I find being a substitute teacher is very much like being a prison warden. Both are in positions of power, both are resented by their captives and both must be ruthless in quelling in any sort of uprising. The only difference between the two being a substitute doesn’t have the strong barrier of iron bars or an entourage of questionably armed guards. Instead, a substitute teacher must wear armor of casual indifference, quick wit and prophetic foresight. And, of course, with both, there is opportunity for finding a good story.
With our stories, a solitary wolf usually hunts a herd of lambs. Substitute teaching is a story where there is instead a solitary lamb and a pack of wolves. The lamb stands up on a stage and does its best to entertain its crowd of slavering wolves. A single misstep, a single errant decision can lead to a substitute teacher’s demise in the form of flying paper airplanes and snapchatting selfies.
Middle school has a reputation for housing a special brand of wolves. Often times, people are tempted to label them as immature, as unruly, awkwardly loud, smelly and defiant They write them off as casually as we write off racoons for being universally dirty. There’s this negative stigma that middle school students are the most difficult to deal with because they’re stuck between worlds; they’re no longer small, cute and malleable like a 3rd grader, but aren’t old enough to be a young adult with real life interests. Even I adhered to this black mark on the student body, sure that teaching in a middle school would be the equivalent of taking up a full time job poop scooping in the world’s largest litter box. People want to write them off without knowing all of the details
And after substitute teaching in the middle school for the past year, I’ve come to understand that stereotypes exist for a reason. They’re all true. Every single one. Right down to the metaphor about cleaning up cat turds. They’re the type of students that gets offended if you forget their name, even in a moment of panic. If, God forbid, a shooter were to come into the school, and I told them to duck and get their head down to avoid a hail of bullets, they’d pause, plants hands on their hips and ask, “Yeah, well, what’s my name?”
So as warden over the students, a typical day as a substitute teacher constitutes distracting them from the fact that ultimately I have no power. Should even three or four of them decide they’re tired of me and my teaching, they can make life as comfortable as a wireframe jockstrap.
Last Tuesday started as a good, shit-free day. Students were working on Spanish vocab puzzles with partners, their hands shooting up in the air at each completed puzzle, waiting for me to walk over and hand them a coveted classroom Peso. Smiles on their faces, and friendly competition between them all. I got to spend the first minutes of the class actually teaching and not babysitting. It was turning into one of those days that make me want to be a teacher, everything was falling into place.
Around the time a student was completing their third puzzle, I heard a noise almost at the threshold of my hearing.
It was the kind of sound that forces you to stop and listen, for even the creaking of joints or intake of breath was enough to drown it out. It was a dull rumble. A deep bass emanating from somewhere in the classroom. The kind of tone used to set an ominous atmosphere in a trailer for a bad horror flick. I was about to ask if someone was playing music when the sound changed. Or rather, grew. And a rattle added itself to the rumble. The sound of pipes shifting.
I raised my hands and told the class to be quiet for a second. Like the good middle schoolers they were, they completely ignored me.
“I GOT ANOTHER PUZZLE!” a kid shouts, pointing an accusatory finger at a friend across the room, “EAT BARK, TRAVIS.”
Travis starts to respond in kind, but I stop him, asking them all to be quiet.
“Do you hear that?” I say, an odd gargling noise joins with the rumble and rattle.
They don’t hear it because they’re too busy not listening. I’d have greater success trying to converse with the dead or striking up a conversation with a photocopy machine. I walked by a couple of raised hands, making my way towards the sink, thinking that to be the home of the gargling. I couldn’t figure out where the sound was coming from, because it seemed to be coming from everywhere: from the walls, the floors and even the ceiling. It got louder, and the disaster-scared piece of me knew I was about to part of a terrorist attack or a freak boiler explosion.
Now, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling. And in those travels, one of the most amazing places I’ve been is Yellowstone national park. It’s home to a plethora of wildlife, gorgeous landscapes, hot springs, geysers, beautiful hikes and a large river. It’s on top of a massive super volcano, giving it its attributes. Perhaps the most iconic feature of the park is Old Faithful, a geyser that used to erupt every 67 minutes exactly. Though recent tectonic forces have interrupted the geyser’s perfect schedule, it still erupts regularly, on average every 90 minutes. The column of boiling water can reach heights as high as 125 ft. It’s truly one of the world’s wonders. Until recently, I believed it to be one of a kind.
