Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I Went to College For This?

I feel bad for substitute teachers. They get all the bad sides of education: the unruly kids, misbehaving, attitudes, discipline... and none of the good: a sense of accomplishment, pride, self respect, dignity, health insurance... Day after day of on the job walking into
the unknown. A sub can't prepare. A sub can't plan ahead. Most often, a sub is called in that morning, completely oblivious to what they're about to undergo.

I have such empathy for them, because I was a sub for two years. I left the wondrous riches of the business world for education, but before I fully committed to being committed (and committed) I wanted to see what I was getting myself into. So, while I finished my last few classes, I registered to be a substitute.

Being a sub is the hell that you imagine it would be, but not for the reasons you'd expect. Most folks probably picture walking into a classroom with thirty screaming brats punching each other and putting tacks on your seat. I never encountered anything quite like that, although I did once walk into what a guilty looking student called "the semi-annual paper storm." In actuality, the adults at the school are what make a subs life about as pleasant as being tied to a post and repeatedly poked with plastic sporks. (of course their plastic, I don't know if they even make metal sporks). The grown-ups are what make a sub’s life hell.

My first day as a professional educator actually involved very little educating, in fact, I don't think any one was educated in any way what so ever.

My first call was for East High. Great. East High does not exactly have the best reputation. Unless by good reputation you mean "has 911 on speed dial" or "most likely to have a day end in blood shed." Why would you do this to yourself, you may ask. Simple. I wanted to see if I had what it took to be a teacher. To do that, I had to put myself in the most difficult situation I could. That was East High.

That first day began innocently enough, with me wondering where I should park my car. It wasn't something I thought to ask the night before when the district office called me, but suddenly it was a concern. Do I park on the street, in the student lot, in the faculty
lot? I had no idea. My biggest concern was how do I avoid my car being stolen or vandalized.

Then I arrived at the building my car was no longer in my top ten list o' concerns. It was obvious where school property began and public land began, it was the line of uniformed ROTC students and the eight foot fence. Just outside the fence, up and down the sidewalk were the extras from a Public Enemy video. I probably would have made
assumptions and stereotyped them as drug dealing thugs, but I didn't have to, they just went right ahead and sold the drugs right in front of me, which made me feel better about my racial profiling, but not much else. I felt better about having judged them, but that immediately took parking on the street out of the equation.

I found myself a space just inside the fence and walked through a very crowded sidewalk to get to the front doors, very aware of the fact that most of the student body found my shirt and tie rather amusing. It felt kind of like one of those prison movies where the bus load of young wide-eyed convicts is brought in and they have to walk through the cell-block, past all the other inmates, to get to their cell. Only, at least for that moment those new fish have the guards to back them up. I had no guards; I had a really pointy house key and a frozen Hot Pocket in my lunch bag.

Once I got inside, I stood in line to walk through the metal detectors. I didn't beep. I felt safer for those being there, but apparently there's a problem with non metal weapons as well, possibly those dangerous sporks that are all the rage with the gang kids, because in addition to having my metal detected, Gigantor the security goon patted me down. Satisfied that I'd left my glock at home, Gigantor led me over to a check in table. He was very pleasant, if by pleasant I mean he didn't punch me in the neck while he grunted responses to my very simple questions.

"Could you tell me where subs check in?"

"Eeeeehhhhh," Gigantor snorted while pointing a fat dirty finger down what looked to be a very long hallway.

"Is that the office?" I dared to ask.

"Uh, Eeeeehhhhh," I'm not sure I'm getting across the gravellyness and the disdain in Gigantor's grunts, but I was quite proud of our public education system that he'd muttered two syllables this time.

"Thanks," I smiled as I took my shoes back and headed towards Eeeeehhhhh.

A looooooong way down that hallway, I found the office. There was a line, so I waited patiently to talk to the secretary. Eventually, I was up. I don't think that she knew that. She went about her business, flipping through papers, straightening piles, typing something into the computer... I was OK with it, figuring that she had something she wanted to get done before it slipped her mind, but when she got up and left the room without so much as acknowledging my existence, I started to wonder if maybe Gigantor's special X-Ray beam had made me invisible.

