Demon 1: Substitute Teaching

May 31, 2010

There is a particular kind of horror that is losing total control of a situation, and knowing there is absolutely no way you can get it back. As I stared down the abyss that was 30 out-of-control eighth graders, that was all I could think. As the kids yelled, screamed, and generally refused to follow my instructions, I knew, without a doubt, that this was hell. It was twenty minutes before the bell would ring and relieve me of my duties, and it was the slowest twenty minutes of my life.

I was a week into substitute teaching, and almost finished with my first middle school assignment. After a comparatively easy five days handling sullen high-schoolers, where the most I did was give an assignment and sign them out to the bathroom, I figured that middle school wouldn’t be so bad. It was my friend’s bread and butter after all. He subbed middle school like it was nobody’s business. Regaling us with horror stories about how he had to throw this student out, and give these girls detention. How he dealt with missed homework, truants, and the ever popular little jokester who thought he could pretend he was another student, even though the seating chart begged to differ. It was like a navy sea captain regaling us of his adventures at some wharfside watering hole, full of piss and vinegar. But since I hadn’t had any problems even remotely like what he had talked about in my first week of subbing, I figured, looking at my possible substitute job listings the night before, what could be so bad about middle-schoolers?

I got my answer that next afternoon, when one of the little bastards found a bullhorn.

Like most life-altering decisions, such as, “Oh, this extra shot won’t hurt,” “That guy is way cute, I should go talk to him,” and “gimme my keys, I’m fine,” mine was made at a bar. I was 22, staring down the barrel of college graduation, and with grad school applications in circulation, I had my next step all planned. The only problem was that I was graduating in December and looking at six months where I would have to find a way to make some money and be a productive member of society before I forgot all that and was shipped off for another three years of learning and avoiding responsibility. I had done the waitressing thing, and after two and a half years of foul treatment by management, rude customers, and being laid off for mysterious reasons that wound up being to cover up a manager’s embezzlement, I needed a new, quick gig that didn’t involve being nice to people while their kids kicked my shins and gave me lousy tips. Substitute teaching seemed to be the cure.

It was ludicrously easy to obtain a substitute teaching license in my home city. All I had to do was attend a workshop and be fingerprinted, and then I was chucked whole hog into the fray. Substitute teaching is a slacker’s dream job. In my home city you made 70 dollars a day, and had the ability to pick and choose what jobs you wanted the night before, sometimes even weeks in advance. Plus, while they were supposed to be checking you to make sure that you were, you know, actually working, they never did. You could make yourself “temporarily unavailable” for a day to sleep off a hangover and not be worse for it. You just wouldn’t get paid. I figured that, for all the abuse I’d suffered in retail and food service, substitute teaching would be my little way of giving back. One where I could send someone to detention for being an asshole, and where meanness was actually appreciated and encouraged. So, well into my night of drinking, I decided that substitute teaching would be an easy job that would help bridge undergrad and grad school, and would be over in about four months, give or take.

Like most of my plans in life, that one went horribly awry. Instead of four months, I spent two years in the trenches, playing teacher, mother, babysitter and jailer to a city full of kids that came in all shapes, sizes, socioeconomic levels and intelligence quotas. It is with pride I can safely say that in all the name-calling, swearing, harassment, threats, insubordination, stupidity and one outright case of sexual harassment, I only completely lost my temper once.

However, this was in the future. Right then, after most of the class took off five minutes before the bell rang and I’d finished copying a list of kids who actually stayed for the bell so they would be spared their normal teacher’s severe punishment when she returned, I was seriously questioning my sanity. After all the paperwork had been squared away I called up my friend to commiserate, and he said, in the same way a war veteran probably talks to a greenhorn who had just seen their first serious firefight: “Now you know why middle school teachers drink.”

After seven hours in which I felt like I had just run a marathon, been put in a dryer full of parakeets, and then hit by a mack truck, I knew why. Oh so very, very well.

If you had told me six years ago that I would have ended up being a substitute teacher, sometimes in some of the worst schools in the city’s public school system, I would have laughed in your face. Growing up, I was a terminally shy, quiet kid who got anxious in crowds and hated speaking in public. I once purposefully botched a speech competition in front of the whole school, simply so I would not have to go on to regional and speak in front of EVEN more people. Consequently I was a favorite target of bullies, I cried easily and took any insult, real or imagined, straight to heart. To add fuel to the fire, I was also smart. Very smart. Teachers would often speak delightedly about my potential to my parents, and hold up my work as an example to the other students. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt by my teachers to boost my extremely low self-image, but it often had the opposite effect. Instead, it was like slathering barbecue sauce on me before tossing me into the lion’s den while screeching “lunchtime!”

So I knew from generous personal experience how much little kids could be dicks. The last place I belonged was in front of a bunch of kids who would have thought of nothing better than to see me in tears.

But you never realize just how contrary you can be when facing a situation like this. I could have quit very easily, found something else to do with my time and other work, but for some reason I decided to stick it out. I never went back to that middle school, but I did time in other schools that were just as bad, if not worse. In a way, subbing became the ultimate revenge fantasy for me. I was picked on mercilessly as a kid, now it was my turn to dish it back out. Some kids would try and play the “but this is how Miss ___ does it!” or “You’re a sub, you can’t tell me shit!” card, which would just give me the excuse to fall upon them like the mighty hammer of justice. I developed a pretty thick skin during the course of my time teaching, as getting called “stupid bitch” on a semi-regular basis will do that to you. Pretty soon I was handing out detentions like a pro, and perfecting my juggling skills with the number of cellphones I would collect. (As getting a 15-year-old to part with their cellphone for 50 minutes is like asking them to sever their own thumbs). I also perfected the art of bribery, and found that letting a kid listen to his headphones during a class period would often accomplish the impossible. I once had a neighboring teacher come in to check on me and he ended up staring, slack-jawed, at 30 8th graders doing their homework in complete silence.  He had never seen them like that, before, ever, and wanted to know my secret.

Me: “Bribe the ever-loving shit out of them, and don’t be afraid to take it away if they screw up.”

What’s even more, once I got the hang of the classroom management aspect, I found that I enjoyed teaching. There’s something about seeing that little lightbulb go off over someone’s head, and knowing that you did that. I wound up teaching a class a painting technique and they ended up going to their teacher to ask if I would come back and teach them some more. I walked around like I was Queen of The Shit for a week after that. I very nearly went back to school to get my actual teaching license, which if you’re a sub is like getting shot at all day and deciding you want to become a cop. But I couldn’t make myself sign up for the classes, as there were other things I wanted to do, and I wasn’t quite ready to give up on those dreams just yet.

I made it two years before I started to get burned out. I was weathering some pretty horrific personal crises and I found myself taking it out on the kids, one thing I swore I would never do. I was also starting to get sick of the town I was living in, the life I was leading, and my friends (or lack thereof). So it came to pass that one summer I threw my clothes and three boxes of books in my car and drove to Los Angeles to start over again. I called the substitute managing system that August to let them know I wouldn’t be back for the next school year.

Their response? “Congratulations on getting a real job! Good luck!”

That pretty much sums a lot of it up right there.

For all the crazy shit that ended up happening, it was an experience that ultimately changed the path of my life, changed me, and for better or worse, made me stronger, tougher and allowed me to weather the tough transition from child to adult myself. It has also given me a mild case of psychosis, made me more daring, more unafraid to take risks, and taught me that you can get anyone to back the hell off if you act crazy enough. It lead me to leave the city of my birth and travel 800 miles to the last place on earth I thought I’d end up, and ironically brought me full circle into the life I’d originally planned for myself, albeit way more prepared this time around

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