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?”
“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.