Friday, September 12, 2008
The Substitute Zone by Barb McKone
The Substitute Zone by Barb McKone
Three days ago, I was a kindergarten teacher.
There wasn't really much teaching involved. I was a substitute for the day.
During this lovely mid-life crisis, while I try to figure out what exactly I'd like to do for the next 15-20 years to help support my family, I decided to get myself on the substitute list. Just for kicks. Grocery money, plus. Perhaps even pay for my daughter's college textbooks and sorority dues. You know. Real estate hasn't seen it's greatest year, and making a living as a writer just might be a better mystery than my last novel. So, here I am at the corner of "What have I been doing for the past few years?" and "What now?" That corner is smack-dab in the middle of what I like to call The Substitute Zone.
The Substitute Zone is a frightening place. First of all, and most shocking, is that the substitute, even if in a cute new sweater she cannot afford, is thoroughly invisible. High school and middle school students can't see the substitute, unless she is giving a test or administering CPR. I swear, it's true. If the substitute is working the elementary grades, however, The Zone is a different place. In grades K-5, the sub is Queen For The Day.
It was fun, for the first hour or so, to be adored. The kindergartners waited for every word I uttered with breathless expectation. They were funny. Precious. They drew me pictures. They needed me for more than passes to the restroom or library- passes that generally assure that the sub will not see the passing student for the rest of the class period. But, by the second hour, I realized that kindergarten subs are actually needed to a frightening level. My kids are in high school and college now. I had no idea just how out of touch I really was with the tiny ones until I found myself lifting a kindergartner onto the one toilet over six inches high in the entire school. It must have been a teacher's hideaway toilet that we happened to stumble upon while trying to find our way back to the gym. All I know is that my kids knew how to "hold it" when they were in kindergarten. Didn't they?
Kindergartners run in packs. Watch out, they can take you down. Walking from station to station, from the library to the art room, I wore a thick skirt of five-year-olds, clutching on to me, clinging to me like a life raft. By the end of the day I felt like I might need to shower in Purell. Honest to God, how can so many kids have colds at the same time? It was while lining up for dismissal that I decided to never enter the Kindergarten Zone ever, ever again. According to the cheerfully-colored sheet by the classroom door, I had one bus rider. According to the kids lined up neatly at the door in "Riders," "Walkers," and "Bus Riders" categories, with just five minutes to spare, I had four. Four first-time bus riders and absolutely no information about what bus they should ride. I pictured the headline. "Kindergarten Sub Sends Helpless Students Home on Wrong Buses." I pictured frantic moms and furious dads and an orange jumpsuit. I found a TA and dispatched her to the office while the three lines waited on the alphabet rug. Even with the help, we still had several kids in tears. I went from "the greatest sub ever!" to the weird lady with the sweaty face trotting nervously from bus to bus. I watched the news. They all seem to have gotten home okay.
So, yesterday when I got the morning call to duty, I swallowed hard before signing on. Middle School Science. Oh boy.
The day went fine. As I said, I got little to no attention, which, after kindergarten, was just fine with me. They were forced to talk to me in a short assigned discussion about their most recent experiment. Other than that, I was only there to find and hand out the colored pencils. Lunch, however, was an experience. Being invisible comes in especially handy in places like the lunch room. Being invisible, the substitute can learn all kinds of interesting facts if she listens carefully enough. At yesterday's lunch I sat, by myself, of course, at a table by the far wall. The only other people who sit at the tables by the wall are the students who also don't want to be seen. My table was next to a table of what Hollywood would categorize as "misfits," or "nerds"- you know, the billionaires of the future. I'm certain Bill Gates used to sit at a table just like this one.
They were talking about some sort of internet game in which they liked to use swords. The boys described their deadly battles with all sorts of creatures in great and lurid detail while the one girl at the table listened quietly. Intently. Being a cinematic type myself, I couldn't help but recognize the potential teen move story line: shy girl trying to hide behind her mane of too-long hair befriends quirky table of boys. Enter substitute teacher who recognizes her hidden beauty and offers makeover. She's stunning. Unrecognizable. She's asked to prom by handsome school jock with jealous girlfriend who plots shy girl's demise at dance. In climactic scene, lunchroom table of boys who have just won state science competition hear of plot and save the day with catapult invention that sends icky jock-girlfriend flying. Shy girl wins Prom Queen but also wins what she wanted all along: the heart of head lunchroom misfit, who of course turns out to be a total stud when his glasses fall off and he gets a little dirty.
My lunchroom musings were interrupted when I had the opportunity to get a closer look at the long-haired girl and realized that she was actually a long-haired boy. Oops. Scratch that video montage of shopping for the prom dress.
It could only happen in The Substitute Zone.