I’m subbing at a new high school. It’s often written up in the local paper, but not with glowing stories of promising young athletes. Rather, it’s “Student Assaulted Teacher” and “Teacher Molested Student.” I did my first 3 years of teaching at a school with metal detectors at the door. I’m not afraid of “bad” schools. More like, I’m afraid of the pain-in-the-ass subbing can be at a school where teachers are so miserable, they’ll just not show up one day. But maybe it’s my kind of place, I thought. I kind of like mayhem. So I decide to check it out. Here’s what I find.
First period class is big. Like, 33 kids-big. One guy tells me they’ve had a sub almost every day since the start of the semester, which explains why there are no lesson plans. I say hey to the kids and start taking attendance; everybody’s acting fine. Then the classroom door opens, and three adults step in: a teacher, an administrator, and a security guard. Now, it might be worth telling you that the class is like 98% black kids. It also might be worth telling you that 2 of the 3 adults are also black. And it’s probably a good time to keep it real.
Whether we want to talk about it or not, there are big differences in how white people and black people are living in this country. I’m saying, look up some statistics about the people who are stinkin rich. What are they? White. And look up the rates at which white folks graduate college, and compare them to the rates for people of color. Or just go straight to the heart of it: look up the incarceration rates for black males. Hint: on any given day, 1 of every 10 black men in their 30s is locked up. Bottom line? As a general rule, white people live easier than black people. We all know this, right?
I’m no social scientist. I don’t think I understand the problem, or have the solution. But I do know what worked for me.
I didn’t live the “easy white life.” I had free lunch in elementary school and junior high. I shared a bedroom with my step-sister and step-brother. I got smacked more than I got praised. I was homeless at 13. For a long time, life was hard. The one good thing I had? School.
My teachers saved me. They made learning fun, so school was an escape. They gave me good books to read, which were better than drugs. They told me my writing was excellent, which was sweeter than a hug. I was really, really lucky. Because of my teachers, I had something besides the ugly. Because of my teachers, I pulled myself out of that mess.
Now, back to the classroom. Back to the 3 adults, the 33 kids. Refresher: the kids are acting fine. The adults? Not so much.
Trying to support the new sub, I guess, the administrator says, “These students need to behave and do their work. Do not hesitate to call security. If one student–ONE student–does or says something you do not like, you just pick up that phone and call security.”
“Um–I’m fine, they’re fine,” I say back. “I just don’t have any lesson plans…?”
The teacher shows me a stack of copies with carefully numbered Learning Objectives taking up half the page. Like, 3.01: The student will be able to assess and analyze the difference between blah and blah and blah. This jargon makes my eyes spin. And I’m supposed to force 33 teenagers who’ve had a sub for 2 months to take it seriously? Why yes, I am. I know this because the administrator speaks again.
“These students need to take this work very, very seriously. They have not been doing their work, yet they have a standardized test coming up, an EOC. In 3 weeks! If they don’t start caring about this work and taking it seriously, they will fail. They better start caring about that.”
I have to force myself not to apologize to the students for her words. And just like every time I’m in a classroom, I have to force myself not to teach like my teachers taught me, back in the 70s and 80s: with excitement and color and creativity and good books. I have to pretend 3.01 is what they must do, because that fill-in-the-bubble, there’s-only-one-correct-answer-to-every-question EOC test is the most important thing. Because in schools today? We don’t give kids an escape route. We don’t give kids a reason to want to learn, or inspire them to do more than just survive the ugly. There’s no time for such nonsense. There’s simply no room in the curriculum.
I’m one of those annoying adults who only follows the rules that aren’t stupid. My trustworthy dogs, out in the woods, clamped onto leashes? Stupid rule. Not following it. Besides, their galloping ahead introduces me to wonderful people. Like the kinds of teenagers who don’t use Proactiv or attend Youth Group, who like to hide whatever they’re up to in the woods. Or, who like to hide themselves from the adults who don’t like them.
