"Leave every hope behind you, you who enter."
—Inferno, Canto III, Dante, trans. Seamus Heaney
It’s dark. The phone is ringing. You know why the phone is ringing. You want the phone to ring—you need the phone to ring—yet you dread what you will hear when you lift the receiver.
First there is the silence of one who is blindfolded, anticipating the report of rifles. You feel it rip into you before you hear it:
This is the Happytown Unified School District Substitute Calling System, calling for....
You hear your own prerecorded voice announce your name. You sound discouraged.
You came to this career in mid-life. You founded your decision on the marshy soil of education propaganda, news articles, and popular opinion:
You despise the use of print bullets.
- The elementary teaching profession wants more men—especially older men
- The educational system values life experience
- You’ll be in demand; you will have no difficulty finding a fulltime job.
You have been deceived, and have taken a wrong turn. Still, your wife has supported you—both financially and emotionally—in your pursuit of what you thought to be a worthy career. She has been maligned by the same deceptive forces, yet continues to rise above the forces and believe in your integrity. She is the bright spot.
You arrive to your assignment early. The parking lot is already overflowing with bulbous, asymmetrical monstrosities. You park in a place marked Staff, next to an enormous SUV, bearing the license plate: TCHR© KIDZ. A woman wearing an orange safety vest approaches and tells you not to park there. "It’s reserved for the teachers," she says, as if addressing a seven-year-old. You sheepishly return to your car and are about to leave the lot when reason takes hold of you and you realize you have every right to park in the staff parking. You move your car to a different staff-parking slot. The woman in the orange vest looks confused but leaves you alone.
Above the office entrance is a banner:
WALTER L. HADDY ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
WHERE NO CHILD IS LEFT BEHIND
You enter the office and the secretary barks: "You a sub?"
You tell her you are a fully-credentialed teacher. You say you are here to substitute teach for (you look at your scrap of paper) Ms. Bowl.
"Mrs. Ball," the secretary emends. "Sub’s here," she shouts toward the principal’s office.
From behind the principal’s door a corrosive voice calls, "Who’s out?"
"Betty," says the secretary.
"What’s the problem?"
"Don’t know," the secretary says, then turns to you and echoes, "What’s the problem?"
You tell her you are not privy to such information.
She glares at you, hands you a key, and says, "Room H9. Go out that door."
You start to exit.
"Not that door; that door."
As you go through that door, you hear the secretary mumble "subs," followed by other low terms.
The way out leads through the teachers' lounge. Odors of burning plastic and food prevail in the lounge. Pillaged boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts are everywhere, with a few abandoned carcasses bleeding jelly on Halloween party napkins. You’re startled by a Fellini face—corpulent and spackled with powdered sugar—commanding you to "Eat one!"
You say you never touch them.
The face says, "You’re smart."
You continue on your way.
The classroom is a structure separate from the original buildings. It is euphemistically referred to as a "modular." You grew up calling such structures "temporary" or "portable," but these buildings aren’t going anywhere.
You open the door and fumble for the lights. There is a foul odor: a legacy of poor hygiene—the sources of which are already knocking at the door. You ignore the knocks. You familiarize yourself with the room and the teacher’s printed instructions.
Thank you so very much for being my sub. Their really a sweet bunch of kids just a little chatty.
The rest of the instructions are presented in bullets, bordered by computer clip art: apples infested with grinning worms, chalkboards filled with backward letters and stick people, and a smiley face wearing a mortarboard. Mrs. Ball ends her instructions by saying she hopes you have a super-fantastic day, and reminds you that There really good kids just a little chatty. There is a hand-drawn smiley face under the word "chatty."
You review the ballistic instructions a few times. Your duties are mostly the proctoring of quizzes—"Test-Prep" quizzes, designed to "enrich and improve test scores" (i.e. teach the rote art of bubbling in the "most correct" answers on standardized state tests, thereby increasing job security—for teachers and administrators—through upward surges on statistical bar graphs). You will also teach a science lesson on astronomy, then finish the day with a Disney video. You look forward to teaching astronomy.
