Gently Herding Cats. Or, Gently Herding Rolling-Around Live Grenades. Or, Substitute Teachers Are Humans, Too.
In his mind’s eye, he saw the schoolteacher about to appear in it, lean and evil, waiting to engage whom the Lord would send to conquer him. The boy clamped his teeth together to keep them from chattering. The door opened.
—“The Violent Bear It Away,” by Flannery O’Connor
It’s my first day of being a substitute teacher at the school near where I live for kids who have learning, behavior, and emotional disorders. It’s my first day of being a substitute teacher anywhere.
At this school they also have a school-within-a-school for about fifty 7th to 12th grade kids who have a whole lot more learning, behavior, and emotional disorders than the other kids on campus. The school’s principal, Pam, walked me to a social studies classroom. Her ancient little dog followed us down there; his gross toenails clicked on the floor. Pam said his name was Bodeep and he was dead but he just didn’t know it yet. The dog looked like Winston Churchill.
At this school, I was told, the students get to call the teachers and principals and school dogs by their first names, and even by their nicknames.
Right before Pam shut the door behind me she said sort of funny … Good luck ... and run down the hall if you need anything.
Bodeep yawned. It was hideous.
To get things started, I thought it would be a super great idea to ask the kids where they lived. Break the ice. Get them talking to the new substitute teacher. I really thought it was a super great idea.
I got to a super serious kid named Karl. I asked Karl where he lived.
He said he couldn’t tell me.
I said why.
Karl said he couldn’t tell me because he didn’t want to get tortured and raped.
We were having an open-book test in a 7th grade literature class and Click wasn’t working on it.
He was sitting way in the back corner of the room against the wall and was poking a push pin into the wall and taking it back out and pushing it back into the wall somewhere else on the wall.
I asked Click to get to work on his test, please.
He said I wasn’t Old Burrell, the real teacher.
I asked him what he meant.
He said I wasn’t Old Burrell again, the real teacher.
I said he really needed to explain that one better.
Click said that since I wasn’t Old Burrell then he just wanted to wait and do the work for Old Burrell when Old Burrell came back.
I got up from my desk and went back there and took the push pin away from Click and then I went to the front of the classroom and said I’m Old Burrell for today as well as tomorrow because Old Burrell ain’t here. He’s on a field trip with some other kids at the ocean.
Click rolled his eyes and then he said he can’t wait for Old Burrell to get back.
I almost said—Me, too—but didn’t. Instead I said that the assignment for today was given to you by Old Burrell. That Old Burrell even wrote down on paper what he wanted you all to do while he was at the ocean and I read it to you guys not ten minutes ago.
Click said I like Old Burrell a whole lot better than you. And then he rolled his eyes around some more and made a loud huffing noise.
Another kid in the class said ... Dang, Click.
I walked back over to Old Burrell's desk and called the principal of the school, Lurlene, from the phone on the desk and said I’d like to bring Click to see you. He’s in trouble.
Lurlene said come on.
I brought Click over to her office and she said both of you sit down.
While Butch was taking his open-book test, he started making fart noises with his lips.
I let him make the fart noises for a while without saying anything.
He kept making the fart noises ... for a long time.
I finally walked up to the front of the room and asked Butch if he needed some attention.
He looked at me like he didn’t know what I was talking about. But at least that made him stop making those gross fart noises.
I said did you know that when kids make noises when they’re supposed to be quiet that what they’re actually doing is screaming for attention? I said I read that somewhere. Or like people who drive real slow in the left lane of the highway. They’re just screaming for attention.
Butch looked at me like I was a circus freak.
On a Monday I didn’t wear my glasses but on Tuesday I did. On Tuesday Winthorp said are you wearing your glasses for emphasis?
PARKER and HALEY
Parker asked can I go get a drink of water.
I said I don’t know, can you? And then I laughed extremely loudly.
Then Haley and Parker and I got into a big long discussion about the fantastic grammatical conundrums of that question. Haley said that they used to know to ask a teacher may I get a drink of water but as they got older they started asking can I get a drink of water again.
For a few minutes Parker and Haley shut up and did their work.
Then Parker asked me may I go to the bathroom.
And then I said I don’t know, may you? And then I laughed extremely loudly again. Very extremely loudly.
Haley said to me, Please stop. You’re scaring me.
THE MIDDLE SCHOOL
On my first morning substituting in the middle school I watched as the principal and the teachers gathered all the kids in the great room before classes began. Everybody put their right hand over their hearts and they recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Pledge of Allegiance to the United States of America.
Imagine the sound of fifty 5th and 6th graders innocently and sincerely saying those words. They sounded like baby angels.
TREY and LARRY and ASHLEY
Trey asked me may he go to the bathroom.
I said sure. Enjoy.
Then Larry said I learned that when I was two.
I said what did you learn when you were two?
He looked like he didn’t know all of a sudden what it was that he learned when he was two.
I said did you get out of diapers when you were two?
Larry said he thought so, but couldn’t remember exactly.
Then Ashley said you start out in diapers and end up in diapers.
Instead of substituting, on a Wednesday I was asked to do a one-on-one session with Click.
A one-on-one session is where a kid's teachers and principal take a big break from each other for a full day, or sometimes for two or three days, because things aren’t getting any better for anybody and undone work is piling up or his attitude is sucking the life out of everybody ... or both at the same time. In other words, it's the big time-out. The school's substitute teachers are the ones called to perform one-on-one sessions.
I was asked to do the one-on-one with Click in the conference room in the administration building.
There’s a real nice conference room in the high school building where some other substitute teachers do their one-on-ones and I had asked Click’s principal if we could do it down there but she said no because the conference room in the administration building was closer and it was easier for her to check on us in there. She said if we were in the high school conference room then she’d have to walk up and down that big hill and she didn’t want to do that. This is how the mind of a common-sense principal works.
The conference room in the administration building has a couple of big tables shoved together and a bunch of chairs and a microwave and a refrigerator. On the wall is some artwork from some students that went there like fifteen years ago that is extremely abstract fifteen years later.