One day, the pups are barreling down the path when I see two teen boys walking toward us. Because I’ve been reamed by uptight adults in the past–“There is a leash law, you know!”–I call out, “They’re friendly!” I could’ve saved my holler. The guys–clad in scungy jeans and black t-shirts–are bending over to say hey to my dogs, at dog-level. When I catch up to them, the one kid smiles up at me. “They’re cool dogs!”
I’m so used to the fury of leash-Nazi grownups, his words leave me stunned. So stunned, I forget my cheese-filter. As we part ways, I call out the corniest thing ever: “Hey, thanks. You’re good kids.”
This time, I stun him. He and his friend stop, spin around. “Really? You’re the first person to say we’re good. Most people say we look evil.”
So that’s what they walk around knowing adults think of them. That they’re evil. I’ll tell you something, and I know this for sure: if you stoop down to pet some random dog who just came roaring up to you, you’re not evil. Not even a little bit.
Today, same trail, the dogs peel off to investigate what’s going on up there, by the side of the lake. It’s three teen guys, zero fishing poles, and a cardboard box that says ICEHOUSE. Just standing around, liking the feel of a sunny, breezy day on the lake. I keep my eyes on the pups, making sure they don’t pee on anyone’s sneakers, and give my line: “They’re friendly.” I get a chuckle, but no reply.
Feeling weird about interrupting their little party, I say, “Okay, dogs, let’s go.” But the dogs have gone deaf. “C’mon, dogs!” in the happy voice. Not a move.
“This is weird,” I say, finally looking up at the guys’ faces. They’re wearing that helpless smile and them red, red eyes. They’re stoned to the beejezus, and I scared the sweet shit out of them. To them, I’m the cops. My dogs are drug sniffers.
I start clearing the hell out of there, saying, “They won’t leave! They really like you guys! Come on, dogs!”
There’s another chuckle as the dogs shake off their trance and follow me. We’re ten steps away when one of the guys responds.
“Hey, you wanna beer?”
In other words, “Hey, thanks for not judging us. Hey, thanks for getting it. Hey, thanks for not thinking we look evil.”
I didn’t look back as I called back, “No thanks, dude.” I didn’t want ’em to see my corny, grateful smile.
God, do I love them teens.
Before you go all snot-breath on me–like, all black is a fashion statement, Etler?–lemme tell ya something. This kid goes to a military school. She has to wear all black. So, way to be a fashion Zulu at a military school: AllStars, funky laces, and my blog as an anklet? All hail this kid.
At least, all grownups hail this kid. The rest of you kids can hail your own selves.
Maybe my favorite thing about working with you guys is this: your style blows my skull apart. It’s like, you didn’t get the rules book, so y’all do whatever you want. Examples: I’m doing this memoir-writing class in my stupid suburban town. First chick shows up? Striped purple hair. Purple hair with her old-lady flowered blouse. Next kid? Porkpie hat, big cartoon-red watch, and the world’s oldest t-shirt. It’s the no-smoking sign with the words, “There are cooler ways to die.” Kid blows my mind. How do you get that much style in 13 years on earth?
The next chick’s rocking silver-screen eyebrows and a do-rag, cholo-style. Bobby pins clip it into place. If I put that look together, it’s cuz I’m scrubbing toilets. And this gal’s the most glamorous thing on earth.
How do you guys do it? How do you make this nonsense work together?
I’m driving down my stupid suburban street this morning at school bus hour. Poor little girl, this strange lady–me–pulls alongside and rolls the window down, starts talking to her about her outfit. Scared the crap out of her, but I couldn’t help it: she had this magenta sequined bag, as big as my kitchen, over her shoulder. I’m like, Wait! You can wear a disco-ball bag with a white dress made out of crocheted doilies? And then throw a sailor-striped sweater on, too? My world will never be the same.
So I’ve got to thank you guys. I’m the one earning $ to “teach” you, but I’m the one getting schooled. Every cool outfit I’ve come up with was inspired by you and your warrior style. But it’s a fight, lemme tell ya. Hit 25, and the universe strong-arms you into looking like everybody else. So next time you see some oldster looking fly, tip your porkpie at ’em. They worked hard to look half as cool as you.