The knocking at the door has become more aggressive. Experience tells you to continue to ignore the disturbance and to further investigate your surroundings.
The room has a mini-refrigerator and a microwave. On top of the mini-refrigerator is a miniature forest of empty calories: Gummy Bears, Snickers, Jolly Ranchers, Hershey’s Kisses, and Ding-Dongs. Next to the Ding-Dongs is a book by Shel Silverstein: The Giving Tree.
Some children are peering in through the window. They look fish-like behind the glass: like an aquarium of piranha.
"It’s a sub," a shrill voice announces. The water churns in the aquarium. You pretend not to notice. You stroll around the room, looking at wall displays and bulletin boards. There is a laminated diagram ("Graphic Organizer") of a hamburger on one wall. The hamburger is used as a metaphor to explain the structure of an essay or paragraph: the top bun is the thesis or topic statement; the lettuce, tomatoes, and other condiments are the "juicy details;" the bottom bun is the conclusion. You assume the ground beef represents the body of an essay. The hamburger has a silly anthropomorphic smile on its top bun face. Next to the burger is a bulletin board with the heading, "OUR BEST WRITERS," under which reports on Ben Franklin, Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Betsy Ross, and George Washington are posted. As you read the reports, you become aware of the fact that many of the students share Mrs. Ball’s confusion with homophones and punctuation. You also notice the trend (you’ve seen this elsewhere) of beginning a paper with a question: "Have you ever fly a kite in a rainstorm?" (Verb tense is hit or miss.) This "question" device falls under the category of "Grabbers" or "Hooks." You read on and conclude that plagiarism is either condoned or else (somehow) goes unnoticed.
A piercing noise—more like a monstrous clarinet than a bell—blares from a loudspeaker. You go to meet the lines in front of the building.
The students are fifth graders; pop culture has already taken most of them under its leathery wings. The boys have a nearly unanimous agreement for Flame Shirts and spiked hairdos. Most of the girls wear flamboyant fingernail polish and tote notebooks covered with photographs of "Hip-Hop Stars."
"You the sub?" a boy says, testing your will.
You say you are a teacher, substituting for Mrs. Ball. You tell him to raise his hand if he has a question or comment.
He raises his hand (you knew he would).
Yes? you say.
"How old are you?"
He’s going for blood. Common sense reminds you, you are dealing with children. You tell the students to enter the classroom: quietly.
The children storm the room as if auditioning for a crowd scene from The Last Days of Pompeii.
Please be quiet, you say.
You use terraced dynamics until you reach the top level of a shout. They get the idea.
A girl in the front row raises her hand. "Next time use the bell," she says. "It works." She points to a hand-bell on the podium. You scan the teacher’s disciplinary instructions and are confronted by the shade of B.F. Skinner:
- Use hand-bell for an attention getter when they get chatty.
- Reward them with candy for very good behavior.
- Turn their behavior card to next color if their bad.
You thank the girl, but tell her they are old enough to know how to behave without a bell being rung.
The boy who asked your age raises his hand.
"If we’re good, you give us candy. That’s what Mrs. Ball does."
You tell him you are not Mrs. Ball. There will be no candy today.
"That sucks," he says.
You ask his name.
"Dylan: spelled D-i-l-l-o-n. There’re two Dylans in the class. I’m Dillon P."
Dillon P just lost his recess.
After attendance and the Pledge of Allegiance, you hand out the first of the "Test Prep" quizzes. This is the religion of the Modern Educational System. The children act accordingly, with heads bowed and rapt silence.
Between quizzes you intercept a note being passed by Dillon P. The note includes the words, "bubes" and "peenus." His spelling concerns you, but you’re unable to address the problem.
