The kid in the knitted hat shambles toward the classroom door for the fifth time in twenty minutes.”Sit down,” I say.
He veers away from the door and toward me, his adolescent shoulders stiff, the rest of his body a loose confederacy of see-saw hips and baggy clothes. His eyes are half-shut, as if he’s dozy; their heavy look makes clear his cold contempt.
“Sit down,” I say again, listening to my voice: a voice obviously imitating that of someone who is in control of her situation. He flicks me a chilly glance and slouches, looking around idly, as if we were two strangers at a bus stop, not teacher and student inside a classroom.
To my right is a contingent of boys hunched together, talking. Every few minutes one of them goes to the door, on the lookout for friends walking down the hall. Already I’ve gone to the door myself several times, directing the curious away. In the center of the classroom, a group of girls apply hand lotion. A string of students to my left are bent over their desks, ostensibly doing the assignment.
Except for one poster titled “Extraordinary Women” and another that offers an airy definition of “the true nature of Love,” there is nothing on the walls. The textbooks in here appear older than their ten years–defaced, discolored, their covers hinged loosely to their broken spines. Four-fifths of the class are not at all interested in attempting the assignment on Mexican American history: Outline pages 156 through 159 in the Multicultural Studies workbook, pages that are already in outline form. The absurdity of this is perhaps the biggest blow of the day.It is second period at Oakland Technical High School, my first day as a substitute teacher in the beleaguered district. Three weeks ago, at an orientation meeting for new substitute teachers, a personnel manager told our group of fifteen that she had 130 spaces to fill that day.I purposely sought Oakland Tech. It’s near my apartment and I couldn’t beat the commute.
Now I wade into the group of chattering boys with the feeling of an Amazonian explorer trying to cross a river full of piranhas. I stop at what I think is the nerve center of the group and address a kid in a basketball jersey.
“Why don’t you guys get started on the assignment?” I say in a firm voice. (“Be firm but not condescending,” instructs a pink printout distributed throughout the district and titled “How to Succeed as a Substitute Teacher.”)
“What? We don’t have to do work in this class,” the student fires back.
“There’s an assignment on the board,” I answer evenly. “Outline pages in your yellow book.”
“I don’t got a book.”
I return to the front of the classroom and pass out some Xeroxed material. There is not enough, so I tell some of the kids to share. Their ranks open up a little to let me pass and I think of this as progress. But no one looks at the Xeroxes. No one has a pen, or paper. And even if they did, one boy says, their teacher never makes them do any work anyway.
“Why don’t you sit down like Mr. Jones does, and just rock back and forth in your chair?” one kid asks, referring to the teacher.
I look around at the arms and legs spilling off desks and counter space like marionettes’ limbs and at the dull, chipped looks of dissatisfaction on their faces. I feel the palpable force of their will against my incredibly shrinking one. I return to my desk.I often pass the school while riding my bike, and for some time before taking this job I have been watching the kids, stacking my odds. Against the backdrop of the outside world, the students look small, even the boys smoking joints or cigarettes, jauntily walking to class in twos and threes. My arrival inside today, however, has me rethinking everything. The kids look much bigger and more energetic from up close.I immediately sought refuge from them in the front office. Inside, a police officer sat at ease. I waited ten minutes before a secretary took notice of me and told me where my classroom was located. “Someone will open the door,” she said, so I went. But neither a security guard nor an administrator had the right set of keys, and this delay put the class back a good 25 minutes.During the break between the first and second periods, I borrow a copy of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat from the English teacher (a long-term sub) next door, planning to read it aloud and throw some literary references into their Multicultural Studies assignment.Now, back at my desk, I announce that the second-period students can outline the outline while I read aloud. There is a general muttering of disgust. I leaf through the book, looking for an interesting-looking chapter.
I begin. The words feel incongruous in this environment but I notice there is juicier stuff later on about a woman having an unwanted baby in a park and wrapping it in newspaper. That, I imagine, will capture their attention.
The class is relatively quiet so I think maybe I have a chance, but the prose gets more elegant and spare as I go on, lending itself poorly to the situation at hand. A hubbub of voices starts up and rises, louder and louder, until I’m shouting. I use my strongest, loudest voice to send out a resonant “Quiet!” again and again. Like a fishing line in a silty sea, my words are lost.
“We don’t have to do nothing in this class,” says a boy wearing a bandanna illustrated with a $100 bill. I call the office on the classroom phone. The secretary says she’ll send a security guard.
I continue to shout out my reading, not ready to relinquish the fight. After several minutes I become aware of a presence at the door that is different from the students’ flitting shades that continue to come and go at will. An elderly lady with a small pot belly and squinty, nearsighted eyes is there. She’s wearing a security guard’s jacket and I have a drowning feeling as she begins to shush the students.
