Substitute teaching on my days off has done more than just pad my bank accounts; it’s added countless hours of entertainment and provided motivation for not starting a family in my mid twenties.  Of all the days I’ve subbed, all but one has been in elementary school, of which is definitely not my strong suit.  I would not, and do not, make a very good elementary school teacher.  I have a hard time defining basic concepts or explaining to students something I’ve always known as true.  You can say all you want about the brilliance of professors, the intellect required to write lengthy novels or give controversial lectures, but none of it holds a light up to teaching elementary school.  Sure the concepts are basic, they are things we’ve understood for a large portion of our lives.  That’s what makes it difficult.

We’ve understood it for so long, that it makes it hard to put it into other terms, at least for me.  How do you teach a kid that 6×6=36?  Other than saying it just is?  How do you make them understand the concept of multiplication?  And if that doesn’t work?  I break out into a cold sweat when I have to teach math for that very reason.  I understand all the concepts, very confidently, but I have a hard time explaining it in three or four different ways. 

Subbing for elementary school has tested me.  More specifically, it’s tested my patience.

I was oft a person that would describe themselves as patient.  I liked to think that I was willing to wait and hold my tongue despite what I wanted to say; that I would wait for an outcome to show itself.   I wanted to believe that I was the poster child for that all too important virtue, indeed there were times people said I was remarkably patient.  

Here’s a quick diagram showing how much patience I have:

There’s nothing there?  That’s odd… Oh I know, it’s because I literally have no patience.  It wasn’t until I started teaching children that I realized this about myself. 

I have a rather sneaky characteristic that some would be tempted to call patience, in reality it’s something very different.  I’m adept at not saying anything, or expressing my feelings about what may or may not be bugging me.  I’m so good, in fact, that I was able to convince myself that I was simply a patient person.  For years I put myself on a pedestal of perfect patience and regarded myself quite fondly.    

In reality, I just stuff it way down; deep down, in the dark depths of my being and leave it there.  Society calls it patience, I call it emotional suppressing.  Some times nothing happens.  I am able to forget about it, it doesn’t bother me or I simply learn to live with something that would make an impatient person angry.  Other times, it builds and festers like an open wound.  

But kids leave no room for patience, or emotional suppressing.  Patience is weakness.  Weakness leads to exploitation.  Exploitation is pain.  So much pain, if you’re subbing. 

Soon after donning my substitute’s badge, acquiring keys to the teacher’s classroom and reading over the lesson plan, I realized I had absolutely no patience.  If I do have it, it’s all gone by three or four minutes into the day.  I can only tell everyone to stop talking so many times before I start to lose my cool.  Part of me wonders if these children are part of some big giant prank where opposite day is everyday. 

When I say, “stop talking,” they keep talking. 

When I say, “walking feet,” they keep running in the hallway. 

When I say, “don’t hit Blane in the face with that rock,” they demonstrate the adverse effects geology can have on someone’s nose.  I’m waiting for the day I snap; there may be a time when I pick up a hefty text book, raise it high over my head, poised and wait to hurl it at the next child who asks, “can I go to the bathroom?”

Right before I do, confetti will fall from the ceiling, Ryan Seacrest will kick down the door, and scream, “You’ve been a contestant on Will He Maim a Child and Lose his Teaching Credential?! for the past two years!  We thought you’d break down, but you never did!”  He’ll laugh, heartily slap me on the back and hand me a gold star for participating then vanish behind a trick door in the wall.

Until that happens, however, I have to restrain myself.  Kids have a unique ability to push buttons and act as if they’re not trying to.  Their brains have just begun to grasp the concept of fibbing, getting sick, and multiple bathroom visits.  Just today I had a strange bug floating around in the classroom.  It was one of those short ones, you know the 24 minute bug where you get a stomach ache right when math starts and it finishes right before recess ends.  I always give them the option of sitting in the nurse’s office during recess to feel better but it seems by some cosmic miracle or act of God they get better just in time to go play.


But their pushing of buttons also has a way of adding entertainment and spice to life.  I’ve talked about childlike wonder, and brushed on the comedic value of the great injustices kids feel over nothing.  Even in testing my patience, they make me smile. 

I tell them, “walking feet,” so they insist on dancing feet. 

I tell them, “no talking,” and they instead sing to their neighbor. 

When I say, “keep your hands to yourself,” they start using their feet instead. 

They’re smart-asses, the whole lot of them.  And I love it.  With my entire being, I want to laugh, I want to call them smart and clever and witty.  I want to congratulate them on a retort or hilarious banter they may be having with their friend. But of course, I can’t.  When it’s time to stop talking, it’s time to stop, regardless of the tune you may or may not be singing.

Every time I sub at this age level, I have to laugh.  This age group is not my favorite thing to teach, indeed I’m always exhausted after teaching in elementary school, but being around children adds a certain variety to life.  Being around adults all the time gets mundane, and monotanous.  

The other day, two kids were fighting with one another.  After exchanging a few angry looks and disparaging comments, one child finally got fed up and voiced his emotions.

“Yeah, well, GO STUFF YOUR BALLS!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.

Go stuff your balls.  Who comes up with that?   How would you even do that?  Does anyone actually do that?  What would you stuff them with?  So many questions unanswered.

There’s a brilliance in the lunacy of that statement.  It’s like saying go eat your shorts, it’s completely nonsensical.  And awesome.  No adult would ever come up with an insult like that.  I laughed when I heard the story, and instantly knew the proper protocol.  Of course, the teacher who witnessed it took it very seriously.  The child’s face lost its color, as if he had seen a ghost (or been caught telling someone to go stuff their balls).  He instantly knew he did wrong and had to be taken to the office for referral.

You have to stifle laughter, you have to hold your tongue and guard the corners of your mouth, because telling someone to go stuff their balls isn’t a nice thing to say.  We don’t want students going around telling one another to stuff this and that in here or there.  There has to be consistency, otherwise the students take over, and that’s not a pretty sight.

And that’s the unfortunate truth to teaching, and probably parenting too.  There’s times where you want to laugh, where you want to pat the kid on the back and say, “damn, you’re funny” but you can’t.  Elementary school is less about content and more about behavior training.  Children don’t innately know how to be respectful all the time.  They don’t have the same problem solving skills (some) adults have.  It’s a shame because in another context I’d be laughing right there with them.

There’s a clear divide between teaching and the real world.  Something that is hilarious might be inappropriate in the classroom.  As always, the context of where you are changes depending on where you are.  Since we can’t laugh when students come up with terrible comebacks, when they’re snarky or when they provide a witty retort to direction, we’re left with venting.  Teachers wander into one another’s classroom and share a story they’ve been dying to tell, that’s how I heard about the ball stuffing.

And the best ones are inscribed in their minds.  An event they’ll repeat 100 times to new teachers and friends because they’re sure to get a laugh out of it.  As the years go on in their career, they’ll only add more to their book of tales.  And that’s not just secluded to teachers; everyone has their own story they retell and hold tight to their hearts.

I know for me, I’m going to retell the stuff I’ve seen while subbing for many years.  Since the humor isn’t ok for the classroom, I’ll be forced to use it elsewhere. 

The next time some guy flips me off on the free way, I’ll roll down my window and shout, “YEAH, WELL, GO STUFF YOUR BALLS!”

Perhaps the simple madness of the statement will cause him or her to swerve into oncoming traffic.