In a one-on-one you sit there with the kid and help him with his work if he asks you to from 8:15 to when the bus leaves at 3:15 or when one of their parents picks them up. Sometimes babysitters or nannies pick up kids.
In the one-on-one session the kid is supposed to settle down and shut up and get caught up on their work. You can’t even go have lunch with your class. You both have to eat lunch right there in the room. Man, do you start looking at that clock on the wall starting around 8:30 and wonder how in the hell you’re going make it to 3:15.
I had already read the newspaper and had started in on a book about Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band. You can be a genius at a lot of things in life and he was a genius at playing the guitar.
Click was doing his work real hard and he was being real quiet and I felt proud of him.
Some people say they can see the grace of God wash down over people who need it real, real bad. I pretended seeing the grace of God washing down over Click because if he didn’t hunker down over the next couple of days or so then I knew they were going to kick him out of the school and in any other school they’d beat this kid up. The principal told me that they were going to kick Click out if he didn’t get his you-know-what together. The common-sense principal said all that while it was just me and her in her office.
Click is real small for his age because he hardly eats anything. He’s what you’d call frail looking. But he’ll sass or punch anybody in the guts. He has no fear.
I swear to God my eyes teared up just a little because I thought the grace of God really did wash over him a few moments later—it looked like someone had sprayed room spray over his head from about six feet above him—and even before then I still knew Click was special and he could do it.
But I think sometimes you don’t need God or room spray or whoever to help you do something. Just up and finally damn doing something yourself can work just fine, too.
It was a long time before lunch time and a whole bunch of women who work in the administration building were already coming into the conference room and taking things out of the refrigerator and putting them into the microwave. The door of the microwave clanked when it opened and clanked when they shut it.
They seemed embarrassed about coming in there a lot to get food.
While it’s being micro waved, macaroni and cheese does not smell as good as it does when it’s sitting in a big bowl in front of you at a church social.
One time a woman who had already fixed herself something to eat came in there a little later and fixed her another something else to eat. It still was a long way away from lunch time. She said to me you must think that all we do around here is eat.
I said you read minds real well.
The lady said well just look at us. She got her food out of the microwave and walked out. All those women who work in the administration building do not look like Olympic marathoners one bit, so I’ll have to agree.
Click said what if those women got paid for the amount of food they ate.
A little later the guy who does all the computer stuff for the school came into the conference room with a man and a woman and asked me and Click if we minded if they had a short meeting in there.
I looked at Click and he shrugged his shoulders.
I said okay with me and kept reading about Duane Allman.
I was amazed at how loudly the man and the woman talked to the guy who does the computer stuff for the school. The man was a salesman and the woman seemed to be in training to be a saleswoman. She’d chime in every once in a while with a comment like, I’ll e-mail you what he just said when we get back to the office.
They were telling the school’s computer guy about some computer system they thought would be good for the school.
When the computer guy said that that’s what he’d been looking for and he’d make a decision next week the man and the woman seemed real happy.
After they left, Click said to me, listen to this. On his laptop, Click had transcribed pretty much the entire conversation between those salesmen and our guy. He read it to me.
I couldn’t believe it. I said even though you’re supposed to be catching up on your work for Old Burrell and Smithson and Billy and Morty and Cassie and Mamie that I have to admit I’m impressed. I told him that I knew he was smart.
Then Click said that man was being mean to our computer guy.
I said that man was the salesman and sometimes salesmen talk a little loudly and that he was just trying to convince our computer guy to buy his stuff.
Then Click said that he thought the salesman was weird.
I said he wasn’t weird. That he was just from another country and it wasn’t his fault that he looked and talked different than us. That he just had to do a lot of convincing real fast and sometimes it seems real aggressive, especially when you were watching it from the side like we were.
Click looked at me for a moment, and then started doing his work again.
Later in the day, Click’s math teacher, Billy, came in there and gave Click some papers and told Click he’d like for him to try real hard and get this done. The teacher said it was work from August. The month we were in was November.
GENTLEMEN OF THE MIDDLE SCHOOL ... LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX!
If you’re real eager to know what’s on the minds of 11, 12, and 13 year old boys concerning the real good bodily functions, then go get yourself a job substitute teaching at a school where they ask you, after determining you’re not a world famous serial killer and actually have a knack for mesmerizing hyperactive children, if you’d also be willing to become a guest lecturer on fascinating adolescent health and hygiene topics in the middle school on Tuesdays and Thursdays right after they come off the playground and are pretty much amped up and freaked out anyway.
You’ll get paid for it, you're told by the middle school principal. Seventy-five dollars. Your daily rate for just forty-five minutes of talking.
So what you do is say … Uh, okay … and go find a book real quick on adolescent health and hygiene topics, which are fascinating, and get all geeked up on everything in your free time and make your handouts and then teach a bunch of guest lectures to the boys and girls of the middle school on health and hygeine. They are extremely curious, mostly about hygeinic issues. And there are about fifty to sixty of them. Sometimes it feels like thousands.
So after a few riveting lectures the principal of the middle school sort of angles up to me one day and says real nice, It sure would be … real nice … if you could teach a sex lecture.
Did the middle school principal just say A SEX LECTURE?
She's smiling at me, with a hopeful expression on her face.
The middle school principal did say A SEX LECTURE!
Not the one about how to tell the difference between apple tree sepals and stigmas, which is pretty hot stuff, too. No, this middle school principal is talking about the PENIS and VAGINA lecture and how the PENIS and VAGINA work together … to make middle school principals.
Oh, Lordy Jesus help me.
The middle school principal said you’d just be talking to the boys in the great room and me and a couple of the other teachers will talk to the girls in another classroom. What memories you’ll have of this. Thank you for what you’re doing for the children. She said she asked Vito the science teacher to do it but Vito won't do it. She said Vito will be standing in the back of the room. Right there with you every step of the way. Yep.
