For the last three weeks I have been plopping myself down in various school classrooms around town, working as a substitute teacher. This, after eighteen years of staying home, being ‘mom’. Entering the work force is a challenge, of course, mainly because you must get up and get going so early. But the job I’ve returned to – teaching – is not all that different than momming. In either case you rarely get to sleep in. The pay is awful in both. And the benefits are limited – one gets ‘work with no obligation to put on bra or shoes’, while the other gets ‘summer’.
In many ways, these two jobs are essentially the same. The souls you ‘shepherd’ all day are gross and loud. Many of your charges pick their noses unabashedly while almost all of them whine incessantly, even if you’re literally just showing them a movie. The older kids stink, and the younger kids cry, and you forget when you’re not around hordes of children anymore how often and overwhelming just those two downsides are. Yet you tolerate these rascally little humans even as they shout ridiculous things at you, such as, “Mrs. Klank” or “Ms. Kick” over and over. You work hard to instill a handful of decent thoughts and inspirations into their growing psyches, even as you stealthily plan your next solitary bathroom break and heatedly scribble ‘Wild Turkey’ onto your ever-lengthening shopping list.
In the past two weeks, my notion that teaching is eerily like mothering has only solidified. Because mothering involves dragging your kids through society – schools, doctors, sports, music lessons. While teaching means prepping kids for leadership roles within those societies. Which all just goes to say that rarely do you mother or teach in isolation. It is a community you find yourself thrust into, not one you hand-pick for yourself. And for better or worse, you meet all kinds here. Mothers who swaddle their babes in expensive, linen breast-sacs until they are well-past three years old. Mothers who tell you flat out that your stair banisters are ‘filthy dirty’ as they stand in your entry-way, dropping off multitudes of kids for you to moniter. You’ll meet mothers who carry tiny dogs with them wherever they go yet don’t notice when their own child runs into the street; mothers who seem like they take drugs and most likely ARE taking drugs; moms for whom the word “no” has been supplanted from their vocabulary by “child-centered”. Perhaps even on the same day, you’ll meet other moms who thrive on order and execution and sincerely question you as to what type of bread you serve and when was the last time your family had a fire drill run-through? You will have awkward conversations with moms who want to confiscate your teen-aged child’s phone while they are with them, and then even more awkward conversations when you show up to a classmate’s birthday party only to realize it is actually a church rally. The list goes on and on but you get the point. Moms have to hang out with all kinds of other moms, and most of these ladies will not be your personal cup of tea, believe you me!
The same basic truth goes with teaching, but particularly so when you are a substitute. Every day you encounter vastly different set-ups and styles. There’s the classic ‘Ms. Ruler’, who comes complete with a Pier One sofa and mood lighting ensconced in one corner of her classroom. She’s forked out hard-earned money for different color-coded rugs for each activity; included picture-coded seating charts within the lesson plans; while her students are bound – by blood, sweat, and tears, often – to Ms. Ruler’s ‘do’s and don’ts’ and that sneaky little second hand on the big, over-the-door-clock.
Then there’s your ‘Doris Day’ teachers (Que sera, sera…whatever will be, will be) who leave no sub plans at all; in fact, they’ve lost their attendance folder long ago; these teachers often have desks spilling over with old notes and stacks of books and papers, none of which are current or helpful in any way. There are no name tags anywhere within their magical kingdom, and a sharpened pencil is worth its weight in gold. These student’s whistle while they work, sing while they sum, and ‘line up’ at the door like a poorly-drawn amoeba, which then slithers down the hall eagerly consuming every other student it encounters along the way.
There’s ‘Mr. Stoplight’, whose entire lesson plan entails dire/overt warnings about particularly challenging students – Beware! Caution! Danger Ahead!
‘Mr. Bueller’, who schedules an hour and a half for the driest, most painfully dull lesson plans imaginable (i.e.; a six-page packet on the unpronounceable first emperor of china, sans interesting details or historical context… anyone?…anyone? ),
Ms. Rainbow, whose every inch of wall space is covered with kaleidoscopic art work and inspirational sayings such as, ‘You did not wake up to be mediocre!’ and ‘Mistakes are expected, respected, inspected, corrected’. She’s penned, ‘Have fun and Enjoy their Spirits!’ in purple calligraphy atop your lesson plans, and reminds you to use ‘caring words’ to encourage students to finish up their papier mache’ projects this afternoon. “But by all means, if the sun’s out – CELEBRATE!”
Where I fit in to all of this I really don’t know – what I can say with confidence is that every single teacher’s amount of time allotted for lessons is way too long for a sub…and that there is no possible way to predict what a student might say or do at any given time.
