Thursday, September 14, 2017

On B.O., incompetence and new adventures

Photo courtesy of Zoe Rudsill/Flickr 
Last spring, as I was mulling what I would do when the girls went back to school, I thought substitute teaching might be a good option. 

Back then, it was sort of an abstract thought about some abstract time in the near(ish) future. Like, what does one do after staying at home with young children for six years if one doesn't want to return to a traditional 9-to-5 office job or some non-traditional, odd-houred job at a newspaper? If one isn't ready (or interested in?) dealing with after-school care or summer care? 

What does one do? 

Last spring I started to remember how much fun I had as a co-leader for the Teen Takeover staff at my last job and then got to thinking and how much fun I have hanging with kids– nieces and nephews, the girls' friends, etc. And I thought, "hmm teaching." And I submitted a resume and a transcript and three letters of recommendation and various other things. And that was that.

And then summer comes. And it's summer! And there's the pool! And vacation! And sleeping in! And I got to be summer mom! Summer mom is kinda fun (except when she's gritting her teeth because summer kids). It was all splashing around and extra cartoons and all the ice cream and "stop biting your sister."

Summer's over now (obviously). The kids went back to school. I eventually pulled myself up off the kitchen floor after hours of uncontrollable sobbing (OK, actually there wasn't hours of kitchen floor sobbing. It was probably more like hours of wandering the empty rooms of my house thinking about how they used to be noisier– they were still just as messy, but I couldn't bare to do anything about that. Too distraught to clean. You know how it goes.)

I thought about that application. Followed up on some unfinished application business and all the sudden found myself sitting in the orientation for substitute teaching.

That's when it became less of an abstract thought and more of a "OK, this is happening." sort of thought. The feelings of panic started creeping in early. Like when the presenter started talking about what you should do when you weren't left lessons plans. 

What do you do when you don't have plans? Wait. What? 

I started envisioning myself standing in front of a room full of skeptical, petulant-looking teenagers in high school English or a room full of loud, rambunctious second graders. Sweating. There would be all the sweat. With absolutely nothing to say. No idea what should come next. The armpit stains conducting a hostile takeover of the rest of my shirt.

Like, all the sudden I'm going to have anything remotely useful to say about high school English? Like I would even know what second-grade math should be? 

Then she jumped into a conversation about problem students and avoiding power struggles and using all this non-verbal communication and redirecting. Then it was what to do if there's a fight. What to do if you suspect a student has a weapon. What to do if you suspect a child is being abused.

That conversation wrapped up and we calmly moved on to how to use the computer system.

They took my fingerprints and my picture and sent me on my way. 

I got into my car. And promptly decided I was wholly unqualified to be a substitute teacher. 

But my house was still really quiet. Super quiet. So on Monday, I logged on to that computer system and set up my profile. And then on Monday afternoon I got a call.

Did I want to accept a gig as a substitute instructional assistant (IA) at the girl's school on Tuesday? And I thought to myself, "Assistant? I can be a substitute assistant." And I knew my way around the girl's school. So I said yes.

And then panicking commenced. For the next 12 or so hours. Which meant I didn't sleep a whole lot. And then all the sudden it was time to wake up, get dressed and go to school. I was very smelly, I think. But you just keep on taking the next step, right? Sign in. Get the badge. Get the instructions. Go to the room. Introduce yourself. 

As a substitute IA, I mostly got to sit and watch the teachers teach. Which was really helpful. Like going to school, but not having to teach at the school. A pretty sweet deal for someone who was pretty sure they were out of their league. Sometimes I'd listen to a kid read and help them with hard words. I sat with a group of kids as they sorted shapes. I helped kids write numbers and helped others round to the nearest 100. 

Mostly, I marveled at teachers. How they have to impart wisdom on the most abstract of concepts while simultaneously wrangling children who have no interest in waiting for their turn to speak, sitting still or keeping their hands to themselves. 

How the hell does anyone teach a second grader about the concept of evens and odds while also monitoring the class for unprovoked poking and incessant whispering? When a kid asks the question, "Why is zero even?" How do you even begin to answer that?

"Yeah," I wanted say. "Why is zero even?"

Well. It's because if you have a buddy and each of you have zero M&Ms, you both have the same amount.

Oooooooh. Good call teacher. See. That's why you're the teacher. And I'm just the substitute instructional assistant.

That's why. Because you know the way to a child's ears is M&Ms and I have no idea how to explain the concept of zero being even. Up until that moment, I probably hadn't even considered at all whether zero would be even or odd. 

And what do you do when you have a class of third graders and you've wrapped up your lesson on government and there's still 10 minutes left to the end of the day? What do you do with that time? See, I wouldn't know. I'd probably try to make small talk and ask if any of them had seen "Trolls" and start talking about how much I love the part where the spider whispers into Branch's ear during "Sound of Silence" and they would stare at me blankly and wonder why my mouth was moving.

I wouldn't think of playing "would you rather?" 

Asking them whether they'd rather lick a moldy trashcan or the bathroom floor.

(They say bathroom floor).

Whether they would want to sleep in a cemetery or live on a desert island.

(Desert island. Unless you can bring a teddy bear, then cemetery).

Whether they'd rather have a lot of friends or be really famous.

(They picked fame - cuz being a pop star would make you rich. They tell me I have to download the app, so I can pretend to be my own kind of pop star). 

It was all very enlightening. 

I made it through the day. I mean, I didn't smell great. I smelled like a locker room. But luckily, nobody commented. I survived. And it was OK.

So then, when I got a robocall at 5 this morning, asking if I wanted to accept a job as an IA at the high school– half asleep and still delirious from my previous days' half-win, I said, "yes." 

And in I went to school and learned I was going to be working special ed. And I was kind of psyched– because why not?

I survived my second day of substitute teaching, too. Not just the first but the second. Still sweaty mind you. Definitely still clueless. 

But I got to learn about two-perspective drawing and help a student with Down syndrome re-create a city block while listening to her describe her obsession with playing clarinet for the school band. She sat at the table that was the equivalent of the table I would've sat at in my art class years ago– I saw myself in them– quiet and serious– looking for the teacher's approval. Trading inoffensive jokes. High school is the same arrangement of people as it was when I was there. Just with cell phones.

And I got laugh about the fact that it was only Wednesday with a student who was really, really wishing it could be Friday. And while helping a student with basic sight words, I got to marvel at how beautiful all of his work looked–adding little wings to each of his "As" and always outlining each word he was charged with writing in a bright color and its complement. When he'd have to match the uppercase letter to the lower case letter – he drew a yellow line with red polka dots. Each time he used a yellow anything, he added red polka dots. I wondered about it and loved it. Both. His whole worksheet on the word "and" a work of art.

Not much happened in the day. No major revelations or major anythings. Just kids being kids. Just life. Easy as that.

There was no mention of my B.O. or my incompetence. We were all just people going through the school day.

And that has helped tame the monster of fear. Because in the end, all you need to do is say "yes," show up and be willing to help.

And I can do that.

And that's enough for now.


Finally, this song is singing to me today. So I'm sharing it.

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