So I go and make my plans to talk about how penises and vaginas and sperms and eggs are our good friends and how they deserve understanding. So then I figure that although there are some of these fellows who wouldn’t be embarrassed one bit about asking penis and vagina questions out loud in front of everybody else since they do it anyway, even in Language Arts class (I sub in that class a lot, too), that I gave each of the boys a three-by-five index card and asked them to confidentially write down at least two questions about all this stuff that they’ve been wondering about and want answers to from your sex guest lecturer. Then they could go running like their hair was on fire to third period and then we'd convene again on the dreaded day the fascinating topic will be delivered.
Here’s what I got handed back, in their own words …
- Why do we laugh at gross things?
- Does dressing appropriately effect how you smell?
- How do you get sleepy?
- How did you win?
- Where do your zits go after you wash them?
- What is an erection?
- What causes an erection?
- Why do a hormones change?
- What does your brain look like?
- Do you smell when u r an adult?
- How do you grow zits?
- What is the name of the school?
- How many years does it take to become a man?
- Why do you grow hair in those places?
- Why do girls mature faster than boys?
- Where does hair grow quickest?
- What should you do if you want to do something and your friends don’t think it’s cool?
- How many showers should you take?
- Why don’t you get treated differently when you don’t take a shower?
- Why do the girls like you better if you are clean?
- Why do my balls hert sometimes?
- Is there a way to avoid hair?
- Do all old people have a lot of hair?
- Why do my balls hert sometimes?
- Why do we get smelly?
- How do we get her?
- Talk about girls
- Always believe in yourself
- Have a positive attitude
Exactly, kid. Have a positive attitude. That's how you win; that's how you get her; that's what you'll need when you get old and lose your hair; and that's how you get through a forty-five minute sex lecture.
Me, not you.
MIDDLE SCHOOL FIELD TRIP
On a Tuesday, the middle school went on a field trip in a yellow bus to see a movie about ocean creatures at an IMAX theatre in a museum in Atlanta.
On the way there, Norman said he was getting woozy and felt like he might barf.
The kid sitting next to Norman, trapped in the seat next to the window, said real nervous try not to barf, Norman.
Big Eddie, the bus driver could hear all the barf conversation going on and he said for somebody to hurry the heck up and come up there and get the trash can.
Norman was sitting right behind me and I had one of my favorite sport jackets on. I went up there real fast and got the trash can like Big Eddie said. I put the trash can in the aisle beside Norman.
Norman started looking at the trash can.
I said here’s the trash can but don’t look at it because it will make you want to barf, like when you feel like you have to barf at home and you see the commode then it makes you want to barf more.
Norman stopped looking at the trash can but he kept holding his throat with one of his hands. His eyes were bugging out and his face was moist and pasty.
Everybody shut up and was really looking at Norman, especially the kid next to Norman. Then a teacher suggested why don’t we lower a few of the windows and get some fresh air in here.
We lowered a few windows and some fresh air came in there and it messed everybody’s hair up and soon after that Norman felt a lot better.
MIDDLE SCHOOL FIELD TRIP
During the IMAX movie about ocean creatures, there were a bunch of other kids there from other schools and their teachers.
A few rows behind our group were two real big women teachers sitting next to each other crammed in their seats laughing a lot. This was not the kind of documentary that was funny in any way. It was extremely fascinating, but none of it should make you laugh. Coral fronds or whatever waving around in warm ocean water near the Yucatan Peninsula is not that hilarious.
One time a cute little fish poked his head out of a hole.
Those two big women laughed real loud. Just those two women.
In another scene, a nine-inch long shrimp that looked like a lobster went scuttling along the bottom of the ocean and then jumped in a hole head first real fast and then he must have turned around in his hole because he poked his head back out of the hole an instant later.
Those two big women went nuts laughing. They were the only people in a theatre full of adults and kids who were laughing. The only ones going nuts laughing.
A teacher from our school sitting next to me said real soft under her breath ... Good God.
I didn’t want to turn around to look at the two women because they might see me looking at them. Honestly, there weren’t any rules about not laughing in the IMAX theatre that I knew of. I figured they were hicks.
When the movie ended and the lights got turned on me and the other teacher stood up and turned around real slow and looked at those two women. They looked like they’d be real nice folks. They looked jolly if you know what I mean.
Then my teacher buddy said to me ... I wonder what they were smoking.
I heard he got that work from August done. He started acting nice again in his classes toward his teachers and the other kids and generally got his act together so they didn’t kick him out.
But it’s a day-to-day thing with some kids and everybody knows that and is cool with it. Sometimes it’s a moment-to-moment thing and everybody’s cool with that, too. Alert for it. Alert as hell for it. But cool about it. Can’t get all panicky.
Good teachers and principals are like combat squad leaders. Cool and constantly watchful and caring all the time. That's what I think because that’s what I’ve seen so far. From every one of them.
Beulah is the principal of the lower school. She asked me if I could do a one-on-one with a first grader named Benjy on Wednesday.
I said sure … and what’s he gone and done.
Beulah said he’s been real disrespectful to his teacher. That Philomena is about to pull her hair out.
I conjured up a picture of Philomena pulling her hair out.
Beulah said he’s real smart and he’s never done a one-on-one so be ready. Then Beulah said real shaky, I’m not sure what to expect.
I said I look forward to meeting him.
You have to be real confident with kids. Even the itty-bitties. That’s what they call the lower school kids around here. Itty-bitties. Fifty pound itty-bitties can raise holy hell just like the rest of them. You’d be surprised. On Wednesday morning I walked into the lower school building and Beulah was sitting in her office. She motioned for me with a yellow pencil in her hand to come in there.
I walked in there and sitting on an old wooden chair was a little boy. He was crouched on the seat with his legs and feet underneath him looking up at me with big, almond shaped eyes.
The first thing I thought was that he was a porcelain doll.
We walked to that conference room in the administration building and I didn’t tell Benjy he looked like a doll but he could have fit into his own backpack.
Benjy said in his little doll voice that he’d never been to a one-on-one before.
I said I’ll be with you all day to help you get your work done.
He said he didn’t need any help because he was a real fast worker.
I said that’s okay, too. Just let me know if you need me. I’ll be right there.