I moved up closer to the counter, so there was no missing me when she came back, but when she did, she re-straightened the same piles of paper and typed something else into the computer. I wanted to lean over and see what she was typing, but I didn't need to, I already knew she was IMing her friend, updating her on how long she could make me
stand in a high school office and make me feel as important as a coat rack. I take that back, coat racks serve a purpose, I was more like Paris Hilton (only slightly less slutty).

Finally, I said, "Excuse me." Which I know is a huge intrusion for most folks whose job it is to acknowledge people at their counter, but I dared to be rude anyway.

"Sub," she asked? I assumed she was asking. It's difficult to tell if it was actually a question based on the inflection she put on that one lone syllable. I shouldn't complain though, at least her syllable was a word, she definitely had a leg up on Gigantor.

"Yes, I'm a sub. Wha..."

"Go to the sub office," she interrupted.

"Ok. Do you think you cou..."

"Room 401b," she answered my unasked question with a tone that's usually reserved as a response to questions like "Can I buy your first born child with this Chicklet?" or "Hey, how'd you like to help me move?"


All I got to that was "Eeeeehhhhhh," and a point further down the hall.

Now, I'm a pretty smart guy, so I went ahead and assumed that room 401b would be somewhere in the vicinity of 401a and if there was one, 401c, and I went ahead and guessed that the whole four hundred family would be found on the fourth floor. Proud of my Magellanness, I headed down the corridor to find some stairs.

I know this is going to shock some folks, pregnant women, those with heart conditions, and children under three feet tall should skip ahead a bit, but when walking up the stairs, I quickly realized that there was no fourth floor. That made the location of room 401b quite a mystery. Normally I love a mystery, guessing that it was Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with the lead pipe always gives me a warm feeling, but that morning, looking at the clock tick closer and closer to the "I'm late" hour, I wasn't in the mood.

I went ahead and guessed third floor and kept heading the way the Eeeeeehhhhhers told me to. To this day, I can't get the smell of that hallway out of my brain. It must have been the remedial science wing, cause it stank like dissected pigs and burnt toast. How would I know that smell? Someday I'll tell you the story of my 10th grade biology lab partner, Bob Spears, who used the Bunson burners to make a mid-morning snack most days.

Eventually, I reached a dead end. No 401b. I'd checked every room I'd passed in the entire corridor, and I'd had no luck. I left stinky pig toast hall to explore the rest of the school. In Benny Hill getting chased by a man in a gorilla costume super high speed, I
searched the rest of the building for room 401b.

I'm pretty sure that I would never have found it on my own, but after thirty minutes of fruitless searching, I ran into Joe. Based on his attire (ripped jeans, holey concert t-shirt, no shoes, no socks), I assumed Joe to be a homeless man who had wandered into the building, maybe he lived in the ceiling or something, but he was in fact, the head of the Math department. No dress code must be nice. I was suddenly very self conscious about my tie, but at least I had an escort to the sub office.

Where was it? In the stink pig toast hall. The office was tucked away into a little alcove. I had passed it three times earlier.

Finally. I thanked Homeless Joe for his help and reached for the door to the sub office. It was locked. I jiggled it. Nothing. I jiggled it again, for some reason expecting that moving the door handle in directions it isn't supposed to go will make it magically open.
Nothing again. I looked around to see if anyone was nearby and even tried the "open sesame" trick. Apparently Ali Baba didn't run the sub office, and the people who did, the people in charge of getting the subs to the appropriate rooms before school begins, don't think it's terribly important to get there on time. I waited.

and waited.

and waited some more.

The bell to let the students in rang, and at almost the exact same moment, the door opened. I must have passed through a dimensional portal on my way in, because I was instantly in line behind five other people. Never having found another door into that room, I'm still slightly confused how they got in front of me.

Outside, I could hear the hallway flood with students. Laughing and stomping and locker opening and closing filled the air. I waited some more.

