There were twenty-three kids in the class. Not only that, but all twenty-three students faced the front of the classroom when I announced the winners. And when it came time for prizes no one complained or mocked me: a cough drop for third place, a piece of gum for second, and a picture of a dolphin for first. Each winner received shouts and applause. The cough drop got eaten and the gum chewed. I even saw the first place winner tuck her dolphin carefully into a folder and then zip it into her backpack before heading out the door.

So if you wondered at the beginning of this post why I would return to a middle school after that first, now infamous, day of subbing at Pinewood Middle, this experience at Stewart Middle explains why: because I didn’t want my only stories of middle schoolers to be about boys choking each other, deans yelling, and kids throwing everything in sight. I wanted some assurance that middle school is more than that, even when the teacher is only a sub.

So thank you, Stewart Middle, and cheers. Cheers to missing lesson plans, to students who don’t bring violence to school, and to Cheetos in every backpack.

*All names in this blog, including those of schools, have been fictionalized for privacy purposes.

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How I Came to Be a Pirate (And Other Subbing Adventures)

Dorian is not a girl. I don’t think that’s obvious, but, clearly, twenty-one third graders from Oak Grove Elementary School do. Never mind that Dorian had long hair pulled back in a ponytail. Never mind that Dorian wore a shade of red arguably closer to a shade of pink. Never mind that “Dorian” has a soft r that lilts femininely to my ear. Never mind all of that. Dorian is not a girl.

Mistaking one of your male students for a girl is one of the biggest blunders a substitute teacher can make. You see, nine-year olds think everything is a big deal. And twenty-one nine-year-olds in one classroom think everything is an even bigger really, really, really big deal. So, for example, if a substitute teacher makes a minor error, such as beginning roll call at 7:39 A.M. instead of 7:40 A.M., don’t be surprised if you lose temporary control while half the students interrupt to report that “you’re doing it wrong.” But, like I said, beginning roll call one minute off-schedule doesn’t have nearly the ripple effect as referring to Dorian as a she. Immediately, I knew something was wrong because the five students within earshot gasped.

“She!!!??? You think Dorian is a she???”

Before I could come up with the right answer, I was already speaking. “Of course I don’t think Dorian is a she.”

“But you just said she!”

“No, I didn’t. I said shhhh,” I explained, wondering if they’d buy it.

Bryant cocked his head slightly, trying to determine whether I was bluffing. “Yeah,” he concluded, “but then you added an e.”

Sheesh, this Bryant-act was quick, I thought, and started to bemoan the inadequacy of my English MA in preparing me for such linguistic jungle gyms. “Well,” I continued, “it’s just my accent. I have an accent because I’m not from Pensacola.” I was pretty sure this explanation would work because it’s true. I do have an accent here.

And I was right. Bryant nodded, accepting my explanation. But he wasn’t about to let this new topic go so easily. “Are you British?” he asked.

“No.” I laughed.

“Are you a pirate?”

“Yes.”

For the first time that day, my response went unchallenged. Instead of twenty-one arguing voices, I received an almost-synchronized “Aaargh!” out of the students, followed by a dozen or so “Where’s your parrot?” Of course, I had considered saying no to the pirate question, but saying yes was so much more fun, and besides, I wasn’t sure my answers mattered much given that it was about time for lunch.

Lunch, that traditionally pleasant part of the workday where we enjoy a reprieve from our hectic schedules and incessant to-do lists, that is, unless you teach at an elementary school where teachers are expected to eat with their students at the same table.

On this particular Wednesday, I sat with my kids, cramped between trays of chocolate milk and pizza with square pepperoni on top. But just the Friday before, I subbed at a school where the teachers got to sit at their own table in the center of the dining room. I cannot adequately describe the relief I felt when I slipped into an adult-only table full of other composed and clean adult faces sharing sundry adult topics. In fact, I was so elated that I almost forgot about my students sitting at the tables around us, being quiet and well-behaved and not seeming to need me at all.