When we walked into the administration building the receptionist and another lady were standing around talking and drinking coffee and I said ya’ll meet Benjy.
They said real sweet ... Hey, Benjy.
When we walked into the conference room Benjy said he’d been in here before.
I said what for.
He couldn’t remember but he was sure he’d been in there before.
I said okay.
There was a fly in the conference room and Benjy started focusing on it instead of a pile of work he needed to work on. He said that looked like the fly that was bothering him yesterday in the lower school.
I said are you sure it’s the same fly.
Benjy watched it fly around and then it landed on the table in front of us and then it would fly around some more. He was really watching that fly. Then Benjy said he was pretty sure it was the same one.
It was hard for Benjy to concentrate on his work with that fly flying around.
I rolled up the Living section of my newspaper and wanted to kill that damn fly so bad. I had not been filled with rage in a long time and I was all of a sudden filled with a lot of it as I roamed that conference room with bad intentions. The fly wasn’t letting us get our job done. I knew Beulah might appear at any moment and this would not look good—us watching a fly fly around.
Benjy was watching me try to kill that fly. He said a one-on-one wasn’t that bad because he was finally getting some peace and quiet.
Breathing heavily, I asked him what he meant by peace and quiet.
He said down at the lower school it’s so loud he can’t concentrate. He said it’s noisy down there.
All I knew was he was not being nice to his teacher. I figured he was probably the cause of some of the noise, too, but that was me conjecturing.
He said he had come to Georgia from Kansas.
I watched him work a few math problems while I chased the fly around. He did the math problems as fast as that fly. I said something about how fast he was doing his work.
He said I’m a fast thinker, too. He said I’m good even when I do my work fast. Benjy said he was the fastest worker in his class. And then he said I can tell if someone is fast or slow by looking in their eyes.
When he said words he pronounced every letter of the word. Precisely every letter. I have never met a seven year old who was more articulate than him. He was so articulate it was unnerving, especially with that doll voice.
But he didn’t look in my eyes when he talked and we talked a lot. All day he looked just off to the side. Like he was looking at my right ear.
I up and asked him about it later because it was bothering me so much. I said you’re not really looking at me are you. You’re looking right over here. I held my hand up behind my right ear.
He said that’s right. I’m not.
That afternoon, after Benjy’s father picked him up I asked Beulah if she noticed he didn’t quite look you in the eye when he talked.
Beulah didn’t say anything. It looked like she was trying to recall if she ever noticed.
I told Beulah I was sure of it.
She said you know ... I think you’re right.
Then I said he’s one of the smartest kids I have ever met.
Beulah said he was. But boy can he sure raise hell.
I opened my notepad and read Benjy’s answer to a question he was supposed to answer for me by the end of the day. He was supposed to tell me—Beulah, ultimately, through me—what he would do differently tomorrow. The first thing he said was, I don’t know.
I told Beulah I said to him you need to do a lot better than that.
Then Benjy had said: I’ll try to behave as much as I can. I’ll try not to argue. I’ll try my best when working. Be the best I can. I’ll help others if they need it. I’ll show courtesy and respect.
His very words. From out of that child’s mouth.
After I was finished reading all of those things Beulah took a deep breath and let it out real slow.
Every Friday morning all the kids in the middle school go the gym at 9 o’ clock and play for an hour. Most of the time they play dodge ball. Regular teachers and substitute teachers don’t have to go over there with them.
Prissy, the middle school teacher who fiddles with her hair all the time, told me the teachers get a nice break.
I went into my classroom and read the newspaper with my feet up on the desk and wished I could have smoked a cigar, too, but you could figure the answer on that. A substitute teacher in the middle school smoking a cigar while he reads the newspaper. People all over the world would want in on my gig.
I was substitute teaching in a science classroom for a teacher named Vito. I was extremely tempted to neaten up, a lot, Vito’s desk but I didn’t. Instead I just gazed at the top of his desk with my hands suspended in the air above his desk and went ... Damn.
Vito had left me a note that laid out what the kids were supposed to work on that day and the note also mentioned the dodge ball thing and said they’re pretty amped up when they come back.
I figured what amped them up is that most of them were conjuring up scenes since the moment they woke up that morning of how good they were going to whack some of their middle school pals with a dodge ball a few times in the chops.
They’re pretty damn amped up when they come back.
It’s real quiet in the middle school for a long time while the teachers are doing different stuff in their rooms like surfing cyberspace and then the front door bonks open and fifty middle school kids run in like a dam busted.
Forty-nine of the kids were red faced and sweating with their hair matted down with sweat.
I asked a kid if he whacked anybody good.
I asked another kid if he whacked anybody.
Yeah! Jimmy. In the face!
Sally was already sitting in a seat in the great room real quiet and proper looking. She was not red faced or sweating and her long, brown hair was just as pretty as it was before she went to not play dodge ball. She’s petite, with freckles. She wears the school uniform blue and green plaid skirt instead of the school uniform khaki slacks.
I asked Sally did she whack anybody.
She said she doesn’t play dodge ball.
I said why.
She said she prefers not to play dodge ball and looked at me as if I should have already known that about her.
Savannah is in 7th grade with Sally and Savannah has freckles, too, and brown hair with a pink ribbon in the back that helps keep her pretty hair out of her face. I think Savannah might be a little tall for her age. She has a high, sweet voice I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearing it’s so cute. But when she starts whining in her other voice I want to gouge both of my eyes out with a chainsaw.
I was substituting in Savannah’s math class and Kathy the math teacher left a pile of worksheets on fraction problems for them to complete. When I looked at the first page they were supposed to do and at those million fraction problems I started getting woozy like Norman did on that field trip.
I understand that a lot of people in the world think math is important.
