During my first semester as a graduate teaching assistant, I was fired from my job at a coffee shop for mv inability to act phony. Anyway, this is what I suspected my particularly phony employer meant by a “bad attitude.” I quickly found that, despite the incredibly high taxes in Illinois, my state-university stipend was slightly less than adequate. I thought about the three long and tedious years I had spent as an undergraduate and decided that I should perhaps do something that required a bachelor’s degree so I wouldn’t feel that time had been wasted. I had substitute-taught at my old high school before, but I wanted more steady employment than that institution could offer me.
Readers of Chronicles are familiar with the chaos that prevails in the Rockford public schools, all 48 of which are combined into one district, the infamous 205, whose numerous yellow buses plague early-morning motorists in Rockford. Not having had any personal experience with this monstrosity, thanks to my excellent and very discerning parents, who sent me to a private school, I was interested to see whether all those Rockford Files were really true. I have rarely found the pursuit of knowledge to be so painful.
My first step in the process was to obtain a copy of the 20-page application, complete with criminal-background survey and the requirement of a physical if I had not had one in the last 90 days. I thought I was in fine health, but, since I had not had a physical since the tenth grade and had never, in my recollection, had a tuberculosis test, I had to comply. I could have made an appointment with my family doctor, but I opted for the immediate-care clinic, which, presumably would be faster. Luckily, I had a book during my three-hour wait, which the receptionist had assured me would not exceed 45 minutes. Perhaps sensing that I was about to leave and throw out the whole plan, the nurse called me to the back and locked me in an office where I waited for about half an hour, without seeing another person. The doctor finally came in and had me breathe deeply and touch my toes and declared me to be in perfect health, if a little dazed from the waiting room experience.
Armed with my proof of good health, my application, and a $5.00 copy of my college transcripts, I drove again to the Regional Office of Education where I paid $50.00 (bringing my total with the physical close to $100.00) and walked out with my temporary substitute-teaching certificate, with a promise that the permanent copy would be in the mail. I took my collection of paperwork to the staffing service that District 205 used and asked to have my name added to the list of substitute teachers. Then I waited.
About three weeks later, I had nearly forgotten about the whole thing, when the phone rang one morning around 7:30. Awake, but still in bed, I got up to answer it and heard myself say “sure” when asked if I could be at Kennedy Middle School at 9:45 to teach social studies (formerly known as “history”). I arrived at the main office and, after being mistaken for a student by a gentleman in a sweatshirt at the front desk, was sent back to speak to the lady who coordinated these things. She was about the same age as I and seemed very nice as she handed me the classroom key, explained the schedule, and pointed me in the direction of my classroom. As I was walking out of the office, a policeman entered, leading a little boy. I must have been staring, as I had never seen such a thing in a school before, and the man in the sweatshirt asked me, “Are you ready for this?” I said “Yes,” but perhaps I wasn’t being entirely honest.
I found my classroom easily and walked in to find a woman of about 50 who was quite pregnant, wearing two flashing jack-o’-lanterns bobbing from a headband. She introduced herself as Mrs. Price, and I, as Mrs. Weber, and she explained that she was the long-term substitute for the normal teacher who was out with an injury. Mrs. Price was to be with me for three of the five classes I was to teach, which made me wonder how necessary it was for me to be there. I quickly banished those thoughts, however, when I considered mv forthcoming paycheck. Mrs. Price was arranging worksheets and copies of a scholastic magazine for middle-school children. She explained the assignment, which consisted of reading a few articles and then filling out a worksheet—seemingly, a simple task.
Mrs. Price explained that the worksheets were difficult for the students, although they looked like assignments I might have had in third grade, and that I would have to “hold their hands” through the duration of the assignment. As an alternative, I could continue playing a film. The Mummy Returns, that they had been watching for the previous few class periods. I asked Mrs. Price which assignment needed to be completed first, and she replied, “You might as well watch the movie . . .you don’t actually want to teach, do you?”
While teaching was presumably what I had come there to do, this comment, and the one about “just keeping them from killing each other,” indicated that I was really just a college-educated babysitter. The first class, consisting of about 27 students, came in around 9:45, and Mrs. Price had to fill in for the absent music teacher during that hour, so 1 was on my own. Before she left, she divulged her plan to show the kids The Nightmare Before Christmas, “because it’s a musical.”
Having my own schoolwork to do, I gladly inserted the video, turned out the lights, and sat down to read Keats. At a few points during the movie, loud noises startled me, and I looked up to see monsters chasing people, pushing them into pits of hot lava, and beating them with chains—very educational. The movie ended before the class period, and so I benevolently told the children they could talk quietly in their seats (as they had been doing throughout the entire moxie—minus the quietly part). At least during the movie, they had stayed in their seats. Now, the little monsters were running around the room, hitting one another with the dog-tag chains from the student I.D. cards that they wore around their necks. It seems they had learned something from the movie after all.
Mrs. Price came back from music class elated that the students had sung along throughout her movie. We showed The Mummy Returns to the second class as well. Mrs. Price promised them that, if they were good, she would give them treats, in honor of Halloween. By my estimation, the seventh graders were not being very good, but Mrs. Price went around with the candy bucket anyway. The third class on which I sat in while Mrs. Price “taught” had one bright girl, who immediately got herself a pass to the nurse’s office, a trick I often used in high-school algebra. I was sorry to see her go, and, as I sat in the dark, with the strains of The Nightmare Before Christmas echoing in the background and a migraine beginning to rear its ugly head, I started to feel sick and that I could not stay there another moment. I began to think of excuses. I could tell Mrs. Price, in front of the children, just how I felt and walk out (there was an outside door in the classroom). I could say that I was sick and excuse myself to the nurse’s office. I began to feel as trapped as the students must, but angered because I had already done my penance in junior high school. I decided to wait until the class let out, followed by an hour break for me, and then leave without telling Mrs. Price.
I have never experienced a longer 30 minutes. After the class was over, Mrs. Price told me that I had the classroom all to myself and warned me about the afternoon’s activities, then left me in peace. I gathered up my map, keys, and books, donned my coat, and walked quickly to the main office, where I told the nice young lady from earlier that morning that I was sick—the result of the students, who were some of the worst-behaved children I had ever seen. I told her that I couldn’t stand being in the institution and that there was no education going on there. I don’t think she understood my comment about everyone being right about District 205. Weak, and breathing heavily, I concluded my rant. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to laugh when she said, “I know; that’s why I try to avoid going out into the hall.”
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