Week of Substitute Teaching Highlights

In which Carrie goes where no person has gone before to sing a David Bowie song …..

I am not an evil teacher just because I confiscated a note beheld by a seventh grade boy which read : I still love you.  I recall him bent over the tattered notebook paper like it was the map to the Holy Grail.  He didn’t ask for it back, perhaps out of fear of humiliation for something so important as his love and the protection of his beloved.

I didn’t do anything to draw attention to it, but secretly rejoiced at this early initiation to love of another which befalls all of us at some early age.  Mine happened in kindergarten. His name was Timmy.  There was a classroom culture there at Deer Creek Elementary in Nevada City, California where teachers encouraged us young citizens to work to understand each other by way of student-to-student conference.  We sat outside the room, Indian style. I scolded Timmy with a sheepish mien, “You have to like everybody … not just some people.”

 I was trying to tell him to treat all friends equally, but what I probably meant was: love me.

Thirty years later I have had and lost plenty of love, but when I walk through the halls of schools I forget to realize that not only do these people care about other people—orbiting them or being orbited around—but there is a vast perplexity among all people regarding what makes up relationships.  “Only connect” says E.M. Forster, as though it is possible to do otherwise, if even in our own minds only.
It is difficult to point to the best part of my week.  The first two days I taught Humanities to sixth graders, and the last three days, moon phases for eighth and resource awareness to seventh.  Avoiding hyperbole, I’d roughly estimate I made 30 micro-connections per day and four or five substantial ones.   What follows are a few things I wish to remember, and remember, and remember.  To fuel the love in times of frail forgetfulness.
  • There was the struggling student with a sleepy fawnlike posture and temperament, who latched on to the concepts of Fattitude and Longitude in a way guaranteed to be remembered for the rest of her life.
  • The dramatic reading of The Lorax, which no one guessed of thirteen Dr. Seuss books as the one banned by California and Oregon censors.  The discussions leading to it—student contributions to justify why some of the others might be seen as dangerous for reasons of racism, bullying, or just saying mean words—and after—the surprise and shock that such a enlightened message found in The Lorax would earn a cut from school boards everywhere for its anti-conservation implications—were instances of naive philosophizing.  Puzzling, questions, insights, were demonstrated collectively by this next generation of stewards of the new environmentalism status quo.  These students saw the Once-ler change his greedy little mind, but they saw, also, the damage had been done.  I believe they might have felt the thrill of superiority, from getting it in the end.
  • The murder of girls standing by the door a minute before class ended—insecure with their own inner demons—commenting on the strangeness of my eye.
It’s weird when she looks at you.
 “Yeah, it’s kinda spooky.
They were referring to the milky cataract in my left pupil, so I look at one girl and asked, “Were you wondering about my eye?
What.  Me?
Yes, you were talking about my eye.  It is blind.
How did it go blind?”  I had her curiosity there, the other girls had their backs to me and she was on the spot.
Thirty seconds until the bell rang, “It is a sensitive subject and I would rather not talk about it,” I answered,  seriousness as radiant and proud as our moon.
Oh.”  She was very receptive to me the next day, asking for my help with an assignment.
  • I made a few mistakes, too.  I probably lost the chance at amicable relating with one girl forever. But I will try again, extend kindness and perhaps give her the love I assume she needs.  I could relate to her, and her frustration, and the reason she said the eff-word.  I’ve said it plenty of times in my life, under imaginably similar circumstances.  But the empathy doesn’t help the feeling bad.  I’ve learned that when I am hurting inside, or am angry at another, the antidote is extending kindness.  Simple things, when sad, is to give and give and give.  It is easier with strangers and children because I don’t need it to be recognized and appreciated for where in my heart it came from.   This is much harder to do with intimates, or family.  I often don’t “notice” kindness extended to me when I am closed up until days later, upon reflection.  Usually the chance to thank is lost.  Sometimes, though, it can be acknowledged later.  I have bags and bags of these disorganized kindnesses in my closet, arguments against my reasoning that these people don’t like me, or understand me, or are selfishly inattentive to the good sides of me.  I bring them out as an exercise of self-doubt in my memory and the weight given all to often to the “bad horse” rather than the good.
  • The kids are always hungry.  They often make suggestions that I bring them food, or candy (which isn’t food).  One boy with my lunar phases study team suggested on the second day that I should bring them Oreo cookies tomorrow.  When I asked him why, he explained his creative idea: “Because we’re studying the moon, and Oreos are like the moon.”  Excellent!  I had one of my small explosions which happen a lot when bright ideas from bright minds are in our midst.  I told him that that was actually a really good idea and that I would think about it.  By the time I remembered, I was in my pajamas ready for bed.  But before I went back the next day I pillaged my parents’ pantry and decided to take the two boxes of Ritz crackers with me. (Sorry Mom and Dad.  I did it for love, as you would have, given the situation.)  The boy wasn’t terribly upset they weren’t sweet, fattening things, but some of his classmates were upset I didn’t bring Moonpies (what are those?).
  • One of the groups of moon scientists started asking really interesting questions about relative position and “seeing” the moon’s phases.  I asked them back, “Would the moon have phases if we weren’t here to see them?”  Mixed responses, preceded by thinking silently.  “Yes?” they decided, but only after we considered some basic metaphysical assumptions, drawing on our ideas about animals having minds able to “see” as we do, or not, and our ability to organize the world and explain it with words like “phases.”  More philosophy.  At least that is how I interpret it.
  • The seventh graders have a reputation at this particular school of being bad.  The whole lot of them.  Well, I still have my hopes and have secretly imagined they could, if sent to colonize a planet, and would create a better society than our present ones.  I don’t know why I imagine it that way, but there are a lot of little geniuses there, the silent ones and the—name your pathology—ones.
  • I knew in advance that we would have a guest speaker who would share with us some knowledge about water on our planet and our consumption of it.  I planned for their typical behavior and watched them astound us teachers.  They disproved every negative word I had ever heard or said about them as a class and as individuals, and sparkled for the guest speaker.  That behavior carried over the next day.  I told them out loud that I loved them and that I had a lot of good notes for their teacher.  They, however, were cynical on the effect of the possibility that their teacher would take it to heart.  “She hates us,” several explained to me. Some inner grumbling ensued, but I am glad to know how I feel about them—the enlightened outsider—and that I had so many moments to sing their praises individually and as a class, even on the multiple “Behavior Contract” slips they turn into their teachers each day (some likely for the rest of their life, I’ll add with my own cynicism).  Here they come world, ready or not!
  • The boy who told me I was his new favorite teacher.
  • The half hugs.  A year’s supply.  The drawing of a giraffe.
  • The the two girls who confided inner demons, and concerns for their safety to me.
There are many more moments, plenty to populate the mind with a feeling of success and gratitude toward all of the positive traits I saw among these young people.   I crave more time to do my work. I certainly have the energy and motivation.
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