When Savannah started in on how hard these fraction problems were over and over and over and over I felt a deep and instant kinship with her … until she started slapping the page on her desk over and over and over while she was saying real loud and whiney how hard it was over and over and over at the same time. Savannah also asked me real loud wasn’t the numerator supposed to be greater than the denominator or did she ask me over and over and over was the denominator supposed to be greater than the numerator and that’s when I started twitching and my body fluids started pouring out of all of my seven orifices like the Ogeechee River and I became a moist and creamy blob of quivering, useless, steaming biomatter in the real teacher’s desk chair with two glazed-over eyeballs staring up at the ceiling and if there would have been a math poster on fractions stapled to the ceiling then that would have been an incredible comic and ironic touch but there wasn’t a math poster stapled to the ceiling above Kathy’s desk thank the Lord God almighty.
Gilligan finally said ... I’ll help her.
I said thankyou, Jesus. I mean Gilligan.
A little while later after Gilligan had helped calm down Savannah and while she was rocking and rolling on those fraction problems with no problem at all, on her own, she asked me was I a math teacher.
I said no. Not even close.
She said then how come you’re in here with us doing these math problems.
I said in a math class I’m definitely in a substitute supervisory role type situation.
Savannah said ... Well, I’ve seen you before around here.
A bunch of 7th graders were taking their open-book test. The class was real quiet. All of a sudden Larry went, Hup!
I was startled—sincerely and truly startled.
My heart was thumping but I tried to keep my cool. I was reading a book on Mark Twain at Old Burrell's desk and I kept my head down for a second or two and took a deep breath and tried to figure out what just happened. Then I slowly looked up at the classroom.
Larry was working on his open-book test. They were all working on their open-book test. No one was looking at Larry. No one said a thing.
Larry’s body jumps and his head snaps back a little when he makes the noise. I saw the whole thing this time. Then he went back to working on his open-book test like nothing happened.
I wiggled Old Burrell's mouse (I know that doesn't sound right) to make the computer screen come back on. Then I keyed in Tourette’s syndrome and while I experienced watching it in real life I learned about it on the world wide web.
Larry finished his open-book test in one class period. You had two class periods to do it in.
ANNUAL MIDDLE SCHOOL THANKSGIVING FEAST ROUND TABLE
Fifty kids are sitting quietly in their chairs at the place they’ll come back to after they go get their food. Standing around the great room behind them are the teachers and a few parents who came in to help get everything set up and the food served and the whole thing cleaned up later.
The principal of the middle school asked each kid to tell everyone what they were thankful for and then the next kid would do it until everyone was finished. Even the parents and the teachers would say something. Then we could eat.
Standing next to me was Marie’s dad and her mother was on my right. When the time to speak got to Marie, she said in a good loud voice that she was thankful for everything in her life.
Before Marie, most kids said they were thankful for their video games.
Next to me, I heard Marie’s father make a soft, moaning noise in his chest. It’s the sound you make to yourself that comes naturally—when you’re overcome with deep sweet emotion for your child.
SALLY and BEAUREGARD
When the time to tell the group what you were thankful for, Sally said, stone-faced, that she was thankful for everything except broccoli.
Sally didn’t laugh. She was serious about it.
When it was Beauregard's turn he said he was thankful that Bush didn’t have a deficit when he was elected and now he does.
Wow. Okay. Hmm.
Then everybody laughed. A little uneasily, though.
Beauregard was in my homeroom class and it’s also the last class of every day in the afternoon right before they go home. That afternoon, Beauregard comes stomping into the afternoon homeroom period and says Margo’s a sour puss.
I said she’s not a sour puss. Margo’s the principal of the middle school and I’m pretty sure she’s not a sour puss.
She is, Beauregard said. A sour puss.
I said, as dramatically as I could, with my arms waving around, Well, tell all of us why you think she’s a sour puss. Dang.
Beauregard said that she said that what he said at the Thanksgiving thing was inappropriate.
I threw myself into a moment of deep thought, examining all sides of this one. I thought what he said was totally unexpected and pretty quirky, but rooted in an examination of current political and economic issues … by a dang sixth grader. Why wasn’t he thankful for his video games like everybody else?
But by then he was looking at something on another kid’s laptop and the room was loud and furious and they were freaking out about heading home for the weekend and the opportunity to examine his potentially fantastic and wonderful and revealing train of thought was over … just like that.
SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS TRIVIA CONTEST
Five minutes to go on a Friday afternoon before the parents, nannies, babysitters, and the buses arrive is an amped up and amped out five minutes. I wondered what might get the attention of six amped up sixth grade boys on a Friday afternoon.
I was pretty sure a SpongeBob Squarepants trivia contest might do the trick. Sure, something more educational would probably have been better. Not as stirring, of course, but I considered having an animal group trivia contest … you know … a bunch of gnats isn’t called a bunch … it’s called a cloud. I know that for sure. Gaggle of geese. So forth. But I don’t know many more than that. The last thing you want is for a bunch of sixth grade boys—pack of wild dogs—to think you’re stupid.
I loudly announced, because I had to, that we were all of a sudden going to have a SpongeBob Squarepants trivia contest. You would have thought their vocal chords and every muscle in their bodies was frozen by a force that cannot be explained and that you might not want to question in any way because there they all stood before me, dumb, still, like zombies. Two seconds ago they were loud and amped. I enjoyed the moment and that my dumb bright idea changed the course of my sanity.
What’s the name of the place where—
The Krusty Krab!
What is the full name of Squ—
What does he—
He works at the cash register!
Another kid: In that little boat!
What’s Mr. Krabs’ first—
At the end of the episode called The Hash Slinging Slasher, who’s the dude flicking the light switch on and off?
They all went dumb again.
Except Norman. His face quickly brightened and his mouth opened. Only Norman screamed it. Only Norman knew the incredible answer … Nosferatu!
I had Larry in another class on a Monday. I asked him what he did over the weekend.
Larry said his mother bought him some bongo drums. Larry said his mother said that learning how to play bongos would help him with his Tourette’s.
I said I had never heard of that but I’m not one to question it. I also told Larry I would have to believe that chicks dug guys who played bongos?
He said ... Well, I just got them yesterday.
I asked him did the bongos come with a DVD or a booklet to tell you how to play them.
He said no, but as you beat on the drum closer to the middle it makes a lower sound.
