Monthly Archives: April 2013

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.


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”

“Harper High School: Part 2”



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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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