As I made my to the back of the room, I found the source of the noise. What started as an innocuous gargling from the sink’s drain turned into another shitstorm altogether. Maybe shitgeyser would be better suited. A trickle of water emerged from the drain, it started low then as if trying to build anticipation, it slowly grew into something greater. After a few seconds, it changed from babbling brook to hot tub jets set to “High.” The water rising and rising, sputtering, coating the counter-tops, floors and cabinets with a dirty looking liquid.
Then a flip must have been switched somewhere, because it went from innocent park fountain to an Old Faithful sized fire hose eruption of water worthy for the history books. Had Theodore Roosevelt lived in a time where such a thing existed, he may never had taken that fateful trip into the amazon. Instead, he would have entered room 302’s Spanish class and took in the awe of man’s beautiful and terrible creation.
The murky water turned black, bile blasting upward, skyrocketing to the ceiling with enough intensity to peel paint. Some students screamed, others laughed. The girls ran away, the boys ran forward.
The beautiful façade of my power was destroyed, in the single instant of that impromptu geyser. Like a prison warden finding himself in the wing suited for murderers and hearing the heartbreaking buzz as all the doors are released. Witnessing the bars slide open and the tattooed men emerging from their cages, cracking knuckles and smiling sinisterly. I was no more in control than a leaf caught in the wind.
I wedged myself through the wall of boys surrounding the growing puddle of black liquid, shouting over the sound of the students and the roar of Ashland’s strangely fitting version of Old Faithful: shit colored and dirty.
“Everyone out!” I shout, I point at a scared looking student, “You, open the back door, everyone follow him!”
He pauses, “What’s my name?”
“You don’t know his name?” Travis asks.
“That’s kinda rude, Mr. B. We know your name.”
“Yeah, didn’t you just call role, like, 10 minute ago?”
“Just go!” I shout. But the student stays stoic.
“It’s Craig,” Marina whispers from my side.
“Craig.” I say, as if standing before a magic door and speaking the password. He shrugs, and says something like, “That doesn’t really count,” but turns around anyway. He opens the door and brings the class outside.
With the geyser erupting behind us, we evacuate the room. More classrooms are outside as well. Every sink on this side of the school is experiencing the same water feature. Classes begin to intermingle, 7th and 8th graders running up to each other shouting, reenacting the event as if they hadn’t all just witnessed it not thirteen seconds earlier.
Later in the day, I’m told it was a fountain of poop. Literal fountain of poop. The city was flushing out the pipes and chose poorly when deciding which one of the two directions to flush the contents. For health reasons, we’re forced to spend the rest of the day in the library. The lesson plan for the day included work that had to be completed in the classroom, so I’m forced to come up with Spanish lesson plans for a class lasting 95 minutes. For reference, my Spanish expertise is the kind that gives me the ability to get me into trouble, but not out. Ask me a swear word, an inappropriate phrase about someone’s mother or an insensitive word used to question someone’s masculinity and I’ll have it off the cusp. But I can’t remember the verb conjugation for the past tense. The only vocab words I recall are those that are fun to say, like Alfombra and Biblioteca.
So we played Spanish Pictionary, Spanish bingo, Spanish puzzling, Spanish drawing, and a short lived part of the lesson in quiet I called Spanish Quiet Thoughts Time. After those options were exhausted, with roughly 87 minutes to spare, I visited the Spanish section in the library. I had all of the students sit semi-circle around me and read them stories of Diego El Obrero, and Mi Familia y yo and Hola! Me llamo, Carlos. Y tu?
The day ends and I head back to the class. I find the room clean, devoid of any black liquid, stains or smelly substance. The floor is white, the cabinets are spotless, they even cleaned the ceiling. It was as if nothing had happened at all. The stain may be gone from the room, but it’ll always have a place in my memory. In that moment, I was witness to the dozens of quotes about life and the gift of lemons, or the pouring fashion when it starts raining.
Teaching has always been about rolling with the punches, but sometimes the punch is from a Heavy Weight champion boxer: clutching our broken ribs and doubling over is the best we can muster. So we curl up in the fetal position, desperately trying to suck air into our lungs and hope the 260 lbs. mass of sheer muscle grows bored of us and moves on to some other poor sod who thinks they’ve got it all figured out.
Because if a prison warden has guards, even if he has steel bars to separate him from the beasts, there may be a time when circumstances align and he finds himself alone with a pack of wolves. Like a substitute teacher, all he can hope to do is wait it out and hope he doesn’t get completely covered in shit.
But if he survives, he’ll have a great story to tell. And sometimes that’s worth all the trouble.