That made sense to me. I mushed my lips. Larry is tall and sturdy for his age and has a huge head of black, thick, curly hair. He wears oval-shaped glasses without rims. His teeth have braces on them, but he still smiles a lot, naturally, quickly. Everybody likes him.
Then I thought of Larry in his college dorm room, years from now, in a tie-dyed t-shirt, playing his bongos for a bunch of cute girls, sitting cross legged, looking up at Larry with great, romantic affection … because another kid said to Larry, Hey, so what if chicks dig guys who play bongos?
Larry looked at his classmate as if to say that would be okay with him.
BOX OF TISSUES
Now I know why you find a box of tissues in every teacher’s classroom. It’s not there for sniffles and sneezes.
A box of tissues, within rapid reach of the teacher, and substitute teacher, is there because of the frequency and urgency of some students to dig around in their nasal cavities with a crooked finger and with tremendous and shock and awe-inspiring determination to pull something out.
Some parents and teachers and stand-up comics call this digging for gold.
They are not digging for gold. They are digging for a lottery ticket that has already been determined to be a billion dollar winner. They are digging for pages of homework and final exams with all correct answers.
I watch them dig and I am stunned.
They dig as if in a trance. If you are teaching them about Western Europe they don’t care. That the other name for The Netherlands is Holland and they export a lot of flowers … they don’t care.
They are digging. Digging with a crooked finger stuck way up in there.
If they perform everything else in their future lives with the concentration they use to pick and pull something from out of their noses then their emotional, physical, personal, financial, familial, and professional success is ensured.
I am also convinced they are concentrating so much during the digging that they don’t breath. That if a blue-faced student faints onto the floor after pulling an enormous booger from out of their nose I will not be surprised.
I will go over to them, of course, and poke them awake with the toe of my shoe or a crooked finger, but I will not be surprised.
One morning just after I sat down at the history teacher’s desk I was substituting for I noticed over on the left side of his desk three rubber stamps. The word the stamps would produce when the device was pressed hard on a piece of paper was displayed in all caps and in primary red on the top of the stamp. The three different words on the rubber stamps were: INCOMPLETE, LATE, EXCELLENT.
SIGNS, SIGNS … EVERYWHERE ARE SIGNS!
One morning just after I sat down at another teacher’s desk … a math teacher … I was sort of whacked out by the posters on her wall. Well, you really couldn’t see the walls because they were covered by colorful posters …
Basic Fraction Circles!
All Math Work Must Be Done in Pencil!
Watch These Factor Trees Grow!
Primes and Composites!
Helpful Graphing Info!
Rules of Divisibility!
Complete Homework Has Three Parts!
Metric Weights and Measures!
Rules for Multiplying and Dividing Negatives!
Respect is not a gift! You have to earn it!
God Bless America!
I liked this teacher even before I hunkered down in her classroom for the day. She’s serious about her job and about math and about being a good citizen and person. And these posters were like a warm blanket wrapped around us all day. The exclamation marks are mine, however.
God bless those common polygons, too!
I saw Benjy the other day. After I finished the day in a class in the junior high school building I walked down to the lower school. I was going to find Beulah and see how Benjy had been doing.
Outside the door of the lower school Beulah was sitting on the bench. Beulah and the other teachers sit on that bench with the itty-bitties when school lets out while the itty-bitties wait for their ride.
Benjy was standing there with his backpack on his back waiting for his father or his mother or his babysitter. I didn’t know.
He is so tiny.
I sat down next to Beulah and asked Benjy how he was doing.
Really, you doing okay?
Beulah said, Benjy, he really wants to know how you’ve been doing in your classes and with the other kids. Talk to him.
In that sweet little seven year old porcelain doll voice, Benjy said … Good.
WORK FOR PAY
The headmaster raised the substitute teacher's daily rate by $15!
I was warned.
One of the school's principals, Lurlene, told me a while back that a lot of the kids just don’t get your witty remarks and oddball humor and scholarly sarcasm … and since you’re a real expert at all three of those don’t be surprised if you get a few blank stares when you lay some goober head remark out of the blue on one of the kids.
I almost said something scholarly sarcastic to her. But didn’t.
On Friday I was substituting in the middle school and the kids were coming into the classroom all excited and glad it was Friday.
I was glad it was Friday, too, but I was glad to be there with them because Fridays are real easy in the middle school.
Guillermo walked in there and I have always liked Guillermo and his hair. He has a big, thick head of dark brown hair that curls up in the back a little bit and the hair on the sides of his head he puts underneath the frame of his glasses and the bangs come down to his eyebrows. In a nutshell, his thick head of hair looks like a helmet but it is also healthy and rich looking and there are women who would love to have his hair and a lot of grown men have his hair all over their backs. I’m a member of a health club near where I live and you see things in the locker room.
Guillermo also wears braces on his teeth and is about as cute as they get right before they become teenagers. Guillermo was standing in front of the desk looking at me. I was sitting in the regular teacher’s chair. The regular teacher’s name is Jilly and she teaches math and was at some sort of doctor’s appointment all day or something. I told her kids she was in Nebraska duck hunting and none of them thought that was funny or believed me.
So then I told them Jilly was actually a CIA agent and she was in Bangladesh installing a security system. They scrunched up their faces and looked at each other.
Guillermo was still standing there looking at me. I said, Guillermo, Can you tell me what hair products you use because I’d like to purchase some for my own hair care.
Guillermo looked at me some more.
Your hair products. What do you use, babe.
I was getting no reaction at all. This was what I had been told to be on the look out for. So I decided to take it to a whole new comedic level—never before seen in fifth grade American education—instead of changing the subject to Lemuel's hair, sitting over there, which looked as if he had combed it with a gasoline powered mulcher.
I said, Guillermo, do you wash your hair with bleu cheese dressing?
Guillermo said no I don’t.
I asked Guillermo did he dried his hair with a blow torch.
He said he didn’t dry his hair with a blow torch.
By this time a number of other fifth graders were assembling at Jilly's desk—more like surrounding me like in that good movie Children of the Corn—to find out what in the hell I was talking about with their pal Guillermo.