Eventually, I got up to throw away my empty lunch bag. That’s when I felt a tug on my elbow. “Mrs. Norton?” It was Jackson. Jackson wanted to know when it was time to “flip.” Flip what? I asked. I hadn’t heard anything about flipping. So Jackson explained that when the red cups on the table were flipped to red, they weren’t allowed to talk amongst themselves until the teacher signaled them to flip the cup to green.

I glanced at the tables around me, full of silent children. Every cup was red. Actually, that’s not true. All the cups from my students’ tables were red while the cups at the other teachers’ tables were green. Then I glanced at the clock. We only had a couple of minutes before lunch was over.

Suddenly I felt guilty. I had been chatting and laughing at the center table while twenty kids waited patiently in silence for me to signal the flip. And here I had thought they were that quiet naturally, that maybe they needed a break from the stresses of third grade. After all, we had run races at recess and, afterwards, struggled to get all the sand out of our shoes. Then, later on, there was all that commotion over the plastic bag recycling competition…

My oh my. I really am a rookie sometimes.

Turns out, rookie mistakes have their advantages. The other teachers merely thought I was a skilled sub who knew not to let the kids get rowdy while the regular teacher is out. A few even complimented me on my management skills.

And yes, thinking Dorian is a she was a rookie mistake, but who knows? Some of my students from Wednesday, who probably know more about coastal habitats than I do, might believe I have a Pirate accent because maybe there really are Pirates-turned-substitute-teachers. And if there really are Pirates-turned-substitute-teachers, then, maybe, just maybe, I sound like one.

*All school names have been fictionalized for privacy purposes.

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A Change of Pace

Three minutes. That’s how long it took to misplace and then find Deron. Actually, I wasn’t the one who found him. I finally asked the teacher’s aide if she’d seen Deron, and she mentioned having noticed something moving under my desk.

Three minutes is also how long it took one of the girls in Oak Grove Elementary’s hallway to give me a hug. No introductions. No hesitation. She wasn’t even in my class.

Last week I subbed for a special education classroom (ESE) at Oak Grove Elementary School. An ESE class is similar to middle or high school in that you don’t always have the same kids and they come and go in blocks. Another way in which my experience was familiar is that I still had trouble getting names out of the kids. In fact, in every school I’ve taught, this has been the case. At Oak Grove, my second graders would be happily settling into their desks, getting out their books, and then, instantly, the mood would change once I asked for a name. Total silence.

In an effort to maneuver around this unspoken cultural code, I’ve come up with a technique. You might wonder why I don’t just have the students make name tags. First, the older students simply wouldn’t cooperate. Second, the younger students would get too far off track. So, instead, I give them one of the assigned worksheets after they get to their desks and nonchalantly tell them to put their names on it. Pretty standard stuff. The only difference is that, when they’re done, I tell them to keep it at their desk until the end of class. Voilà. All of a sudden, everyone has a name.

The rest of my experience at Oak Grove was less familiar. Maybe you already know how unpredictable elementary-aged children can be. For instance, while reading aloud as a group, two girls cried, one right after the other. I had no idea why. Was it something I had said? Something another student had said? Something a character in the story had said? I tried to inquire, but only got more crying. So I resorted to offering Kleenex. With all that snot and tears, I thought the Kleenex would be a sure sell. Turns out, second graders don’t have a problem with signs of uninhibited emotion the way we adults do.

Still, I felt compelled to press the Kleenex issue. Oak Grove is such a tidy place, full of friendly staff who greeted me with smiles, gave me directions, and said thank you for coming. The least I could do is keep my borrowed students from returning to their homerooms a salty, swollen mess.

By the end of the day, unexplained tears were the least of my worries. Teaching elementary school is unnerving in a completely different way than teaching middle or high school because there’s a whole new level of danger. Take the buses, for example. When it was time for me to escort six kindergarteners to six different locations, one froze up halfway there while another ran in the opposite direction.  Now that is terrifying. Forget code yellow lockdowns and campus intruders. Getting a pack of six-year-olds on the right buses is a matter of life and death. Right? I mean, have you seen a six-year-old lately? They’re tiny and adorable and look exceptionally miniature-size when standing next to a double-axled diesel bus that could crush them instantly or drop them off in the wrong neighborhood.

