Beginnings, endings, and Fourth Graders

Beginnings are full of pain, at least I anticipate they will be whenever I walk into a school for a day of subbing. Today was no different. The first hour is always the worst; they hand you a Mac Book and walk you to your class and some other woman’s messy desk (I have yet to sub for a male teacher) with her fake fur-lined sweatshirt bunched up on the seat back and her un-sharpened pencils and her piles of spelling tests and a few books and worksheets scattered around that you will be expected to know are meant for the lesson plan. Never once has anyone said, use such and such to teach. You’re just supposed to know it’s there on the desk somewhere. Like figuring out the next move in chess.

The Mac they gave me didn’t work. The text was illegible and it wouldn’t open a file or connect with the Smart Board. I called the office and Rob came up and slowly, time ticking away before 30+ kids invaded the room, informed me it was using El Capitan and hadn’t been updated. So he took it and brought me a new one, which worked. Tech people are angels.

There was a lesson plan but it said Friday on it and this was Wednesday, so I didn’t think I should follow it, but now I know she just adapted last Friday’s lesson plan for Wednesday and forgot to change the date. When I saw that it referred to this afternoon’s field trip, I knew it was the lesson plan after all. But there was another confusing document with info about all the kids in class, especially Chloe (not her real name)  who could be challenging when a sub taught. She was a devil. Mrs. Beckwith said to keep her close and let her work at my desk in the back. But I didn’t want her close. She did everything short of spit at me. No sitting in her seat completing her worksheet, but drifting around talking and bothering others.

Fortunately a kind young teacher in the fourth grade wing named Brie had said if I need help just ask. I had no idea what to do for “Circle,” which lasted 25 minutes. She lent me her orange rubber ball and told me have each child get up and shake someone’s hand and say hello. Everyone should pick someone who hadn’t done it yet. Then I should pick a kid and ask them to name four sports teams, for example, or four Disney movies, or four anything and the ball starts going around and if they don’t come up with the names by the time the ball is back to them, then they come up with another four of something. Wherever the ball ends, then it’s that person’s turn.

I’m going to remember that one. It was a hit and put me on a good footing from the start. Math was next. In elementary school there are always little goodie goodies who want to help and I love that. Facing heat on many fronts, (talking, people sitting in others’ desks, Mr. J (the assistant principal) walking through periodically, difficulties finding the correct PowerPoint, and forgetting to take attendance or lunch preferences were a few. Now I know lunch preferences are something you have to do early and send down to the office. Tiger meal, Hot meal or Home (which means they brought their lunch).

Terrell, a tall black kid with a fuzzy mushroom top hairdo (like the NFL players) emerged as my special helper. He was adorable and liked to be liked. But he wasn’t all good. Soon he had Nam crying, a chubby sweet Vietnamese or Laotian kid with a mop of black hair and an angelic face and dazzling smile who liked to talk and raise his hand. But everything he said petered away into nothing because a) he didn’t know the answer or b) his English wasn’t adequate. His mother, “Mommy” as he referred to her repeatedly, came to help on the field trip. A relief.

Several times during the day he fought back tears or just succumbed to a fit of sobbing. The first instance of tears shocked me and I walked him out into the hall and tried to console him and give him a few minutes to compose himself. His whole body was hot and sweaty.

Math went okay thanks to help from Kallie and Rina on how it’s done, and thanks to my energy level– still okay. They were working on improper fractions and mixed numbers. For most of them this was easy but some were hopelessly lost so I want around helping some of them, then collected the worksheets so it seemed important they had completed them. Then I had them work on P. 17 and 19 in their books. They have workbooks more or less rather than textbooks. After they went to specials, a chance for me to catch up on what I needed to do for the rest of the day, and also put my lunch in the fridge in the teacher’s lounge and explore the school and figure out the layout. All the pods were named for birds. I was in Owl, five classrooms it seemed and a group of teachers who were very tight with each other. They were all meeting at a central table when I walked in and they all ate lunch together and laughed and chatted. I was ignored by them for the most part but I didn’t mind.

Throughout the day, I relied on Mr. J, who came in periodically and strolled quietly through the classroom saying nothing to keep Chloe in line to a certain degree. I was informed by the kids that the sub had suffered a meltdown the previous Friday.

Everyone kept lining up with friends to work on the floor and I gave several permission to do it. So they could crawl around and not be stuck sitting rigidly in a chair.

My helpers first emerged before math. Kallie, a tall thin girl with lank blond hair, serious, on task, dedicated to things going smoothly, informed me how Mrs. Beckwith did things. And so did Rina, always willing to tell me how to proceed. Rashaad no matter what question I asked, had his hand straining out of his shoulder socket to answer. I scanned the room for others to call on but  Jack, Cole and Brett, weren’t interested in the lesson. They were always cooking up some mischief in the back or daydreaming. Alan with his black glasses and black hair and man-about-town face, was also a naughty guy. And Asad and Cabdi were intent on fouling everything up.

At least I had the threat of putting their name on my “list” which meant they would miss part of the Winter Party. Thank you, Mrs. Beckwith, for that effective threat.

After lunch, the field trip to DemCon, the recycling center, was not the peaceful break I anticipated.

Endings are not beginnings, which is why I’m so pleased when a day of substitute teaching ends and the relaxation and relief flood me. The lack of stress equals nirvana, bliss, exhilaration, joy, even euphoria.

Endings need codas and drums and a soft low or high chord to signal it’s all over. One final drink, dim the footlights, but after a day of subbing, blessed quiet is celebration enough.

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