One of them said real serious that Guillermo didn’t wash his hair with bleu cheese dressing! That he used shampoo … or soap probably.
I was carefully watching Guillermo. And I was smiling to let him know I was trying real, real hard to be funny and to be his pal. It was Friday in the middle school. I was really feeling it.
Then Guillermo said I want you to start calling me Dude.
Beauregard's a sixth grader in the middle school and he cut a good one while everybody was being nice and quiet while we were doing some word thing for Kathy, the regular teacher.
Nice and quiet means it’s so calm and quiet in class you can hear their pencils scratching on the paper. It’s a little scary but in a good way.
When a sixth grader cuts a good one like that you don’t have any question about what just happened even though you’re really hoping it was car wreck on the street outside or a chair squeaking or something. But you know what just happened and all the other kids do too and they start laughing and waving their hands in front of their faces and saying Beauregard's name and the girls go, Ewwww … Bow-ree-gaaard!
And what about Beauregard. What’s he doing.
Beauregard is sitting there looking around the room smiling and looking at everybody’s reaction.
I said say you’re sorry, Beauregard. God.
Beauregard said he just couldn’t help it.
I said that’s not what I asked you to say.
So Beauregard said he was sorry but there wasn’t a whole lot of passion behind it.
Then he said again I just can’t help it. He’s got kind of a high-pitched voice that’s fun to listen to
Then everybody got back to doing the word thing for Kathy and it got quiet again believe it or not and you could hear their pencils scratching on the paper again. That was Tuesday.
On Friday I was back in the middle school subbing for Prissy and during the big 5th and 6th grade group meeting Beauregard cut another good one. Three days later the reaction from all parties—victims—was the same.
Ewwww … Bow-ree-gaaaard! Finger pointing.
I happened to be standing right behind him. God
I just can’t help it, he said to everybody in that high voice. His parents really ought to get him an agent so he could do cartoon character voices and get rich at eleven years old. He’s smiling like crazy, too. Looking around the room as if the kids were holding ups cards with numbers like they do in the Olympics.
It would have been a 9.5.
So then on Monday I had to sub in the middle school for Vito. Vito’s the science teacher and I had Beauregard again in class. I told Beauregard I’d appreciate it if he wouldn’t fart in class today. That we all … whipping my arm around in the air … would appreciate it.
Beauregard said he just couldn’t help it.
Anyway, for an hour and a half of watching a real serious video about what gooey hot stuff is in the center of the Earth bubbling around in there … and then if the Earth is going to get hit with a big asteroid and what would happen to all of us little farters on Earth if one did smash into Earth at one hundred thousand miles per hour.
Beauregard didn’t fart not once.
After the video was over Beauregard walked over to my desk after everybody else had left and asked me in a shaky voice and with a pale face if I thought a big asteroid was ever going to hit the Earth.
I told him I seriously doubt it.
Beauregard looked at me like he really wanted my answer to be right.
I saw Benjy again the other day. In the nice sunshine.
I was walking back to the junior high school building after lunch and he was walking to the lunch room with his class. I stopped and said hey, Benjy. And then I leaned down and hugged him. At that moment I felt like hugging him so I hugged him. Sometimes teachers hug kids. Sometimes kids hug teachers. You don't want to do it a lot, but when you do it for the exact right reason there's nothing on Earth that compares.
THE BUNNY IS CURIOUS BUT NOT RAMBUNCTIOUS
An e-mail to all teachers and substitute teachers and students from a student in the high school …
I have a young male bunny rabbit that I am giving away to a loving home. (Pictures are attached). I need to find a place for him as soon as possible. I am not giving him away because I don’t like him but because he is costing a good amount of money and I do not have a job at the moment. He is easy to fall in love with and is not difficult to handle or play with. He will be free and will come with: cage, bottle, food dish, some food, timothy hay, hay holder, litter box, some litter, a couple toys. We have brought him to the vet and they say he is very healthy but he will need to be neutered. He is a very calm bunny and gets along very well with my dog, which is a bichon frise. The bunny is curious but not rambunctious. He is less than 6 months old, is a dwarf rabbit, less than 5 pounds, and is somewhat litter trained. He likes licking and hopping around on the carpet. I will be happy to give you any extra rabbit supplies I have. If you are interested and would like more information, please email me or call my cell phone. Thank you, Emily
I know what you’re wondering, of course. What’s timothy hay.
To be real clear on the difference between burping and barfing and urping you have to understand that a burp is a burp and it’s really more of a wide open mouth sound situation and barfing is when your total food package comes flying out but when somebody urps that’s when you burp and some food bits go flying out but not as much as a barf.
This was explained to me today by Beauregard.
This school is what you call a laptop school. What that means is that starting in fifth grade you’re required to have a laptop. Just like a pencil, you have to carry this thing around with you to each class except P.E. and Art and Band because the school wants the kids to learn how to use a computer and to be able to use it for research and to learn how to write essays and book reports by using the QWERTY keyboard. Teaching kids how to type on a keyboard is called keyboarding. We all need to know how to type.
Even fifth graders know how to put together pretty good PowerPoint presentations, too. It may be about how an asteroid is going to hit the Earth next Tuesday afternoon, but they’re still pretty good.
Anyhow, the cover of a laptop has a big space for communication type opportunities with the rest of the student body, the teachers, and anybody else who looks at it. In other words, a lot of kids put stickers on their laptop covers.
If you don’t have a degree and experience as a psychiatrist, psychologist, behaviorist or wide-eyed substitute teacher or any other job where you’re able to figure out kids, the easiest way to figure out kids is to look at the stickers they put on the cover of their laptops. This is a way to figure out kids without badgering them with questions and them having to even look at you or act like they’re listening. One way to get to know a kid better is to know what they’re interested in and have a conversation with them about it … or even base your early relationship with them on their interests. So look at their laptop computer cover stickers to determine their interests. It’s sneaky and fun.
Adults put stickers on the bumpers of their car or trucks, you know. Support Free Speech … But Carry A Gun Anyway!
