I subbed for the first time at an Options high school this week. Where students who weren’t getting a proper education in the regular system go, you know, and get more support in smaller classes. And where they get more direction to go into into manual arts and blue collar jobs, I gathered from the textbooks on the shelves there. I’m starting to think it would be better to encourage them to consider becoming teachers. Why not, since even my son, who was interested in teaching, and would be good at it, has decided to go for a better paying job in technology.
The Options zone was an arrangement of four portable classrooms called North, with mellow, understanding teachers, a few I.A.A.’s, and an acting principal. There was no lesson plan on the desk, so I got the scoop from the teacher next door, who told me that today was basically a study hall day, with students doing whatever assignments they had to work on.
Five students filtered in, and when I had told them my name and jotted theirs down, they got settled down to work, and I realized i wouldn’t have much to do and wished I’d brought my copy of The Boys in the Boat. Now and then I’d check in with one or the other, but no one really needed anything. So I sat at the desk did some writing and planning.
After a while I got to talking to the two girls in the front. One asked me how I got into subbing, and then what I expected Options students to be like. Had I been scared? I said, I’m always a little scared, no matter where I go to sub, because I never really know whether I can do a good job, and what might come up. But I like that, I added—keeps me on my toes, and things usually go pretty well anyway. She offered that some subs came with an attitude, as if they know the students already, as if they were troublemakers because of being in the Options program. I said, yes, I believe it, I’d seen that kind of prejudice and disrespect, and it’s sad.
I asked her how it made her feel to be treated that way, and she said she felt like being bad on purpose. Mm-hmm, I said, and then the teacher can feel justified, right? She totally got that, of course. So I invited her, and her friend also in the conversation, and I suppose a few of the guys who could hear from where they sat (one in particular, a tall, athletic black boy with a bit of his face peeking out of his hoodie as he glanced up now and then), to consider how worth it it could be for them (and me) to rise above and be a free agent, and act out of choice rather than auto-response. Told her what I’d learned long ago (not so as I remember to apply it much) from Eric Berne’s transaction analysis, how if we can have the self awareness to act from our true mature self, even if someone is expecting less, it can change the dynamic. I said but I’m preaching too much, and she said, I like it. She had to go, but if we’d had the chance to talk longer, I suppose we would have to come to the problem of the prejudiced teacher thinking that the good response was somehow due to her skills and showing who’s boss, rather than the maturity of the student in the face of disrespect.
I went back to writing in my notebook, and after a while the other girl asked what I was writing. I told her this and that–notes, thoughts, two-minute timed pieces for my class, ideas for books and articles, research on writing markets, and so on. She wanted to know more, so I found one piece that made a little sense, on how Annie Dillard’s writing affected me. She was so interested and appreciative. Told me I should write a whole book of things like that. Maybe I will, I said, once I figure out what’s people might like to read. I mentioned my blog, and she wanted to know how blogs worked, so I explained. We chatted on, about our families, and I could see her parents and step parents and step sibs were lucky to have her in the family, and told her so.
On the way out she said she’d recommend me to sub again. And I felt that flood of thankfulness, of privilege, of blessing that keeps me going, that would almost make whether I get paid for this job seem irrelevant. Not that I’m desperate to be liked, because I now have a confidence of my own that I at least can do a decent job. But it’s a blessing be invited into someone’s domain, out of good will.
Since the lunch room was across campus and there was a microwave in the building, I cooked up my rice and chicken there, found a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest tucked behind a row of Math with Business Applications and enjoyed a quiet read.
One thing that struck me about Options, or at least the way it was organized there, was the freedom that these students enjoyed, to come or not come to class, to come late, to decide on what they’d accomplish and when. No hall passes or tardy slips. There was a sense of final preparations for their life outside school, an acknowledgement of their impending (or newly begun) adulthood. Even with a sub in the room, these five students were responsible and respectful, and did their work.
The afternoon class was completely different. I took over from a young male teacher in “North North” supervising two big guys whom he had allowed (or not interfered with their decision) to watch internet flicks. I asked one student his name, which he gave as Josh, and put his headphones back on, continuing to blurt out song lyrics now and then, complete with expletives. The other teacher said, funny, he introduced himself to the other sub as Josh, too. I asked his real name, in case I needed it.
I couldn’t help but be surprised at what I felt were the low expectations there. The teacher seemed too intimidated to expect much. Maybe it was just because of early release and schedule changes. I knew nothing about these two man-sized guys except that I would be alone for the next hour with them, and that, as the teacher had explained, usually subs were not expected to do much teaching. I said maybe next time, since they’ll be used to me. Otherwise it’s hard to stay awake, right?
I read a bit, looked around the space, logged on to school district websites and picked up a few sub jobs. I went over and congratulated “Josh” for successfully pulling the wool over my eyes. He was the first, I said, because he didn’t give himself away as most did by pausing before giving the false name, and then looking for a reaction. He made an acknowledgement sound. I asked why he hadn’t given his real name, and he said because most people automatically shortened it to nicknames he didn’t like. Said he’d just not answer them. I said I didn’t blame him–names are important, and I think people should try use the ones they are given by the owner.
The taller guy was roaming around bored, but the bell rang and the two went to get their drives home. As I locked up and walked across the parking lot to the library to put in my final hour of duty in which I had no defined purpose, I daydreamed about what I could bring to a place such as the one I’d visited this day. Would I be able to set up some cool science labs? Model writing for the love of it? Lead a reading of The Importance of Being Ernest? Inspire some kids who found they weren’t served by the system to become educators themselves?