Fortunately, Oak Grove’s principle only allows one substitute teacher per day, as opposed to the twenty of us who showed up at East River High the Friday before. And since the other teachers had some sort of sixth sense about when a kindergartener is on the loose, more than one Oak Grove teacher came to my aid by picking up the stragglers and runners.

From janitors who tell you where to find the first grade hallway, to secretaries who bring you highlighted schedules and lunch ladies who introduce themselves, Oak Grove Elementary is simply delightful for a sub. Even more delightful is having the teacher call you the next day to tell you that everyone hopes you’ll come back.

*All names, including those of schools, have been fictionalized for privacy purposes.

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My Blinds are Better Than Yours

Code yellow does not mean there’s a bomb threat, or, at least, that’s what I kept repeating to my ninth grade P.E. class while we were sequestered in the girls’ locker room last Friday at East River High.

The hardest part about keeping a group of high school girls calm and occupied during a code yellow lockdown is simply combatting the rumors. The truth is, code yellow could mean there was a bomb threat, but the manila envelope full of lockdown instructions isn’t quite that specific.

As long as no violence actually occurs, a lockdown is a pretty simple thing. Code blue lockdown means: all students should make their way to their classrooms sooner rather than later. Code blue is preventative. It’s mitigating a foreseeable threat of danger by clearing the halls.

Code yellow is a bit more of a hassle. During code yellow, all teachers must keep their students sequestered in the room they are currently located due to some kind of threat in progress. In my case, that meant the girls’ locker room.

The good part about your location being a locker room in this situation is that you have water and toilets. The bad part? Twenty female voices in a tile room makes for a headache-inducing echo.

Of course, code red is what the administration is trying to avoid during a code yellow. Code red means that everything is not all right. There might be an intruder on campus. There might be a fight. There might be weapons. Just a month ago, East River High was on code red lockdown for over two hours. I guess there was an escaped convict on campus. Or was it a hit-and-run?

Nope. Definitely a bank robber.

Like I said, rumors are the constant of every lockdown.

But not all of my high school subbing experiences have been so dramatic. Just a few days earlier I’d filled in for an English teacher at Randoll High School. I have to admit, when I pulled up to the school parking lot, I expected drama. In fact, while showing the movie Freedom Writers to third period’s Journalism/Yearbook class, I scoffed at the producer’s pathos-prompting pan of Hilary Swank’s classroom. Her disheveled blinds were in much better shape than Randoll High’s.

I considered it an unexpected privilege to watch Freedom Writers for the first time with this group of students, whose narration gave the film a kind of audio 3D effect. Because they’d all seen the movie a dozen times or so, their hum of voices only faded when bits of the soundtrack played. Here, the flirting and sharing of prom photos gave way to singing and a little bit of movement. They knew every moment of the film. Freedom Writers is to Randoll High what Princess Bride was to my high school youth group.

But I also felt uncomfortable during the film because it emphasized the differences between the students and me. I was clearly the only person in the room who identified with Hilary Swank’s character, a fact that became embarrassingly evident when I laughed at the wrong times. I’d even worn pearls just a few days earlier at Pinewood Middle. Rookie mistake.

Fortunately, I wasn’t a total walking cliché, if only because I understood that my experiences in the schools were not about me. When Hilary Swank’s character cries in her husband’s arms after witnessing her first school fight, my students paused their chatter to reprimand her. “You need to grow you some balls, girl!”

They were right, my students. Crying seems almost condescending. Students at Randoll High aren’t so different from other teenagers. They deal with similar self-doubt and hormonal angst. They feel the same hope and excitement. They dream of getting out of this town just like the students at my high school dreamed of getting out of their town. And yes, students at Randoll High do have to deal with more violence and poverty than some other high school students, but Randoll High is also tame compared to some of the schools in Chicago, New Orleans, and even Mobile, as my classes were quick to point out.

