Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The substitute's day from hell

Greetings from Sky, Lynne and Winnie!  Fall is in full swing and our lives are approaching normalcy, well, getting closer anyway, sort of like those mathematical asymptotes that you never quite reach, even if you go out to infinity...

Lynne is working home health in Skagit County, south of Bellingham.  She is still going through orientation (longest orientation she has ever had).  We continue to reclaim our house, fixing gutters, getting rid of the burgundy trim color, putting a chimney cap on, and installing a GE Advantium microwave/oven combination over the stove.  Mounting the 75 lb. Advantium five feet off the floor over the stove required ingenuity.  Here we are at our creative best, stacking cookbooks up on the counter, and plying up the Advantium to slip another cookbook in on one side, then the other, until it was raised high enough to be tilted onto its frame.  This is what we do for fun on Friday nights.

The phrase "I never imagined that I'd be..." ran through my mind frequently in the last year, as we planned our move from Kentucky to Washington state.  We were cutting loose from our life as we had known it in  Lexington for 33 years, venturing into a new space. I considered that having opened up this Pandora's box, our story might have a different ending than even we had envisioned.  I had pictured something along such glamorous lines as, "I never imagined that...I'd be living in Hawaii", or "I never imagined that...I'd be on TV."  In fact, life is so much more mundane, and so the sentence ends on a different note. Here I am, thank you God,  living in the the land of bay, sea and mountains, ...working as a substitute teacher.  I never imagined having a career as a substitute.

Thursday, for example, was the substitute day from hell.  First, I was substituting for God, or the closest thing to him in middle school: the basketball coach.  According to the many yellowed newspaper articles taped to the walls, he has dedicated the last 32 years of his life to his students.  His worn and stained teacher chair must have been the original; and the decor of the classroom consisted mostly of hand drawn posters from his students, all tributes to him. Later in the day, I learned that he spends a good portion of every class, like half of it, discussing life with his students. That put me at a distinct disadvantage because I tried to follow his lesson plans, which consisted of a stack of worksheets about the Pythagorean theorem, for four class periods.  Then, fifth (and last) period, I was to discuss marajuana with his Life Skills class.  For that class, he left me a true/false quiz and a video from 1995 to show.

The kids out here have read the same book about torturing substitutes that they read when I was in middle school in New Jersey, "lo these many years."   If you haven't faced a classroom of 25 middle school kids, as a substitute, then you might not understand.  So let me paint the picture.  The students walk in.  They see me and figure out that they have a substitute.  50% of the kids immediately decide that its a day off and start wandering around the room and goofing with their friends.  The rest of the kids go into survival mode, trying to distance themselves from the imminent disaster by such tactics as putting their head on their desk, slumping down in their chairs and staring at the desktop, or asking politely to be excused to go to the bathroom.  Their goal is not to be an object of such diverse activities as spitballs, flying rubber bands, other kids stealing their homework, or worse yet, other kids stealing their seat.  In general, they are avoiding human contact, a true challenge in a 20 by 30 ft room with 27 people in it, only one of whom is an adult. 

The teacher that I was subbing for loved the kids so much that he didn't have a seating chart.  As in, the kids could sit wherever they wanted to, and also as in, I had no reliable way to know their names. Taking attendance is an act of random guessing, as some kids answer twice and some, not at all.  OK, I am facing this class of strangers and I start to review the pythagorean theorem (Do you remember it?  a squared + b squared = c squared, a technique to find the length of any side of a right triangle if you know the length of the other two sides.)  As I go around the room asking them to help me out and leading them through these problems, many of them suddenly can't remember how to multiply, let alone how to square a number.  We haven't even gotten to the part of "what in the world is a square root", or a hypotenuse.  Plus, every time I turned to write something on the board, someone in the back of the class meowed. A group of  3 kids in the front row are functional and are racing  far ahead of me, having done half of the worksheet already. About five kids have never heard of a triangle, and the rest are still searching for a pencil.

I plough on.  I am questioning the class about this Pythagorean theorem stuff, and I'm getting occasional intelligent answers.  We review a few problems, we talk about what a right triangle is, we talk about 90 degree angles, and I give them the rest of the time to complete the worksheet. I circulate the room, cajoling the reluctant to get started, reminding students to turn around to the front, and trying to explain the next problem to a truly lost student. The waiting list to go to the bathroom is getting longer.  The noise level as the students "work together" is getting louder.  The hands on the clock are getting slower.  The class is 65 minutes long, approximately 50 minutes longer than the attention span of most human beings.  My goal is to keep them alive until the bell rings, which it finally does.  The kids file out.  A new batch swarms in.

One truly delightful aspect of subbing is that I can decide not to work if I want to.  I have had some real bouts with loneliness, but I've also found some pearls in the community. I am now part of a really terrific writing group at the Unitarian church.  Unlike the challenges of fitting in to a reasonably literate group at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, where I worried about offending people by writing about my personal life as a lesbian, here I among people who have risked far more and travelled far wider, than I.  Its a great way to connect with writers, and I treasure it.  I am a little daunted by their accomplishments, but its all good for me.  I am also taking a video documentary class, and we are having a delightful, if somewhat bumbling, time creating a short documentary about the Pickford Cinema  The Pickford is Bellingham's version of an art film center, showing the same broad range of films as does the Kentucky Theater, as well as sponsoring local documentary showings, local student film festivals, outdoor cinema, LGBT film festivals, etc. Film is much more of a group project than radio is, which suits me fine.  I am working with some really interesting people, most younger than I am. Through doing interviews, I am meeting the leaders of the film community.  Now this is fun!

We take Winnie to walk on the many trails near our house, and down to a lakeside park that is over the hill from us.  Her phobias keep her from enjoying them completely (sigh), since she is afraid of the spooky woods with all those tall trees and afraid other dogs when they appear in  groups.  If she sees the sign "Dog Off Leash Area", she starts drooling (a sign of stress). Her favorite place so far is the place where we store our RV, which is out in the country and fenced in, so she can run free by herself.  She misses her dog friends Canyon and Mark in Kentucky, but she has made friends with the kids across the street, and a neighbor who gives her dog biscuits every time we stop by.

I do love hearing from you, so thanks for your emails and comments.  I hope your fall is full of apples and red maple leaves!



No comments:

Post a Comment