by M. N. Kollar
Stand up straight. Smile but not too big. Hands steady and calmly clasped in front of me. Wait for the students to settle. Oh yeah, and somehow hold back the rivers of sweat about to roll down my forehead and pits. I remind myself that any day I don’t run screaming out of the classroom is a victory.
Every day is the first day of school when you are a substitute teacher. I started out anxious to fill little minds and touch little hearts and ended up wanting to push myself into a locker for the whole day.
When they were in a state of what passed for ‘settled,’ I handed out the blank sheets of paper. The teacher had left a list of essay questions to be chosen from and I selected what I hoped would be a fun easy one and wrote it on the board. Those blank sheets, those cold stares, those snickers from the back of the class.
This is high school. I didn’t even sign up for high school jobs, this was one of those pleading phone calls at the last minute that make you feel too guilty not to take. Then my family waved to me like they were sending me off to war.
There he was, my Waterloo. A gang member, maybe, but definitely a tough guy. He walked away from the desk and the sheet of paper and proceeded to sit at another desk and talk to a friend.
My husband looked at me with pain in his eyes and reminded me that high school kids can be mean. I lied to him and told him that I didn’t care, I’ve been toughened up by having a teen aged daughter.
I considered just letting that kid do what he wanted to do. I considered playing it safe and just making it through the day. I considered what it would be like to challenge him and lose. I wiggled my toes in my ‘teacher shoes.’ How I decided to walk over to that new desk and gently lay a crisp blank sheet of paper in front of that kid, who was at least a head taller than me and outweighed my by twenty pounds, I can’t explain. I just did it. Probably not the bravest thing I’ve ever done in my life but pretty darn close.
My oldest, the aforementioned daughter, offered me good advice about not trying to act too cool because teens see right through this and don’t appreciate it. “Besides,” she whispered, waving her hand from side to side at throat level, “you are not cool.”
I wasn’t prepared for a fight or even an argument but I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I received; compliance. Well, maybe it was just indifference but it was good enough! He and the rest of the class accepted my instruction about what was to be written on the blank sheet without much trouble. The assignment was to write an essay about wishes; anything you could wish for. Simple. Heartbreaking. Uplifting. Some could not break free of their bonds and wished for cell phones and sneakers. Some asked me what a trip to Alaska or Paris might be like. I referenced the Aurora Borealis and sitting in cafes. We talked. We laughed. We dreamed.
My oldest son, wise beyond his years but not eager to voice his opinion, just hugged me a little tighter when he heard I was heading to a high school.
I was not cool but I did actually know some stuff. When one of them asked me how to spell environment, I remarked that it was a tricky word and that I always pronounced it ‘environ-ment’ in my head when spelling it to help me get it right. For whatever reason, I was called in to corroborate that a tomato was indeed a fruit. ‘Tough Guy’ asked me about where I lived and was it nice and what were my kids like. I talked WITH him and the others. I didn’t talk AT them or DOWN to them.
My youngest had no idea about the treacherous water Mom was about to be thrown into but he could feel the icy winds of fear blowing around the family. He made sure I had an orange with me.
My biggest surprise came at the end of the class. Since we did officially make it through the assigned task, I set about drawing picture riddles on the board as a treat. I wasn’t sure if they were too old for this type of thing because I usually sub in elementary school and do not have a high school ‘bag o’ tricks.’ It turned out that the class enjoyed the riddles immensely and were fully engaged. Some of the kids even began to share some of their own visual riddles.
What surprised and amazed me was when one boy, clearly neuroatypical and with a severe speech impediment, drew something on the board and began to talk about it. The other kids in no way ignored him, brushed him aside, belittled his efforts or displayed any of the attitudes I would have expected. I watched as they patiently tried to make sense of what he drew and spoke. They put their full efforts into participating with him. The way they treated him just melted and reshaped my heart. I was blown away. I was humbled. What I would have missed out on if I had played it safe and just tried to make it through the day.
I wondered a lot of things about that day. What if I hadn’t laid down that sheet of paper? What if I had decided the kids were too old for games?
Most school days I do admire teachers, the ones that walk into that classroom day after day and year after year. Admiration, certainly, but not envy. On that day, however, I envied that feeling of connecting with these amazing kids and maybe even making a small difference in their lives. I did manage to teach them something that day; tomatoes are fruit and Alaska and Paris are worth a visit. It may be a cliché, (who cares – many things become clichés because they are true) but I received more than I gave that day and, because of it, I became a better person.