For a seventh grader, she was tall and broad-shouldered. She was a little like an ogre, slowly stomping up to the desk and towering over me. Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of a substitute teacher, Be alive, or be she dead, I’ll grind her bones to make my bread…
“Who are you?” she asked me.
“I’m Ms. Jordt, your substitute teacher for the day.”
“Whatever,” she said, and took a seat at one of the lab tables.
I gave them their assignment, which was simply to complete the worksheet they started the previous day.
“Can we talk?” she asked.
She immediately disobeyed me. How defiant, I thought. I wish she wasn’t big and strong enough to crush me with her pinky toe.
Now I more fully appreciate many of the school-related moments satirized by Bart on The Simpsons. His blackboard confessions seem strikingly accurate as to what students sometimes say to you, to each other, and the ridiculous things you catch them doing.
Some examples of Bart’s:
1. A burp is not an answer.
2. I will not eat things for money.
3. I will not call the Principal ‘Spud-head’.
4. No one is interested in my underpants.
5. I am not a dentist.
6. I will not trade pants with others.
7. Organ Transplants are best left to professionals
8. I am not authorized to fire substitute teachers.
9. I will not defame New Orleans.
10. ‘Bart Bucks’ are not legal tender.
So far, in my limited experience, I caught first graders giving each other “snake bites” (where you twist the arm of a victim in different directions), a student told me and the class that a black bear once ate half his canoe and a first grader admitted that his worst day was when he got a disciplinary referral for spitting on the smartboard. I know in my heart that this is only the beginning. I have heard tell of things thrown at substitutes. Others have given me advice on how to deal with attention-obsessed students.
While I remember all of middle school as a sort of purgatory, seventh grade was the worst. In 6th grade you’ve graduated out of elementary. You’re on the bottom of the totem pole, and eager to please. You feel a new-found sense of importance and growth associated with graduating to the next level. 8th graders are at the top of the totem pole. They are about to enter high school, and they are filled with the thrill of moving to the next level. If you treat them like young adults, they respond well and are generally more respectful and obedient. 7th grade, though, is the purgatory of purgatory. They feel stuck in the middle of the middle, alienated and full of raging hormones, and nothing has changed.
On the day in question, I was exceptionally tired, looking extraordinarily haggard, and the teacher had left me no lesson plan. I was winging it. I actually had spent the previous hour rapidly creating a worksheet on quick breads. Until 40 minutes ago, I didn’t know that pita bread, tortillas, muffins, waffles, pancakes and biscuits were all quick breads. I learned the scientific definition for vocabulary like: dough, batter, leavening agent, yeast, flavorings, and sweeteners. I rapidly produced a hand-written worksheet because I couldn’t log on to the teacher’s computer. I waited while the impossibly slow copy machine produced one stapled packet at a time.
I’ve become a master shusher. I shush kids all the time. I looked the ogre-like girl in the eye and hushed her, and she stared right back at me and talked. So I gave her a detention. Then, the kid that was sitting next to her stole one of the teacher’s tall chairs to sit in at his desk. So I gave him a detention. I gave another three detentions before the period was up.
Then it was lunchtime. They’d called me at 6 a.m. to sub, and I was in such a hurry to get to school that I’d forgotten to pack a lunch. Substitute teachers eat for free, so I asked for an adult salad, which every other school I’ve subbed at provides. But that wasn’t in the cards for me, either. Instead, the staff informed me that they no longer provided salads, so my only option was hot lunch. What were they serving? Nachos. The whole experience was reminiscent of Adam Sandler’s Lunch Lady Land: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_-KbstEG4E
Being served lukewarm meat slop over my corn chips also reminded me of all the information out there that says school lunches are not providing kids with proper nutrition: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2009/12/school_lunch_nutrition_worse_t.html. With the levels of childhood obesity on the rise, and processed foods with high fat content being served in schools, the military has become another advocate of school lunch reform: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/04/too_fat_to_fight_obesity_and_n.html. Besides the flavorless, processed meat slop, there was bright orange, shredded, processed cheese, canned corn, and white bread. I had to eat. There was no other alternative.
