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.