P.S. There is one exception to the rule, one lady who can hail her own self: the mom I saw at Starbucks this morning. The one in the black pantsuit with the sun-yellow flower pin, the sun-yellow heels, and the slicked-back Evita bun. Damn, girl. You look good.
You signed a contract, teachers. You better make those kids hate you, pronto. Here, 5 tips on how to reach that goal.
1) Don’t let them eat in class. Then? Eat in front of them.
2) Punish the wisecracker, from the second class starts to the second it ends:
Expect him to siddown and shuddup. Period.
Don’t listen to a word he says. Soon as he speaks, say, “I’m warning you…”
Screw him. Just send his ass to the principal’s office.
3) Make your tests, like, impossible. Focus on the tiny, stupid details nobody pays attention to. Excellent sample test question: What did great aunt Sadie eat for breakfast on Tuesdays? Offer extra credit questions, but make sure they’re about topics you didn’t cover.
4) Talk shit about your students in the teacher workroom. Make sure the door is open, and the students are passing in the hallway. Repeat the stupid things they say; brag about how you failed them all on the last test. Extra credit: talk shit about that one teacher all the kids love.
5) Be boring as hell. Drone on and on. Don’t laugh. Wear brown. Hang motivational posters, preferably in primary colors, with lots of exclamation points and an apple on them (the apple will remind them that they’re in school).
Try these out for now. When you’re an old pro, I’ll give you the advanced course, so you can create a truly miserable classroom experience for your students.
This is a story from my favorite class of all, lately: a post-ESL class made of kids who no longer need English as a Second Language instruction, but still need to be grouped together in a special, labeled English class, for some reason. Love me some public school.
Anyway, they were the best bunch of kids ever. They just weren’t in a hurry to read The Scarlet Ibis. So I tried to trick them into being interested: I sparked up a discussion about the differences between types of people. You know, the disabled-kid-in-Ibis-versus-his-jocky-prick-of-an-older-brother kind of thing. That’s the path that led to this conversational gem.
Mexican kid who keeps saying, “I’m doing the work, Senora Etler,” as he moves from one seat to another in a zigzag pattern around the classroom: “You know white people?”
Senora Etler: “Well, I guess I do know white people, yeah.”
Zigzag Kid: “You know how they get? When they don’t eat breakfast? They get all saaaad, and depresssed…”
I’m not too white to admit that I jetted snots onto his desktop, laughing at that. ‘Cause girl, you know it’s true. Really. What is it with white people and their “problems”?
The ZigZag Kid broke it down for me. “Their parents taught them that. When you’re a kid in Mexico? When you get hurt? You learn that you have to just deal with it. No Bandaid for you. So you just keep on playing.”
He’s totally right. Middle classers get to kvetch about the smallest, stupidest stuff, because they have nothing bigger to be miserable over.
Meanwhile, my boy ZZ’s a visionary. That afternoon, as I’m editing my WhiteGirl friend’s manuscript, I come across this line: “I hadn’t eaten anything that morning. My stomach was furious.” And then–then!–I’m flipping through Cracker Life magazine and discover the fine piece of craftsmanship you see above.
So I’ve got my Bandaids stockpiled. Just, how long’s the drive to Mexico, again?
Listen, I could have my head up my butt. It’s happened before. But, ah…did they play this song nonstop for months, with every word intact? Like, some guy telling other kids to haul ass or get shot?
I’d drive around hearing it, 50 times a day, and I’d be thinking, Is he really saying that? And they’re playing it on the radio? A kid whistling about shooting a school up?
I must’ve been right, ’cause yesterday–like, 8 months after that song finished its loop through the revolving door–I heard it again. But it went like this:
You better run better run, run from my–CLAPCLAP.
So it took the Ohio shooting for Clear Channel to realize the lyrics might be, er, distasteful to some?
