I’d like to believe I’m tough, tough as nails. That I can handle just about anything, especially related to teenagers. Today I second-guessed myself and a small trickle of doubt stained itself on my psyche.
I’ve recently signed up to sub with the large public school system. It’s the kind of district that if mentioned will incite a severe raise of the eyebrows. After I disclosed my new employer, a family member asked if I had applied for my weapons permit. These are the kinds of schools where metal detectors greet you upon crossing the threshold and where minorities are not the minority. The schools are urban with a capital U-R-B-A-N.
I signed up because I wanted to get my foot in the door. If Big Red and I decide to move closer to the city, this district would work better in terms of the commute. I also believe that getting a permanent job within this particular district might be easier than landing one in the homogonous incestuous who-knows-whom suburbs where I currently work.
And, not to be forgotten, the job I’m currently in the process of interviewing for, belongs to this district. If I’m hired, then it’s a simple lateral shift in paperwork. I thought maybe greasing the tracks would be a good thing.
So yesterday was my first assignment. Because the high school was so far away, a good 25 miles across the morning grid-locked parkway, I left especially early, and as it turned out, arrived way too early at 6:35 am. I sat in my car until 6:50 then walked up the front stairs of the large stone fortress and buzzed the secretary.
I won’t lie, I was nervous as hell. All that kept coming to mind were the films, Dangerous Minds, and Freedom Writers.
I was given my paperwork and the keys to room 114. The room was easy to locate and I had some time to go over whatever it was the teacher had left before the students would arrive. Thankfully the teacher had planned his absence and left some worksheets, which clearly weren’t enough to occupy 44 minutes of class time, but it was something. A substitute’s worst nightmare is arriving and finding nothing.
When the bell rang, the students did not pour in, but rather trickled. Homeroom showed a roster of about 20 students; 10 actually showed up. The bell rang again and then it was first period. Again, only about 60% of the class showed up. It was a group of girls who were completely silent the entire period, whether they were actually working, sleeping or just sitting and staring. I think maybe two actually did the assignment. It was an uneventful quiet period and I thought to myself, I have nothing to worry about. Wrong.
As the day progressed, so did the noise level, rudeness and obnoxious qualities of the students. They arrived with earphone buds in their ears, mp3 players out in the open, and cell phones in hand. They made calls, texted and listened to the music stored on their phones at decibels loud enough to entertain the entire classroom. There was dancing and hair-doing, screaming and laughter and contests of balled paperwork being tossed into the trashcan. They tumbled into the classroom with everything they shouldn’t have had with them, and nothing they needed. Most of them did not bring any kind of backpack or binder, let alone paper or something with which to write.
I made a decision very early on that I would not contest their use of contraband electronics. I know that as a substitute I’m nothing to these students, and why should I be? I swoop in for a single day, they see me for 44 minutes and then poof, I’m out of their lives. I hold no authority in their eyes and I wasn’t about to try and make them see that I was in fact in charge. Think whatever you’d like of me, but there are some battles that aren’t worth fighting and I was fine with my decision. As long as no one was rowdy, then let the music play!
During one of the morning periods, a group of loud boys were talking and screaming about something to do with a “f*cking jungle bunny.” I looked up when I heard that and a student near me looked up at the same time. She gave me a shy smile and asked if that kind of language bothered me. I told her that I didn’t care for it, but the conversation was amongst the boys and they were not directing their comments towards anyone outside their group. She explained she was new to this school and said it was difficult to get used to how loud it was. She actually asked for help on the poem they were supposed to be answering questions about and it was nice to see that someone actually cared about their work.
Throughout the day, random students would walk in, yell something to one of their friends, then disappear. Did I question this? Nope. I completely ignored it. No one was getting hurt, so everything was copasetic.
I was subbing for an English teacher, but the room clearly used to house science classes. The back wall stretched with built-in cabinets, the kind with the glass front doors that revealed test tubes, beakers, jars of all sizes, funnels; the kinds of things you see in chemistry classes. Way in the back of the room I spotted a small five-shelf cardboard Scholastic book display. I checked it out and quickly surmised that there were no more than about 20 books to choose from, some of which were duplicate copies of each other. I thought of my own classroom library buried somewhere in the bowels of our storage unit, of the books I longed to be able to display once again in a classroom of my own. I know I own easily 300, all of which I’ve purchased or donated from my own personal collection over the years. I wondered why this teacher had so few. It was an English class, and all the English teachers I’ve known have always had a decent classroom library. Was it because all those teachers I knew were women (with the exception of a few good men)? Was it because he didn’t have the money and if he did, did he not want to spend it on his students? Maybe the students don’t care and he knows that so he says, to hell with it.
At some point during the day I texted Big Red and let him know that urban really meant urban. His text back to me was, “You don’t like it down there either?” I was instantly offended and guarded. What was that supposed to mean? But he was right. The suburbs where I’ve been working have been too suburban, and now this new venture seems too urban. Truth be told, I was a little scared thinking about it all.
Where do I belong? I feel like what I’ve seen has been two extremely polar opposite ends of the teaching spectrum. I will say this: I cannot give my one urban experience a fair shake. As a sub I have no connection with students. What if I had started the year with them? There would be some kind of underlying relationship, and dare I say it - respect, in place. I would stand a chance as their teacher; as a sub, I’m completely defenseless.
So no, I have not given up on an urban adventure. It would be immensely challenging, no doubt, and yes, that scares me. Teaching in the suburbs would be a little more boring, but it would be easier on many levels. What I need is the job for which I’m interviewing. It belongs to this large public school district, but it’s a public “apply and get into” school. Students who attend will so because they want to be there for the math and sciences. My guess it that the level of academic motivation will be higher than what I encountered yesterday. It would be urban, but not in a way that would be distracting.
It’s my golden ticket and I'm channeling every positive cell in my body, mind and soul. I need this job. I want this job. It belongs to me.