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The Humbling of a Substitute Teacher

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The little girl is cute as can be. She has a button of a nose that she wrinkles up when you say it’s time for math, and her coarse black hair is braided into unwieldy pigtails that spring out from the sides of her head. Right now, her mouth is open in a little o and she is looking at you as if you are very dangerous indeed. Perhaps a psychopath.

And you are acting like one. You are bending over and yelling into her little face at the top of your lungs, “I don’t care whose job it is, you are doing it and you are doing it now! I am sick of this!”

Suddenly all the children in the class are busily stacking their chairs as if they do this every afternoon, which they do not. It’s why your back has gone out of whack and you’ve been gobbling Advil for two days and are unable to chase wayward children down the hall when you tell them they can’t go to the water fountain but they go anyway. Because you end every day by stacking twenty chairs and then stooping and stooping and stooping, gathering scissors and crayons and water bottles and abandoned spelling worksheets and all the detritus of the day which other teachers somehow manage to have their children pick up, but you can not.

This is why I am yelling at the cute little girl. I am in pain. The teacher for whom I was supposed to sub two days has shingles and this is day five with her unruly class. (It has been confirmed by several teachers that this is one of the toughest classes in the school, and I am highly relieved to hear this.) It is fifteen minutes before dismissal, the end of the day so close I can smell it, and this little girl has blurted out the last of one too many “nos,” one too many “it’s not my jobs,” and one too many “but our teacher lets us do a, b, or c.”

True, the girl has been acting up and getting worse all week, aligning herself with the constantly trying second grade boys. But she has not been responsible for most of the week’s trouble in this, my first eye-opening week of substitute teaching.

Tomorrow I will apologize to her in front of the class. To show them how grownups who are not psychopaths behave.

I FORGOT

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Instinctive Terror: Day One in the Classroom

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INSTINCTIVE TERROR: DAY ONE IN THE CLASSROOM

“That one is going to be my problem, isn’t he?” I was watching a little boy with a blue striped shirt and vibrant green eyes flit about the classroom, an aura of mischief encircling him.

“Oh, good,” said the teacher who was mentoring me. “You’ve got the instinct.”

The instinct to recognize trouble? But then what?

“You’ll be great,” she says. “It’s just classroom management.”

JUST CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT?

I don’t know anything about classroom management! Wait, you’re not leaving me alone with these kids, are you??

New Beginnings

Tomorrow is my first day as a substitute teacher. I spent a day of my own time getting to know the teacher and the class last week. The teacher directed me to some websites which I’ve been studying as if my life depends on it.

I’ve memorized some of the material. I’m to watch out for:

  • Shifting in seat
  • Opening and closing fists
  • Drumming on desk with fists
  • Slumping shoulders
  • Crossing arms against chest
  • Trouble making eye contact

“This child may become defiant. Intervene early.”

What?? A defiant second grader? Then what do I do?

“Don’t expect that you can reason with the child or make an emotional appeal to get them to behave.”

Oh, OK.

Wait, if you can’t use reason or emotion, what do you do?

“Stay calm. Take deep breaths.”

OK, now I feel like I’m entering a hostage situation. Which is about right. Six and half hours trapped in the classroom. Only I’m not being held hostage. I’m in charge. God help us.

Something else I have memorized:

When confronted with defiance:

  • Be brief. Avoid lectures and sarcasm.
  • Speak in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.
  • Use short, direct statements.
  • Don’t ask questions (unless you will accept any answer).
  • Keep your body language neutral.

Stop that. Stop that now.

Do not do that.

I am calm.

Stop doing that!

STOP NOW!!

This is going to take more than instinct.

More to come, if I survive . . .

Highly Impractical and Completely Unanticipated

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This December I’ll be earning my Masters in Writing, a highly impractical and completely unanticipated happenstance. I am, shall we say, beyond college age.

graduation cap short tassle gold

My thesis has obliterated my actual life. Communication with normal people is out of the question. I went to a party on Sunday and the only topics of conversation I could conjure up were grammar rules and formatting templates. I think I had better stick with other thesis students for the time being.

I’m currently writing this post to avoid doing footnotes. My nails are bitten to little nubs, there are colorful life forms growing on the dishes in my sink, and my butt is numb from sitting at my computer.

In the words of David Byrne  and the Talking Heads:

“You may ask yourself, well — how did I get here?”

Good question.

As with most worthwhile endeavors, there was some loss and letting go involved before new life could take root. A couple of years ago, my world got weird when I lost my mother to the Great Beyond, my brother to mental illness, and my job to burn-out.

I was adrift, and life held nothing but questions.

Embracing the Counterintuitive

I began attending workshops at the Bethesda Writer’s Center near my home, hoping that writing might be therapeutic and perhaps even unleash new energy and indicate a new life direction. I filled journal after journal. Fortunately, I had a decent savings account, but I occasionally worried about what was next. Freelance writing, after all, is hardly a lucrative pursuit, especially if it’s primarily of the angst-filled, navel-gazing variety.

Then one day, a young man read a sentence in our workshop.  His name was Robert, and his sentence had something to do with a soccer game and a boy leaping into the air. It was beautiful. Magical. I saw that boy leaping into the air. I heard the smack of the ball.

Soccer Player Kicking A Soccer Ball Clip Art

“Where did you learn to write like that?” I asked Robert after class.