You are feeling rather low by lunchtime. You stay in the room (doors locked) and eat your lunch: a peanut butter sandwich and apple juice. You find a note from your wife, and your spirits are lifted.
After lunch, you are finally allowed to teach. For the astronomy lesson you write on the board the order of planets in relation to the sun. You introduce the students to the two categories of planets: terrestrial (Earthlike, rocky) and Jovian (Jupiterlike, gaseous). Past experience prepares you for the laughter following the words "Uranus" and "gaseous."
Okay...okay, you say, let it out (as soon as you say it, you realize the mistake in your response). You complete the activity with a question and answer session. You also allow the students to ask their own questions. They want to know about extra-terrestrials. A few of them, as expected, ask questions about Uranus.
The final activity scheduled for the day is a Disney video: Finding Nemo. You put the video in the machine, but the television returns only white noise and snow. The children become restless and loud. You remove the tape and try to give the impression you know what you’re doing. While you’re struggling with the situation, an unnatural silence suddenly fills the room. You turn round and see a woman resembling a Mrs. Butterworth decanter, standing in the center of the room. She is low to the ground and has no whites to her eyes.
"Hellooo, Mrs. Cornooo," the class says with one voice.
"Good afternoon class," Mrs. Corno replies, without acknowledging your presence. "Have you been behaving yourselves?
"Yeees, Mrs. Cornooo."
"Now remember: you should always behave for a teacher—even if it’s a sub."
You announce that you are a fully-credentialed teacher.
Mrs. Corno stares at you with glassy dead trout eyes and says, "Are you retired?" She smirks.
You say you are beginning a new career.
Her smirk freezes. She leaves the room.
You feel humiliated. "If he’s so hotsy-totsy," you imagine her thinking, "why doesn’t he have a regular teaching position?"
You resume combat with the VCR. The children return to their pre-principal "chattiness." This continues until the machine and noise-level exhausts you.
The VCR isn’t going to work, you say in a normal voice.
The class is purposely oblivious.
"Use the bell," says the girl near the front. "Really. Use the bell—it works."
You display an Oliver Hardy slow burn, then unleash your full-throttle voice:
THE VCR DOESN’T WORK. AND THIS TALKING IS GOING TO STOP RIGHT NOW.
The class is stunned and, for the moment, silent. Then trickles of complaints crescendo until you are forced once more to raise your voice. You tell them to raise their hands if they have anything to say. You acknowledge some of the raised hands.
"If we’re good, will you give us candy?"
"Can we play hangman?"
"Can we have free-play?"
We are going to learn a song, you say.
There are moans and mock singing with hip-hop gesticulations.
In German, you say.
You had earlier noticed a battered guitar in a corner. You ask a student to fetch it for you. The guitar is missing two strings—the B and high E. You get the idea to tune it in fifths, like an octave mandolin. The strings are dead, but will suffice for the situation.
The song, in English, you say, is "My Hat it Has Three Corners." In German: "Mein Hut er Hat Drei Ecken." You teach them the words in English and German. They sing the song, alternating languages. Their faces change: they are children enamoured by something that is its own reward. This is the first time today you feel as if you’ve accomplished something as a teacher. But how long will the experience stay with them? Tomorrow they will return to response bells and candy bribes. They’ll continue to perform, as conditioned, for the illusion of "accountability." Tomorrow you will be out of their lives and unable to do anything for them: you will leave them behind.
The loudspeaker sounds the end of day.
The students you were teaching today are in the fifth grade, and most of them never look up at the sky. Several of the students referred to the sun as a planet. It’s a star, you said. The sun is a star. But in spite of your efforts, the concept (a solar system) did not sink in. When you asked one boy to describe the planetary orbits, he placed the earth at the center.
In the parking lot, you look up. The clouds are dense and gray, like the vault of a cavern. There is a small opening in the clouds, allowing a portion of the sun to show. The sun reminds you of constancy and change. The sun is a star.
©2005 by Timothy Reilly