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?”
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.