I arrive at the middle school at 7:30 a.m., a solid 45 minutes before first period. I need time to find the classroom, make sure it’s unlocked, read the teacher lesson plans, understand the lesson plans, and find any necessary materials. “I’m subbing for 6th grade Language Arts,” I tell the secretary.
She looks at the sub info on her desk. Her expression grows concerned. “No,” she says, “It’s art – can you handle that?”
“Of course,” I say. I have 2 years of experience teaching elementary and middle school, a year of student teaching, and a year of subbing at a high school. “I mean, if she has a lesson plan, I can follow it.”
“Hmmm. I think she uses lesson plans,” the secretary says unconvincingly.
I take my substitute teaching ID and find the classroom. The “lesson plan” is bare bones – in each class students are to use the period to work on finishing up their perspective drawings. The teacher desk is a mess, the floor littered with trash. I wander next door and introduce myself to the shop teacher, a friendly older gentleman who says I can send kids to him if there’s a problem. Even when I had my own private school classroom, I often sent kids to the teacher next door, so this comment doesn’t concern me.
First period comes along, a small group of mostly 8th grade boys. Though they mainly choose to goof off rather than work, this isn’t a concern for me. Some of them are working and some are doing other homework. No one is particularly causing a problem.
The 7th grade class is a different story. A large group of 35 or so, they are a mass of barely contained energy, spinning rulers around their pencils and throwing paper across the table at each other. One table catches my eye and I quickly identify the ringleader. His behavior is not the easygoing goofing off of the 8th grade class. I’ve visited several prisons and chatted with inmates, but never before seen the cold, casually hate-filled look that was in his eyes. I certainly wouldn’t expect it in a 13-year-old child. Great, I’ve entered the plot of Dangerous Minds. Here we go.
I remind this table a few times to get on task. I take away the rulers they won’t stop spinning in the air. I hear the ringleader speaking in a threatening way to another boy at his table. “Is there a problem?”
“No,” he says and smiles. “No problem here.”
As this table continues to show no pretense of doing the assignment despite my reminders, I take the ringleader aside and ask him to go work in the shop class next door. “Fuck that,” he says. “I’ll go to the SRC.” I hand him a referral slip, which he throws on the floor as he walks out.
The table continues not to work. This is surprising – I would expect some attempt at following instructions after this. A few minutes later I ask another boy to leave the class, this time escorting him to the shop class next door. Who do I find in the shop class? Ringleader. “You’re not supposed to be here,” I say.
“Bitch, you told me to come here.”
I do not respond, just walk to the shop teacher and ask him to give Ringleader a behavior referral and send him to SRC. When I get back to the classroom, a girl from The Table – a girl who also has cold, empty eyes – has wandered off to the other side of the room and is doing a cartwheel. At this point I no longer care about this class. I look at the clock. There are 20 minutes left and then I will have a lunch break. If I can make it through the day without quitting, I will have earned $150. I look back at the girl. The other students are looking at her and whispering, giggling. Clearly she wants to get sent out of the classroom, too, like her friends. Not going to happen. Now she’s doing something with scissors. That makes me nervous. Sharp scissors and disaffected, possibly gang-affiliated teenagers are not a good mix.
The 20 minutes pass with little incident. Students file out. I assess the area that Gang Girl had been in – damage left is a puddle of paint on the floor. It’s lunchtime now, and in a few hours I’ll be gone. I don’t have to come back to this school, or to any middle school ever if I don’t want to.
I’m sorry for these teachers, sure. But I’m more sorry for the kids.