“Now come on, be quiet, you-all, for the teacher lady,” she says in a grandmotherly tone.
The kids shout back familiarly.
“Hey, Grandma, what’s going on?” “Where’s Mr. Jones at? This sub thinks we got to do work. Tell her we never have to do work.”
I continue to read but the guard is calling amiable greetings back at the students, making the hubbub even louder than before. I want to push her out the door. After assuring herself that she has done her job, and with a kind word for me, she leaves.I give the reading one more go, but a textbook is thrown and it slams against the opposite wall, near a kid in the corner. There is a minute pause as the kids look at me. I stop reading, forever, and walk to the right side of the room, to the group of boys from which the missile was launched. One kid has two books on his desk and now he puts his hands over them.”Did you just throw that book?” I ask, more firmly than ever.
“He threw a pencil at me,” the kid wails, bristling all over. I follow his look to the opposite corner, where the book landed. A white student, the only one in the class, is sitting there with a silly grin on his face. The plaintiff glowers at me as I put my hands on the two books he has on his desk.
“Let’s put these back on the counter,” I soothe, grasping them and giving them a good pull.
“No, I’m using them.” He pulls back.
“No, you’re not.” I pull.
“Yes, I am!” His arms lock taut and something tells me I am headed down the wrong road.
“Give me the books,” I say again and, surprisingly, he gives them up. I put them on the counter, congratulating myself. I walk slowly to the front.
When I turn around again the group of boys has moved, with silent precision, and surrounds the white kid, whose smile has turned sickly at the corners. The kid who had the books is sitting next to him now, his face locked on his target, talking low.
“Ooh, you in trouble now,” one of the girls calls out. Another kid in the group stands over the white kid and says things I don’t quite catch but which refer to his skin color. Snickers ripple around the room. I sit behind the teacher’s desk, trying to hide my growing alarm.
“Look at her,” one of them says suddenly and the kids look at me. “She trying not to notice.”
“She even look like him,” another one says and the kids laugh. I sit in the teacher’s chair, feeling like my features have been glued together, when suddenly the lights go out.
I jump out of my chair to the lightswitch, but the switch doesn’t work when I flick it. I push open the door, the only source of light, and go to the class phone to call the office. The cord dangles empty, the receiver gone. I turn back to the door just as one of the boys is closing it. Near-panic strikes at the thought of getting caught in total darkness.
I reach the door just before it clicks shut and I push it open with the relief of someone breaking out of a hole. Back inside, I order the kids away from the door in a suddenly unleashed rage.
“Get away from that corner! If you don’t get away from that corner I’m going to report you to the principal and get your names.” I barely understand what I’m saying. I charge the corner and the boys scatter. Two or three shoot out the door, leaving a ghostly image of arms and legs in motion, while the rest of the class melts back into their chairs. I stand by the door, a guard dog suspicious of the enemy.
After a while an administrator appears–the same one who, earlier, had unlocked the door–and delivers a lecture on bad behavior. While he is talking, the lights come back on. The class listens, their eyes unfocused.
“I understand there were threats to other students in class,” the administrator winds up. “That kind of behavior is unacceptable. If you need to be moved to another school because you can’t handle it here, we can make that happen for you.” But none of the perpetrators are present anymore.
Feeling older and immeasurably wiser, I do nothing for the next three periods. I watch students listen to Discmans and pull CDs from their backpacks. At lunch there is a fight outside. I watch a mass of kids stream toward the action.
“Is security coming?” I ask a passing teacher.
“I’m sure they’ll take care of it,” he says over his shoulder, without pausing to look.
During fifth period, four towering juniors come in and proceed to play craps in the corner of my room. Bills are exchanged with every roll of the dice.
“I have to go now,” I tell them quietly after the bell rings. Multicultural Studies is over and I am to report to the office for a last-period assignment. I turn off the lights while the boys take one last throw, then scoop up their dice and follow me out.
For sixth period I am instructed to help out in a sophomore geometry class. When I arrive, another sub is already there taking roll. On the room’s hanging television screen, an Eddie Murphy movie is playing. The sub’s voice is barely audible over the television. I watch while Murphy and an actress work their way into a large bed with shiny sheets. I reach up and turn off the television.
To my surprise, none of the students protest.
“We’ve already seen it fifty times,” one boy groans.
I pass out worksheets and try to help a girl define “vertices,” but I can’t remember what they are. A group on the left refuses my suggestions to get started, so I move through the class like a ghost, listening to their languid talk. At 3:10, the left half of the class gets up and leaves.
“Go back to your seats and wait for the bell,” I say from the door. The bell won’t ring till 3:30. But none of them so much as turns a head.
Then when the bell rings, with its accompanying loudspeaker announcements ordering detentions for students who were tardy, I walk out with the rest, glad to be gone.