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.