Anyway, school shootings. At the end of the book The Hour I First Believed, which centers around a fictional recreation of Columbine, the author reflects on school shootings and says, “Why all this rage?”
Um, guys? “Why all this rage”–isn’t it obvious?
You can spot the quiet rage kids a mile away. They hide in the back of the room, wearing long, dark layers, doing a good impression of invisible. There’s a ring of empty desks around them. You don’t know what their face looks like, what their voice sounds like, even after they’ve been in your class for a year. Because it’s high school now. They’ve had so many years of shit-eating at the hands of their peers, and probably the gym teacher, plus maybe their parents and jockstar older brother, they’ve finally figured it out: if I stay quiet, I’ll get ignored most of the time. Finally.
The loud-ragers get it out. They’ll throw down with the teacher, get suspended from school. The emo kids, too–you cut, a friend notices, you talk to your friend about pain. Angry jocks beat guys up on the field, whack the hell out of their tennis racket. Beauty queens don’t bawl, they bitch: gossip as slimy therapy. Artsy-kids put it on paper. And the tech-heads? Don’t shoot me, but…I think their brains might be different. So brilliant, so structured, there’s no room left for sloppy emotion. But the kids who have no outlet? Who don’t connect with anyone and don’t have a “thing,” an art or a sport, that makes them feel alive? Those are the kids with the rage. Because it’s so uncool to be uncool. You know how animals attack or abandon the “different” one, the one who could slow the herd? Humans are animals. Animals who can shoot guns.
But if you want to share a milk-of-human-kindness moment with a quiet rager, take it from me: take it easy. I’ve come at these kids with the absolute best intentions, full-on Pollyanna. It backfires. People suck, remember? So if somebody’s suddenly kind ‘n friendly, it translates to fake ‘n agenda-y. I’m still trying to figure this out myself, but I think the best idea is a simple “Hey.” Or in an online forum, maybe an “I hear what you’re saying.” Just a single smoke signal that says, “Somebody out here doesn’t hate you.” Maybe that’s a start.
If you’re a kid who feels this way–isolated and different–please tell me what you think. If you’re somebody with a better idea than mine on how to reach such kids, drop some knowledge. Please.
That’s a healthy thigh. On a confident girl. ‘S what I’m talkin about.
I think I just became a Ke$ha fan.
It was a friggin Twilight Zone. Or like, a Seth Rogen house party. Every kid in the room? Funny as hell. Just their faces cracked me up. One kid had the bright-eyes-long-lashes Whee! I’m in high school! face. Underneath it was an arm, knuckle-punching the guy next to him. Another guy was rocking the genius-Indian-kid features with a sly, private, I-just-ate-a-plate-of-shit smile. Each of ’em sitting knees-forward, heads tilted upwards, smiling pleasantly at me, the teacher-for-a-day. Eager to acknowledge their presence during roll call.
It was fourth block on a Monday.
What the fuck.
It’s a really bad idea to try to explain funny. I’m setting myself up for failure; I know that. But such is the fervor inspired by these students. I have to pay homage.
Their job was the create a Powerpoint, an overview of everything they’d learned thus far. Engineering students, they put their glossy Beiber-styled heads to work. But one kept falling over. Silently, in his chair. No fanfare; no laughter. Just a fluorescent-orange t-shirt and its body, suddenly, clattering to the floor. Nobody acknowledged it; fingers kept typing. Investigating, I found the lad working away and perched on the masterpiece above. I don’t know how they made it, but they did. Inside of two minutes. Without a sound.
It wasn’t cute, I know. Teachers should keep their shit together. But I laughed until I cried.
Before long, a young man brought his completed Powerpoint up and laid it on the desk. Six slides per page, as instructed, but each slide overlaid with a famous guy’s face. Click on the photo and do Where’s Waldo. You’ll find him.
The long lean kid, braces and goof-grin, wore a Teflon moto-cross jacket. A lanky Evil Kneevil.