When it was my turn, the extremely nice woman (who did not at all resemble Ali Baba), and by extremely nice I mean spoke to me in complete sentences, handed me a clipboard. I mimicked what the person above me had done and Ms. Sunshine told me I'd be in room 104. Even though I'd passed every room in the school once already, I was kind of apprehensive about trekking out on my own.

"Uuuuuhhhhh," I said, which thankfully Sunny took to mean "where in the holy heck is that?"

"Uuuuuhhhhh," she mocked, shoving a map of the school in my face. "You're here. 104 is there." Really quick imprecise pointing, but I thought I had it. If not, I could look for Homeless Joe.

Once I got into the hall, I realized the path to 104 was pretty straight forward and simple. There were still plenty of students clogging up the corridor, so I also figured I had plenty of time.

East High was apparently built in sections, part one decade, another wing some time later, the next chunk added by another generation, and so on, because I quickly found out that hallways that logically connected on the map, in reality did not ever come in contact with one another. I had immediately gone down the stairs to the first floor, but in my efforts to get across to the other side of the school, I had to go back up to two, down to one, up to three, across, down to one to avoid the theatre, back to two to go around the gym, and down to one to my assignment room.

By the time I got all the way over there, the hallways were pretty much devoid of any students, and I took that as a blessing. I wandered and wandered. I made a plan to never leave the room once I found it, fully intending to hide in there the entire day. Lunch, in
the classroom. Passing periods, in the classroom. Plan periods, in the classroom. All I had to do was find the damn classroom.

I did. Ten minute after the late bell had already rung.

It was Home Ec. Yippee, just what I wanted to do, give kids with this kind of reputation needles.

For some reason, when I got there, all the students were lined up in the hallway, and by lined up, I mean a big mob of kids hitting each other with rulers and scientific calculators. I found out real quick that they weren't just polite obedient students waiting for the teacher to get there before they went in the room, they weren't in there because the door was locked.

I sent a few kids a couple different directions to find a custodian with one of those gigantic key rings, I really didn't care if they came back or not, at least there would be less kids in the hallway smacking each other with rulers when the principal wandered by and fired me.

Eventually, a custodian did show up. Not to help, but to let me know that she couldn't let me into the room because she didn't know who I was. Not caring that there were thirty kids missing out on an hour of education, she told me I'd have to go to the office to get help if I wanted it. I wanted it. However, I didn't have any bread crumbs to trail behind me, so I let the kids know that if I wasn't back in five minutes they should all head to the witches house and let me out of the oven. Literary references were lost on them.

Ten minutes later, in the wrong hallway, way the wrong hallway, one of the student scouts I'd sent out found me and guided me back to the room. I never did find the office, but somehow someone had been convinced that the room needed to be opened.

Now came scavenger hunt number two. Find the sub plans. That, also, was a chore. You'd imagine most teachers would leave them on a podium or a clearly defined space on the desk. Not this one. These plans were inside a folder labeled "If I'm Not Here" neatly tucked (by neatly tucked I mean completely hidden unless you ransack the desk) into one
of those plastic desk organizer things. I found them, but it was fourth period by then.

I felt that the first three hours of the day went smooth even without plans, because I'd found a video about drugs for them to watch. It was a great video (if by great I mean incredibly irritating, poorly produced, and actually made me want to do drugs). It was a movie of the week starring Drew Barrymore and Corey Feldman. Yeah, those are the two to listen to regarding intelligent life choices.

For fourth period I had plans. There was a problem though. I couldn't decipher them. First, I thought the teacher just had really bad handwriting, and she did, but I quickly realized that her really bad handwriting was really bad handwriting in Spanish. I don't speak/read Spanish. We watch Drew and Corey smoke crack again fourth period.

Fifth period was lunch time. Lunch was like an oasis of relief. Not from the kids. They'd been no trouble at all, what I needed a break from was Ms. Barrymore's acting chops.

I unpacked my lunch and started to spread it out on the desk when a teacher, followed closely by fifteen or twenty obviously special needs kids, wandered in. Wait a minute. I have to teach special ed too? I could have sworn the schedule said fifth period lunch.

