Subbing - A Special Kind of Torture
Here's an excerpt from my book, Memories A La Carte, Essays on a Life. I was reentering the work force after 12 years at home. I had no skills to speak of. I thought subbing might be a way to hide that fact. (Find my essay collection here at Amazon.com)
I could slip in in the morning, conduct a class and, if I kept a low profile, slip out at quitting time because no one ever noticed me anyway. I was temporary. No one cared about me because I didn’t draw a salary and didn’t deplete the benefit funds. I was a no threat, wandering the halls. In my time there, a few teachers kindly mentored me. Most of the time, however, principals and teachers ignored me. Oh, except for the time they informed me during a pending tornado that substitutes were to patrol the unprotected hallways while teachers and students hid in the concrete bathrooms.
There are three reasons subbing is hell: First, no one talks to you. Second, staff treats you like a stranger. Third: unless you have a degree in handling discipline, you have no control. On many days, I could sit in the teacher’s room and have not one person speak to me. Then there were the introductions: “Children, Ms. Curren is a guest in our building today so you are to be on your best behavior for her.” Children’s faces taken on an angelic glow. Principal leaves the room. Faces turn cloudy. Hey, she’s just a guest. Who needs to listen to her? All hell breaks loose. Depending on the grade, students spend the day trying to get rid of you. They lie. They cheat. They scramble names so that you can’t take attendance. (Warning: sixth grade is the worst.) I advocate that school discipline be taught by law enforcement professionals.
I can count two to three inspirational moments in my sub teaching career the memory of which kept me subbing along with the need to put food on the table. One was a little boy who wouldn’t write because his teacher made him write from her topic list.
I asked him what he cared about, and he said, “Baseball cards.”
I said, “So write about that.”
I couldn’t get him to leave for lunch, he was so engaged in his writing.
Another moment I have never forgotten. A fifth-grade class was to watch a film about Native Americans and their plight. The film was disturbing as it graphically laid out the problems of alcohol and drug abuse among the tribes.
After the film, we engaged in a discussion of what we could do to ease the grief and pain of these native people. The empathy and concern of these young preteens blew me away. I think they even blew themselves away. As we filed out at the bell, there wasn’t a sound from any of us.
I will admit, I had a beef with the schools’ administration. The discipline policy was a laissez-faire program. We must not let the little darlings suffer in any way. Therefore, having consequences for their actions was a no-no.
I recall one school librarian who took issue with my sending a boy to the office for trashing the library while she was out. On the day George and I met, he had thrown books across the room, emptied trash cans onto the floor, and drawn on the library wall with red marker.
“We don’t send George to the office,” she told me on her return. “We reason with him.”
She did not define the special reason why George should be exempt from some form of discipline and I left her to it. I do recall that George continued to trash the library for a year before he finally graduated.
One day, after eight years of battle in that school district, I woke up and I knew it was my last day of teaching children. I don’t know how I knew. Was God telling me something? It was a third-grade class in a rough school, but I had survived them before. As I walked toward the classroom, however, an eerie thing happened. The kids were gathered at their lockers, and they all looked up at me at once. Not to sound a little crazy, but I swear their faces said, “Teach, you are going down today.” It was as if devils had been loosed.
Once in the classroom, they refused to sit down. They threw paper wads at each other. They would not stop talking. Then, at the bathroom break, a fight broke out, and one kid had his head shoved into a toilet bowl.
I called for the principal – a blonde with a superior attitude who I didn’t like much anyway. In front of the students, she said, “Now Ms. Curren, you must keep order in the classroom. If you cannot keep order, perhaps you shouldn’t be here.”
The principal then addressed the children. “Now, children, let’s get back to order and help Ms. Curren carry on. After all, Ms. Curren is a guest in our building.”
What happened next was unbelievable. With the principal’s words, all hell broke loose, and the kids ran all around the room, ignoring her. They literally circled her in defiance. They usually had some regard for her authority but not that day. That made her furious and she stormed out of the room.
I stormed out of the room after her and into her office, leaving the kids to kill each other if they so desired.
“What are you doing in my office? she shouted. “You can’t leave the children unattended!”
“I just did,” I said. “I just came to your office to tell you that I am walking out that front door, and I am never coming back. I will never, ever teach again and I want you to know, without any doubt, you are the reason why.”
I left her standing there with her mouth open and I never went back to teaching of any kind. And oh, it feels so good to think of it even to this day.