“I just graduated from Johns Hopkins in Writing,” he said, his brown eyes shining with pride. “It’s a part-time program with great teachers. You should check it out.”

I sensed that Robert had something I wanted.

Turns out that there was an open house that very weekend, and I went. Over crudités and seltzer water, I fell in love with the idea of becoming a fifty-something “returning student.” It sounded so — what? So risky, so bold, so romantic, so very not me.

I’ll admit it’s counterintuitive to spend your retirement savings on tuition, but I believe in destiny, and this felt like it. Or at least like fun.

I promised myself I would never take a class I wasn’t completely psyched about – the goal was not the degree, it was becoming the very best writer I could be and enjoying every moment. Losing my mother had taught me that life is short. I have kept that promise to myself and am having a blast. Okay, so maybe the writing conference in Florence, Italy was a bit extravagant, but it gave me memories, friends, and writing colleagues for life.

One Step at a Time

A year ago, nearing the end of the Hopkins program and still unsure of my future direction, I took a class in teaching writing. I thought maybe I could teach a workshop at a local community center or a nursing home or maybe even return to the Writer’s Center as a teacher.

Our first assignment was to create a syllabus. Ugh . For a college freshman composition class. Double ugh. (That’s literary language for ewww…) Mindful of having fun, I almost dropped the class but decided to stick it out another week to see what would happen.

I loved it! I created a detailed syllabus based on a topic I’m passionate about, environmental protection. When the professor returned it to me, he said I had gone way beyond what was required by designing field trips, including reading lists, and identifying guest speakers. At the end of the semester, he told me, “You would be a terrific writing teacher, just by being yourself. You absolutely have what it takes.”

It feels too good to be true, and it probably won’t pay much more than freelance writing, but I believe I’m being guided, one counterintuitive step at a time, to a new career doing something that I’m going to love!

I’m not going to do the graduation gown thing. I’m just inviting a few friends to the public reading where they’ll get free wine and cheese and listen to me and my twenty-something colleagues read our work.

Thanks to WordPress for the challenge to write a story backwards, starting with an event in the present and then following the wandering path back to the story’s  inception. And thanks, Robert, wherever you are. It’s been a fun ride.

And now back to my footnotes.

path on peat moor in sepia colour

The Wandering Path

Are You a Grown Up?

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Being a grown-up is an evolving state of mind, a spectrum of attitudes. No matter how old you are, you get to choose how you respond to the things of life.

I think that immaturity can be quite charming, unless I’m dating it. I myself am pretty cute when I’m being immature. Or not.

I’ve always been drawn to the rebellious song from Peter Pan, “I won’t grow up; I’ll never grow up.” I still occasionally jut out my jaw and clench my fists and run a few stanzas of it through my mind before I acquiesce to maturity.

You Can’t Make Me Grow Up!

Today I’m responding to a WordPress challenge  that’s much easier than the one prompting my 1,000 word tome without a Y in it. I won’t say I’m annoyed that most responders wrote less than 200 words, because grown ups don’t get annoyed about things like that. So here is today’s Daily Prompt:

When was the first time you really felt like a grown up (if ever)?

The Mockingbird’s Song

I remember the moment quite clearly. It happened to be my birthday.

I was 24 years old. I’m sure I was tired; working full-time for rent and college tuition, my days starting before 6 a.m. with late classes ending at 9:30 p.m.

I had just survived a grueling two-hour meeting with the deans from all the departments at the University of Maryland. I had designed my own major, and God knows they did not want me to have that kind of flexibility and autonomy without making me suffer for it.

I had argued with the Dean of Biology about whether or not the world had a “population problem” (I said yes) and with the Dean of the Math Department about whether or not I needed calculus. (Truth be told, one of the reasons I designed my own major was to escape those dreaded math courses!)

Understanding Mathematics: From Counting to Calculus   -             By: Keith Kressin

Nooooo!!!!

But I had persevered. My program — the first of its kind at the school — had been approved. It’s hard to believe now that “Environmental Studies” was a unique major in 1979, but there you have it.Very few students bothered to pursue the option of designing a separate major, but I had done it. All by myself.

I sat under a blooming dogwood tree on the mall at Maryland and wept tears of joy. On the branch above me, a mockingbird sang as if his breast would burst. I knew the feeling.

I was a competent grown up, I had choices, and nothing could stop me now. I had arrived.

Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottis

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Maturity

Of course, I wasn’t all grown up, and I have displayed some of my most immature behavior in the years since that day under the dogwood. I’ve done some damage to my psyche and to the psyche of others.

Perhaps you have, too. I’ve noticed that a lot of people come to my website by way of Google searches about shame or guilt.

For what it’s worth, I recently came across this checklist of the attributes of maturity. See what you think:

  • Knowing myself.
  • Asking for help when I need it and acting on my own when I don’t.
  • Admitting when I’m wrong and making amends.
  • Accepting love from others, even if I’m having a tough time loving myself.
  • Recognizing that I always have choices and taking responsibility for the ones I make.
  • Seeing that life is a blessing.
  • Having an opinion without insisting that others share it.
  • Forgiving myself and others.
  • Recognizing my shortcomings and my strengths.
  • Having the courage to live one day at a time.
  • Acknowledging that my needs are my responsibility.
  • Caring for people without having to take care of them.
  • Accepting that I’ll never be finished – I’ll always be a work-in-progress.

Agree? Disagree? How do you measure up?

Mockingbird and Dogwood photos courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife

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