Well, it turned out that the special ed kids had home ec while that teacher was at lunch. That killed my hide in the room all day plan. I had to find the lounge.

I had a plan. I followed all the kids that were still in the hallway. It was lunchtime; they were migrating towards the cafeteria. Once I got there, I looked for an adult in line, hung back, waited for them to get their food, and watched where they went. The lounge. I was a genius.

Geniuses are scorned by their peers, aren't they. If so, I must have been the genius of the century. I walked into that room and got looks that are usually reserved for pedaphiles and Jehovah's Witnesses. I can't recall ever feeling less welcome in my life. Unfortunalety, most of the room was full. There wasn't anywhere to sit at the main table in there, but there was a little side table over by the window. To get there, I'd have to squeeze between the wall and all the teachers. I tried. I shuffled around them, sucking in my stomach and carrying my lunch up over my head to avoid knocking into anyone. I must have said, "excuse me" a thousand times, but no one responded. Jerks. After that, I
somewhat intentionally kicked the chairs of any of them who wouldn't scoot out of the way. The glares they were burning into the back of my neck made me glad that none of them had laser beam vision like Superman.

I finally got to the little table and sat. Now they wanted to talk to me. Up 'til then you'd have thought that substitutes were lepers. "That's George's seat," one of them informed me.

I looked around for somewhere else to sit, but there wasn't anywhere. I smiled an apologetic smile and shrugged, but didn't budge.

"Did you hear me? That's George's seat. He sits there everyday."

"OK, well, I'll eat quick, and maybe I'll be gone before he gets here," I replied.

"George is going to be upset," another one shout whispered.

"George is going to be angry," the first one reminded me. All I could think about at that point was the Seinfeld episode in which George decides to refer to himself in the third person. 'George is getting angry,' and I couldn't stop giggling.

The rest of lunch was me eating, them in really loud whispers mentioning George's ownership of the plastic chair I'd dared to sit on, George's anger issues, George's dislike for change... George never showed. Apparently George didn't like to eat near them either.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I went out for some air after lunch and on my return trip to the home ec room Gigantor gave me another very special frisking. I got to watch the less attractive Corey make it all the way to step twelve and kick the habit, five more times. I even learned a few Spanish swear words. I would have sent them to the office for that, but I didn't have any bread crumbs to make sure they could get back.

For the most part, the kids at East were pretty nice. They helped me work the VCR, they found me when I was wandering aimlessly through the halls, and one even drew me a picture of what I think was a duck. No thanks to the adults there, I made it through the day. My car was even in the same condition when I got back.

I survived, and I continued to substitute teach for two years before getting my certificate. However, I never subbed at East High again. Just to end that day on a particularly fitting note, though, I did get lost in the neighborhood while driving away. I stopped at a gas
station to get directions back to the highway. All the kid behind the counter, who must have gone to East High, said was "Eeeeeehhhhhhh" as he pointed up the road. Mental notes about never forgetting the bread crumbs again were made.

Be sure to check out my guest post later today at A Guy's Guide to Oprah, and if you feel bad for the subs, vote at


Bee said...

Well Mike, you had it coming for wearing that tie. That's all I'm going to say. Oh, and you were probably wearing white socks too weren't ya'??

Prefers Her Fantasy Life said...

I would like to extend my condolences.

I spent the last four years in an urban school writing about education reform, plus I'm a former teacher.

You subs take more hits than the current Republican VP candidate.

But she totally deserves them!

Prefers Her Fantasy Life said...

You don't seem to have a Humor-Blogs link. 'Cause I'd vote for you subs a thousand times over.

But not for Palin.

Chris Wood said...

Thanks fella. I may well be doing supply teaching next year.

Thanks a lot!

PlainOleMike said...

@ Bee - Nope, I was sporting the black socks.

@ Prefers - thanks, I'd love a vote at humor-blogs, but my feed to that site has been messed up for a few days now.

@ Chris - good luck. you'll need it. Also, British people talk funny.