A lot of kids at this school like either Georgia Tech or the Georgia Bulldogs. There’s no grey area on that one. Some like the Wolverines of the University of Michigan. One kid is loyal to the Army. One likes the Air Force. Symbols you’ve seen here and there but don’t know what they mean but you know the kid knows what they mean. Most of them have to do with rock and roll or partying in general. Being a party animal. Obama rocks. I love apple head Chihuahuas! Bush Rocks! I’m a Jesus freak! John Cena! Batista! Hornswoggle!
Is that a sticker of a marijuana plant or the plant that that’s not marijuana but sure as hell looks like marijuana?
Got Milk? Peace! Got Sig? Peace!
Country flags of countries they have some affiliation with. The flag of Turkey, for instance. I ask, Why Turkey, Barry?
My grandmother is from Turkey!
Jews for Jesus! Jesus Rocks! Say yes to hugs! Hugs not drugs! Coexist!
Every November a week or so before Thanksgiving the school holds Grandparent’s Day. It’s held for a couple of hours on one of those fall mornings that’s usually bright and cool and overall just real nice meteorologically.
Mee Maws and Pee Paws and Maw Maws and Paw Paws can go poke around anywhere on campus and they dress up like crazy for this thing. Sort of visualize that all the Mee Maws and Pee Paws are Las Vegas mobsters and molls having a super big night on the town.
The Mee Paws and Pee Paws always smell so nice and are in real happy moods and are looking around a lot like they’re a kid at Six Flags for the first time and if you’re on the substitute teacher’s list and you’re not subbing somewhere on campus that day you get asked to drive a golf cart since the campus is real hilly and the school doesn’t want any of the matriarchs and patriarchs to vapor-lock climbing up a hill to see what their little precious made out of lard in Art class.
Seventy-five dollars to do this back and forth and back and forth between all the buildings at the high and low elevations for two hours. Afterwards, you’re not even asked to stuff capital campaign envelopes for the rest of the day. You can go right on home.
So I get a nice gasoline engine powered four-seat golf cart that’s real loud and blows smoke and within ten minutes the transmission ups and meets Jesus. So then I tell an authority figure I’ll go clean out my truck and we’ll just use that. Plus, the truck’s got a heater that works and leather seats and a CD player.
My truck is well known on campus.
A school authority figure who is real sarcastic but in a leadership-type way says please clean out your gross piece of crap truck real good. You’re representing the skoooo-wull. That's exactly how the authority figure said the word school.
Anyhow. So here I go riding around campus, hitting all the hot spots, and these poor old folks are so used to getting a ride with the P.E. teacher driving around the other golf cart that I’m having to roll the passenger window down all morning and tell them they’re not being kidnapped to be taken to a rest home but that I’m the other guy driving the golf cart but it broke and I’m just using my personal truck to haul you up the hill. Of course, by this time the P.E. teacher has already snapped them all up and here I’m sitting in idle burning up my gas.
A real old, classy looking Mee Maw comes walking out of the high school building all alone and I holler at her through the open passenger side window if I could give her a ride up the hill or wherever.
She looked at me like she thought that was a great idea.
Actually, I could tell that she had seen some adventure in life and wouldn’t mind a bit more. I could tell. I could tell by the way she held herself and the way she was dressed (Talbot’s or Neiman Markup) that she used to probably have her man’s drink ready when he got home from being the chairman of a multi-billion dollar international conglomerate situation. That her and her man had drinks before dinner every night, served by a butler. That she and her man probably summered somewhere every summer. Like Sea Island or Bermuda or Monte Carlo. I was really wondering who in the hell she was the Mee Maw of.
So classy Mee Maw gets into the back seat and immediately says something about how nice I’m dressed and that it’s nice to see people dressed up these days … that you just don’t see it anymore. Me, a long camel hair overcoat from the Brooks Brothers store at the outlet mall I couldn’t afford so I put it on a credit card I couldn’t afford. Then she asks me if I’m a teacher and I tell her that I’m a substitute teacher the school uses a lot.
The fragrance of her classy lady perfume filled up my truck and I was grateful for that. I started thinking about my mother who smells like that.
Then she says I sure must have a lot of courage and patience.
I said I guess that’s what you call it. I’m not really sure what it is.
Mee Maw says you must know my grandson, Lester. He’s really somethin’.
I look at her in the rearview mirror and she’s smiling. I said I don’t think I’ve ever had him. What grade’s he in?
He’s in ninth grade.
I said I haven’t subbed in the high school yet this year.
All of a sudden Lester's Mee Maw starts laughing. Really laughing. Then she leans up and taps a bony finger on my shoulder and says … Well, when you meet him you’ll know it!
Two months later I was asked to sub for a while in the high school for a history teacher who had a baby. I had Lester in third period World History and Lester constantly made fun of how I did my hair and the way I acted even though I was a grown man. Some days I told him it took me less than three hours to get my hair like this. I had Lester convinced, and most of the rest of the class, that groups from the senior center near where I lived, as a senior center field trip activity, came over to my apartment every morning and watched me prepare my hairdo through a two-way mirror.
Lester made a lot of fun of me because I let him. I finally figured he used the time to vent his demons. Lester had a number of demons living inside of him.
One day we were back making fun of my hair again, and I asked Lester, deeply hoping for more of a philosphical answer, what happened when he looked at himself in the mirror.
What Lester said next was one of the funniest things I've ever heard in my life. Lester wasn't a 9th grader. He was a comic genius, posing as a 9th grader taking World History. That's what he really was.
SUDDENLY SUMMER READING
Lurlene Brownlow, the principal of the school for 7th and 8th graders, tracked me down while I was substituting in some God forsaken classroom in the high school and offered me a full-time teaching job with her.
She said Phil, the social studies teacher, just resigned and is leaving at the end of the year. She said, with wide eyes, that Phil has decided to go live in a log cabin in the mountains with his lover … a man … and that she needed a new social studies teacher.
She handed me a couple of heavy textbooks. She said here’s your summer reading, Teach.
And that's how you become a full-time teacher. All the best, Phil.