Take the day I asked one second-grade girl how to pronounce her name: Alallia. “A-Lah-Lee-A” she said, pleasantly. “Well, that’s just beautiful!” I gushed, thinking inwardly that I’d never remember that for a hot second. “How did you come by such a unique and exotic name?”
“My Grandma smoked a lot,” Alallia answered, rising from her desk and eyeing us all squarely as she spoke loud and proud, like a miniature Ms. America contestant. “She had a tube in her throat, so she couldn’t talk. Before she went to heaven she signed my name to my mom with her hands. Then she died.”
Thankfully the class was stunned into silence for several moments. Imagine what that poor grandma was most likely trying to sign – Help! Morphine! Pull the plug! Well…the daughter went with ‘Alallia’ and on hindsight that seems optimistic and makes as good a story as any. However, I did make a mental note forthwith: do NOT ask students to explain their names (Sorry Tiger-Amari, you will sadly remain a nomenclature mystery).
Another day, after I had abandoned the boring but malicious Emperor of China in favor of a story on the sinking city of Venice, I asked the students to do a ‘quick write’ about one place they would like to visit, anywhere in the world, and why. A very sad boy (whose name was Tristan – literary magnificence!) raised his hand to share, which surprised me, as all morning he’d been a slow worker, struggling to keep up and stay on task, and in fact he’d broken down in tears several times out of exhaustion or sheer frustration, who knows. Anyway – he seemed to take to the ‘quick’ write concept (five minutes), thus he raised his hand, so I called on him to read his paper aloud:
‘As you all know, I have a depressive nature. To help me with this I think I should go to Canada. They say they are the nicest people in the world there. I would still be close to my house here in Washington, and I could eat pancakes, because I know they have a lot of maple syrup there. I think it would be nice to visit Canada and all those friendly people who smile a lot and maybe I would even like it there. I would eat a lot of pancakes if it is really such a happy place.”
Happy does not begin to describe my own reaction to this paragraph that contains within it the underlying essence of why one might continue to teach, instead of sailing away to a Caribbean island to slurp rum out of coconuts.
This last week as I sat in Ms. Ruler’s third-grade class on her unbelievable sofa that is nicer than anything in my own home, I tried valiantly to ‘teach’ a particularly needy student. This boy, Matthew, was tall and big and loud, and he had all the typical troubles of a very easily distracted, tall-big-loud boy, and so I had appointed him my personal ‘buddy’ that day, and let him do some of his work on the white board, and generally gone above and beyond to ensure that he did some ‘work’, to all the other student’s rightful dismay. At this point in the afternoon he was seated opposite another little boy, Jordan, who was rather frail, quiet, and polite; a speed worker who seemed to have none of the issues facing Matthew. Yet as I sat there between the two boys I noticed Jordan crying, very quietly. “What’s wrong?” I asked. Jordan wouldn’t answer. Matthew did, though. “He don’t have anymore friends!” he declared, matter-of-factly. “Something bad happened at recess, I don’t know, but no one likes him now.”
I tried to hide my shock at this frank summary, but Jordan woefully nodded agreement. “I’m starving, too,” he declared, Eeyore-style.
“Yep, he’s going to starve himself now!” Matthew yelled. “And he’s going to kill himself, too, because he don’t have any friends anymore.”
I thought I should nip this in the bud very quickly, so I said, “No, Jordan’s going to be just fine, Matthew. Jordan’s a strong, smart boy who’s having a sad moment right now but in a few minutes he will go wash his face and drink some water and come back and work with us here, won’t you Jordan, and after that it will be time to go home and Jordan will eat a snack and everything will seem much better.”
Jordan sort of shrugged, like ‘yeah, maybe. We’ll see.’
“In the meantime, Matthew, you need to start writing these words. Look at the next one there, it says astronaut. I think you could write that on your paper lickety-split.”
Matthew sank back into those beautiful sofa cushions with an enormous heave. “I can’t, teacher. My heart is too soft.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, anxiously checking the second-hand on the clock myself while inwardly screaming, ‘HOW MUCH LONGER CAN I GO ON BEING THIS PATIENT AND KIND AND WISE??? UGH!!!’
Matthew was tearing up now, too. “My heart is so soft because Jordan’s going to kill himself. And he’s starving. And he doesn’t have no more friends. It hurts when my heart is so soft like it is.”
Here I sank back into the cushions and had to agree with him. Teaching is exasperating. Momming is endless. Life is painful and slow and crazy and loud and stinky and blurry-fast and colorful and funny, too, but trying to deal with everyone’s ups and downs through all these minutes and hours is exhausting.
Mrs. Klank’s heart is too soft indeed –
even when there’s a Pier One sofa to sink into.