END OF CHAPTER ONE: SUBSTITUTE TEACHER 

My first stint as a substitute teacher — with absolutely no training, mind you — ended as painfully as it began.

Fortunately, nobody got physically hurt. But after a week of wrestling (sometimes literally) with a gaggle of rowdy second grade boys who were testing every limit they could find, something had to give.

My back was the first to go, then my weak ankle, and finally my patience. Consequently, I started my fateful last day with an apology to a little girl I had screamed at the day before. I explained to the whole class that I had never been a teacher before and they were my very first class.

“So I’m trying something new, and we are all doing our best, right?” I concluded.

“But you have kids, don’t you?” asked the precocious little girl to whom I had apologized. I told her I did not. This seemed to shock them all into silence as they reflected on their discovery that not all grown-ups are parents. What on earth are big people for if they aren’t parents?

My purposeful vulnerability and honesty — a big risk — seemed to help. Everyone calmed down and paid more attention to my directions. We got on famously for about ninety minutes. We were all excited about going to watch the sixth-grade class doing a dress rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast.

This break in the routine meant I did not have to teach math (yes, I even have math anxiety about addition and subtraction), and I thought it would be a treat for the children.

The Saint and the Beasts

I did not realize what “a break in the routine” means for kids this age. It is not a good thing. I learned the importance of routine when my Mom had dementia, and the same rules apparently apply to kids, especially those struggling with behavioral and emotional problems.

When we got back from the play, one of the boys raced to the classroom, pushed in the button on the door knob, and slammed the door. We were all locked out in the hall. Mortifying substitute-teacher moment. The children thought this was a major crisis and got all riled up, but the head of the lower school came to our rescue, unlocked the door and calmed them down.

She also told the class they were lucky I was a saint.

The rest of the day was a test of my sainthood as the kids got increasingly loud and aggressive. Several boys got in trouble for fighting on the playground at recess, and the “take a break” corners were full all afternoon. Then, as we prepared for dismissal, two boys strapped their backpacks to their bellies and began charging into each other like bulls, careening around the room and endangering the other kids who were obediently sitting in our “closing circle” on the floor.

I did not yell this time. I merely took both boys by the shoulders, escorted them to the door and told them to go to the front office and tell them why they had been banished.

Another student told me that those boys “are not known for doing what they’re told,” so I looked down the hall and saw that they had been collared by the woman who had dubbed me a saint. I guess her patience was thin, too. She suspended both boys.

I was devastated.

Who suspends a second grader?? This could scar them for life!! They were already struggling! They would end up in jail or drug addicts or worse!! What had I done??

I knew the teacher I was replacing would be unhappy. She loves those kids. And so did I, as it turned out. 

Perspective

I came home feeling like a total failure.

“I almost made it,” I wailed to my neighbor J, relating how I had sent the kids to the front office a mere ten minutes before the end of my six-day adventure.

“No, you *did* make it,” she said. “The boys are the ones who almost made it.”

“But I got them suspended!”

“No,” J said again. “They got themselves suspended.”

Oh. Right.

Last night, I dug out my books on codependency, a mindset which among other things causes you to think that you know what’s best for everyone else and that you can “save” everyone and are responsible for doing so.

“My God, I’m completely codependent with second-grade boys,” I said to a friend. “I just felt so powerless to help them.”

“You did help them,” she said. “You kept them safe, and you taught them that there are consequences for their actions. You gave them time to think.”

Thank the Lord that I have time to think, too.

I need some distance and perspective. And if I’m going to teach, I need some much stronger emotional boundaries.

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