Moments after I had consumed the food, I began to feel nauseous.
I had three more seventh grade classes to teach in the afternoon. I warned the first class that I had already given out five detentions to their compatriots in 3rd hour, and that I would do it again if students were not behaving. It went a little more smoothly, though I still spent the majority of my time telling them to quiet down. By eighth hour I began to feel like I might survive the day, though a fellow teacher had warned me about the angsty nature of that particular 7th grade class.
The students filed in. My stomach continued to gurgle and hiss. Four students seated themselves at a lab table located back one row and slightly right of center, when viewed from my desk. To my knowledge, two of them were autistic and one was legally blind. A big kid in a striped t-shirt sat in the back right corner of their table. During the class, one of the autistic girls – an exceptionally bright little thing – came up to ask me a question about the worksheet I’d created. It was difficult to understand her, and I knew that trying to communicate stressed both of us out. After I’d answered her questions, she pointed in the general direction of her table, and told me that someone was talking/bothering her. So I got up and walked over there. It appeared that the large kid in the striped shirt was causing the trouble. I told him he needed to be quiet, to stop harassing the other students and get to work. After I sat at my desk again, I looked up and saw him talking to a kid seated at another table. I eyed him and said my favorite, totally cliche teacher phrase, “Your pencils should be moving, not your mouths.” The little autistic girl got up and came over to me. Again she pointed at the table and told me that someone was talking. This time I warned the kid in the striped shirt that if I had to ask him quiet down one more time, I’d give him a detention. Sure enough, I caught him talking again. When I was writing the detention, I thought it odd how quiet the class got. I thought it odd that the student wouldn’t give me his name, and wouldn’t spell it for me. I took it as an act of defiance.
As I was packing up at 3:00, the same woman who had warned me about the previous hour appeared in my classroom. She worked exclusively with the autistic students, and she informed me that the kid in the striped shirt who I’d just given detention to was autistic. I felt like an asshole. I probably blushed with shame. I apologized for my mistake, and explained what I thought had happened. In reality, she told me, a boy from the neighboring table (new to the school and a bit of a terror), was antagonizing him, and the kid in the striped shirt was defending himself. She told me that she’d spoken with both boys. She felt like she should have given the boy who caused all the hubbub two detentions: one for being the trouble-maker, and another for getting an autistic kid a detention. The autistic boy, it turns out, is not so good with confrontational situations. That explained why he hadn’t attempted to justify himself. She told me that she’d made him explain it to her, though, before she would tear up the detention slip. So the incident had caused him to make progress in communicating and confronting issues. But I still felt like an asshole.
In retrospect, it’s easier to laugh about kids antics. It’s easier to laugh about the awful climax to a pretty rough substitute teaching day. I’m left with an immense amount of respect for the people who teach everyday. I’ve never been so tired in my life.
Many times, when Homer finds out that Bart has said or done something stupid or bad, he yells out, “Why you little—!” and strangles Bart in anger. While it’s obviously not politically correct or a good career move to tackle and throttle a student, I feel for Homer.Bart’s a fucking nightmare of a child. A funny nightmare, because he’s a larger-than-life, extreme case, but as with all good humor, there’s a fair amount of truth to it.
During first grade snack time, a chorale of voices told me that they needed seconds on chocolate graham crackers and animal crackers, that they were starving, that, in fact, they were always hungry. They started one-upping each other: Oh yeah, well I get hungry three minutes after I just ate! and then, Well I get hungry three seconds after I just ate!
One suggestion I received from a friend about how to reply in this situation was to tell the kids that they had a tape worm:
“Listen, kiddies. You’re always hungry because you have a parasite in your intestine eating all your food. A little wormy.”
Homer’s ultimate revenge (and then I was fired).