So, I didn’t worry too much during the hour-long lockdown at East River High. Code yellow is not code red, and I welcomed the chance to get to know the girls a little better. And when I left Pinewood Middle after that first chaotic day of subbing, I didn’t go home and cry on my husband’s shoulder.

Instead you listen and adjust, then listen some more. By the last period of the day at Randoll High I made a joke that shifted the room just a tiny bit. After watching three kids repeatedly tackle the only Caucasian student in my class, I finally said, “Come on now. Leave the white kid alone.”

Everyone stopped to laugh.

And a few of them even started doing the assigned work.

*All names, including those of schools, have been fictionalized for privacy purposes.

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To learn more about high schools where violence is an every-day concern, listen to the podcast “Harper High School” from This American Life.

“Harper High School: Part 1”

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/487/harper-high-school-part-one

“Harper High School: Part 2”

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/488/harper-high-school-part-two

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Subbing

The only preparation I received before teaching Reading to eighth graders was, “Sometimes they mistake kindness for weakness.”

Recently I’ve been spending time in Florida’s K-12 system as a substitute teacher. Normally I teach college English and was hired by Pensacola State College for the fall, but, until then, I wanted to try something new.

My first job was at Pinewood Middle School, which, I learned later, is one of the roughest in the area. Whatever comes to mind when you read “roughest,” multiply it by ten. While the kids were telling me how bad the school was, I had to interrupt them to break up a fight in the back corner. One student was choking another. Of course, I couldn’t physically break them up. I just got close and yelled a dozen different versions of “NO choking!” until a third student broke up the fight for me. Turns out that student wasn’t in my class at all. But he kept breaking up the fights, and I thought that was pretty handy. So I let him stay.

So what does a substitute teacher do when two kids fight? You’d think you simply write them up and turn them into the office, but that’s a surprisingly difficult task to accomplish when no one will give you a name. Even when I asked other students for their peers’ names, they were silent. Finally, one of the rowdy kids gave me his name. “Michael Jackson.”

I went with it.

“Michael Jackson, sit down.”

“Michael Jackson, I saved you seat right here.”

“Michael Jackson, I see you movin’ around over there!”

The kids laughed every time until finally he confided that his name wasn’t really Michael Jackson, to which I responded, “Well, if the only name you’re going to give me is Michael Jackson, then that means you are Michael Jackson to-day. Now have a seat!”

Because I couldn’t get the kids to give me their names, I didn’t realize until I started seeing duplicates of students that not all of the students in any given class were supposed to be in that class. New subs are a hot topic at Pinewood and everyone wanted to know how old I was, why I wasn’t a “real” teacher, where I lived, what I thought of Pensacola, whether they were like other students I’d taught, how long I’d been married, and where Mr. Norton was. This last question confused me since I’m not in the habit of bringing my husband with me to work, but the question became clear after its follow-up, “Mrs. Norton, I’ll be your Mr. Norton!”

Two equally plucky marriage proposals later, and I had moved on from unsuccessfully getting the students to sit down to only partially successfully getting them to stop throwing everything that weighed less than a pound. I hoped the instructor had backup pencils, because by third period, the pencil I had absent-mindedly tucked behind my ear was the only one not broken. At least I finally understood why every drawer and cabinet in the room was locked, even from me.

But the fighting, the throwing, and the incessant talking all seemed manageable once I realized how fast chaos could turn into outright mutiny. My students in third period thought it would be funny to make the homework suddenly disappear from the teacher’s desk so that I had nothing to assign. After about five minutes of hunting around for the missing work, reprimanding as I went, one of the school’s deans stopped by to yell at the kids.

“Sit down or I’m goin’ to beat yo’ ass!” This loud, commanding woman was a welcome interruption, a moment of reprieve. Envious of her power, I said with resolve, “You heard the Dean!” then walked over to the podium, shooed away the three girls digging through the open grade book, and thanked God no blood had been drawn.

Course, that was third period. By seventh period, blood had been drawn. But that was ok, because this kid came in to the classroom already bloody. The injury hadn’t happened on my watch, which meant, I just might be able to call this a successful day of subbing.

*All names, including those of schools, have been fictionalized for privacy purposes.

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