Just last week I had a wonderful opportunity to be a substitute teacher for an Elementary School. I got up Friday morning feeling so excited. I knew the day was going to be a good one. I’d heard the school districts in my area had been needing Substitute Teachers. As a college professor and a grandmother, I knew I had the opportunity to step in.
I went through the difficult steps to be approved, which involved everything from tetanus shots, to fingerprinting, without a hitch. When the call came Friday morning, I was well prepared. I entered the First Grade class and read all of the detailed instructions left by the very efficient teacher. She even gave me a heads-up as to who my “problem” children might be.
All of a sudden, the hallway filled with children’s high-pitched voices and the room quickly filled with wide-eyed little ones. Directing them to hang up their coats and take their seats, I explained that their teacher would be out for the day, and that I was there to be sure they had help with their work for the day.
I’m not sure if it was that moment, or the next, when a young loud-mouth young man screamed at a little girl coming through the doorway, that I knew the day was probably doomed. “You’ll hate her!” the boy screamed, flinging his book bag to the ground. “Everyone hates her!” The little girl’s eyes widened and she promptly burst into tears. I tried to comfort her and explain that I didn’t hate her for the next fifteen minutes, while the rude boy jumped up and down on his chair. The other children just stared at me. When the girl seemed assured I meant my words, I took the young man aside and explained that it wasn’t nice to say such rude things. I gave him a stern warning, and let him know his behavior was unacceptable. He stormed back to his seat and pouted while I tried to regain control of the class. And so it was for the rest of the day.
The two taunted each other continually, disrupting the class to the point it made other children cry. I’d turn my back in a quiet moment to help one child, only to hear a scream and see the boy backing away from the girl with a pair of blunt-nosed scissors. I sent her off to the nurse screaming and crying and wrote a disciplinary note for him. Then he broke into tears and threw his classwork at another student. When the girl came back, she slapped a girl nearby her with a ruler and then lied about it. This went on through every subject I taught for the entire day. Screaming, crying, yelling and throwing things. One student would stop misbehaving and another one would start.
In the back of the room sat another young man who disregarded every exercise, every story or every math problem we worked on. He’d throw spitballs at other students and make faces whenever my back was turned. Another boy crawled on his hands and knees to a computer which was housed behind a blackboard and played computer games. It took me several minutes to even know he was missing.
The young girl “nobody” liked continued to scream and throw herself to the ground every time another student had a crayon she wanted, or wouldn’t read to her or do whatever she asked them to do. It was clear that she was not socially prepared to be in a class with others. Her disruptions affected every child in the room. When confronted, she told me I needed to give her a green “smiley face” on her work or her grandmother would beat her. (I promptly made note of that to the teacher.)
I worked with a few students, who said these kinds of things went on every day and that it was hard for them to listen or learn. My heart broke for these kids, kids whose parents obviously felt no obligation in being role models for their children’s learning or had not yet realized how their one “busyness” affected their child. As I walked a continuous circle around the class, I marveled at how each student adapted to the chaos in the room. Some ignored it, keeping their heads down. Some stared in bewilderment. Some cried, while others carried on conversations as though nothing were happening. Some cheated by copying off their nearby neighbor’s completed work. Others just stared straight ahead, waiting. I leaned over to offer a hand. He smiled up at me.
When I turned around again, two young men were gyrating like mating bulldogs. I caught the socially inept girl who decided that spitting on the student next to her was acceptable behavior. When I corrected her and told her to apologize, she threw herself to the floor and screamed that her stomach hurt. I sent her to the nurse, again.
Throughout the day, behavior became worse and worse. No amount of caring, threatening or coercion made a difference. Most had been to detention so many times, it was like a second home. All, but one, had come to school without breakfast. All hungry little souls.
By the end of the day, we were all in tears, including me. I asked them to quietly get their jackets and be prepared for their bus number to be called. Like a stampede of wild horses they made their way to their jackets, while I helped one sweet little girl finish up her work.
A second later, a blood-curdling scream filled the air. I swung around to see a pile of bodies meshed with puffy coats. On the bottom of the pile was one of my main troublemakers writhing in pain. I cleared the pile and called for the sweet girl to make her way first to the nurse and then to the principal. By the time they arrived, the rest of the kids stood against the wall. terrified at what might be coming next. I had gathered the information needed to deduce that the troublemaker had been either jumped on or pushed to the floor by the ignorer. They took the troublemaker away in an ambulance, his arm broken in the melee. The ignorer was to be suspended, yet another burden for he and his family.
I can’t tell you what a failure I felt like. I was handed the responsibility to protect and teach these little ones and I failed. I cried all the way home, disgusted by the parents who forget they have children to nurture and teach, by school systems whose hands of discipline are tied by political correctness and by law-makers who have failed to allow teachers to segregate those children who want to learn from those who do not.
I teach college English classes, as well. After seeing what goes on in the first grade, I now better understand the issues I am dealing with in college. I have students who enter my college-level writing classes and are unable to write a three word sentence with a capital and a period. Yet, they brag about being a 4.0 student and “hope” I will see fit to give them the same grade whether they do the work or not! When they fail my class, they are astounded, put off by the fact that I actually expected them to learn!
I was angry when I left that school. Yet, more than being angry, I was devastated by the lack of love these children display in their actions toward each other. If it is true that children emulate what they see and hear, then I now understand where the issues of teen pregnancies, suicides and drug use stems from. These children are seeking love and acceptance, yet they act out in anger and in the lack of hope they feel.
I wept half the weekend over this experience, pained by the actions of these children and the hopelessness I felt in trying to make a difference in their lives. I’d been in that place more than one time. I’ve felt the despair, both as a child and as an adult, of being “put aside” or “not enough” for anyone to really love. I ached for each of them.
When I picked up my grandson a bit later, I paid close attention to everything I said to him. I didn’t let him win every game we played. I wanted to show him that, in life, you don’t have to win to be good at something, nor will you win at everything you try to do. I sung hymns of praise and shared my raspberries with him, even though he wouldn’t share his with me. I took him to the library and let him pick just one book, when he wanted them all. In other words, I tried to make a difference in his little life.
At the end of the night, he hugged me and gave me his favorite stuffed animal. When I put my head beside his on the pillow, he circled my neck with his little arms and said, “Tootsie, you’re my best friend.” I squeezed him so tight. Tears spilled from my eyes as I held him and I prayed about those children I’d been with earlier in the day. I wanted them to feel the love this little boy felt. Maybe I couldn’t make the difference I wanted to make in their lives, but I knew I could try to show this little boy how important he is in mine.
Then, this morning, I opened the notebook I had taken with me to school. Tucked inside it was a note circled in red crayon from one of the students. A small heart was below the child’s name. It read,
“I like Miss M Because She is nice to my Frend but she like me too and she is the Besh teacher ever ind the holl scull.”
I smiled and bowed my head, praising God for the encouragement he had given me through the words of a child.