The guy with the Algebraic equation t-shirt ate Lorna Doone’s from a tiny Tupperware.
The white Harlem Globetrotter bounced a giant rubber ball with his left hand, typed a blue streak with his right.
The final completed Powerpoint hit the desk and immediately, telepathically, they were on a mutual task. In one blink, two perfect aisles of chairs faced the whiteboard. In another, four tables made arms, extending off the aisles. Third blink and the eyelash-kid was in the teacher’s chair, with Flight Simulator driving the plane through the overhead projector. In the 20th timewarp of the day, each boy was in an airplane seat, leaning left then right as the plane navigated the Andes.
After the crash, they told me this was their dream-come-true. They had never assembled a classroom jet plane before. That feat? An unpracticed ballet.
When the bell rang and the halls crowded, I stood and watched wistfully as the pack of clowns rushed off. Another teacher’s voice, correcting a student, cracked my reverie: “WATCHYER LANGUAGE.”
And I got it. I got it all. The reason the kids love me, and the reason I had to quit full time teaching. Me and the kids? We’re the only ones who think school’s allowed to be fun.
It was an honors class in a wealthy-enough suburb. They insisted their high school’s parties are like this. After I said “Really?!” seventeen times, one girl fessed up: “No, our parties are more like the one in 21 Jump Street.” Seen these flicks? Which is closer to Saturday night reality for you?
Or if you’re old folk, what movie did you fantasize repped your badass weekends? Mine was The Outsiders. I told concerned adults I was a “hood.” Seriously.
So I’m subbing today in an “urban” school, right? It’s the teacher’s planning period, so I’m in a silent room. Which means I can hear everything going on next door. And it’s like a scene out of that “Luca” song–remember that shit? If not, click play, above. Anyway, so here’s what I’m listening to. Direct quotes.
“GET in your SEATS! Because I said so!”
“SHUT your mouth!”
“GET outta there! Get outta my desk! Go out in the hall!”
Swear to God, inside of 15 seconds I made 2 trips to the bathroom so I could spy on the damn classroom. Teach saw me both times. Must’ve thought I had monster diarrhea.
But I wasn’t spying for nosiness. Really, I was scoping the scene, trying to suss out if I could ever, possibly say to this teacher, “Ma’am? I’m a teacher/sub/YA author/teen life coach. I wonder if I might speak to your class for a second?”
I didn’t want to put the teacher down; that would epi-fail. Soon as the Santa Claus of a sub left the room, the kids would only hate the teacher more. No, I wanted to say to the kids, pretty much,
“Y’all, I know it’s more fun to eff-around than to learn friggin’ British Lit or whatever. But here’s the thing.
A) Hearing you guys from next door, you sound like every movie’s stereotype of ‘bad kids.’
B) If this shit is what you’re doing at 8 AM on a Monday when you’re 14–throwing paper balls around, yelling across a room, refusing to do anything to make your ass smarter–damn sure you’re not heading for a baller’s life of training hard and counting cash.
C) True story: I was a homeless kid at your age; today I drive a 3-day-old car, rock diamonds in my ears, and sign autographs in my book. I got from there to here, swear to God, because of school.”
My jaw hasn’t jacked, though. Nah, I’m still sitting here, alone, in the silence of this planning-period classroom. ‘Cause I know–I don’t want to, but I know–if I asked that teacher if I could talk to her kids, she’d resent the fuggoutta me. For implying I could do her job better than her. And for daring to step beyond my role as lowly sub. And so I sit, and listen, and my heart breaks, for both the students and the teacher.
So here’s where I could use your input. This whole scene? This is what I want to help change. I want to take the suck out of school for both kids and teachers, by opening doors to a new point of view. I want to show kids that they can change their shit up through school, and I want to let teachers see how they can get back to loving teaching, like they did in the beginning, by just asking their students what’s up, and listening to their answers. But y’all, am I stoopit? Am I dreaming the impossible dream? Should I stuff my holier-than-thou shit up my ass? Tell me. What’s up.