Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sub-Teaching Hell

A friend of mine has been substitute teaching in Blythe, California, a minor oasis in a huge desert. He's been having a tough time controlling the middle school Phys Ed class despite being a former world champion racket ball and handball champion. Today he received a letter from another sub teacher that he passed along to me. It reminded me of when my mom began teaching in the NYC public school system in the early 1970s or late 1960s. So here is the original fellow's letter, followed by my friend's response, and then my response to both of them.
I think my mom got it. I hope these guys get it one day.

The initial letter from a sub teacher that I don't know:

Substitute Teaching is Hell

Date: 2007-11-09, 7:55PM

I had a class today that was insanely horrible. Junior high assholes; mean, stupid, defiant, rowdy. Not just one or two, but a good 8 or 10. Would not work, would not respond to anything, would not heed any warnings, backtalk backtalk backtalk. I sent one out, didn't help. Sent another out, still didn't help. They got me yelling, at which point I called security and just pointed out a few I needed to have removed. That did it. I think the total was 6 or 7, leaving only 2 assholes in the room, and those two assholes knew enough to shut up at that point. I thought that I might have a heart attack, it was that bad. It was hours ago, and I'm still upset. They were so utterly disrespectful, so mean and so stupid it was unbelievable. In fact, they taunted me, smirking, asking if they could be sent out. Talk about having no ammunition.
I asked the remaining teens if the class is usually so bad, and they said, "It's usually worse."
I'd quit, but I'm older, I have medical problems, a surgery coming up, and I'm stuck.
I never imagined that my life would be so shitty.
Imagine someone cutting you off on the freeway, amplify that anger by a multiple of ten, and you might approach what it's like to have a middle school mutiny on your hands.
Oh, and I've had this crappy job for years. I'm not some green do gooder who naively wandered in thinking I could change the world.
I grew up on a military base. If I had ever disrespected a teacher the way the kids do today, well, they probably would have beat me to death and courtmartialed my father.
I'll be in bed soon, and it's only 8 P.M. I'm that fucking SPENT.

My friend's response:
your story is pretty bad. the sub did what i do- call security who picks off half the class and the few remaining wise up. today was the worst of my life, but i've become philosophical and it was interesting too... middle school phys. ed. I tried, but failed, to bring order out of chaos, and told the vice-principal in an after-school suggestions interview that over the course of the day there were hundreds of rocks, fists and curses leveled by the students at each other and at the two boys' p.e. teachers. i was stuck out in alfalfa field with no way to identify anyone and no radio to contact the office. got slammed in the head pretty good by a soccer ball. goal posts falling, security, and then the principal summoned... they couldn't stop it. so that was that, and tomorrow's a new day. i just called the district and told them i'd sub any class but middle school phys ed.

My response, relating the story of my mom as a teacher who became a teacher at 45 years old:

Thirty-five years ago, when I was writing plays that were being offered off-off Broadway, I wrote one called Anele (a forgiving anointment at death, more or less) about the birth of Christ. It was a wonderful show, presented at a catholic church on 59th street and 9th avenue in front of hundreds for each of its 12 performances. We got television reviews and such. Good ones.
Here's the deal: My mom went to college after she'd had 9 of us. Three died in childbirth or shortly thereafter, so six were the family. When Reg, the youngest, was about 5, mom went to college, got a degree, started teaching, got a masters, and shortly became the national secretary for the US teacher's union.
She was good. But she was also new. So they gave her the "m" classes which was short for "retarded," Those kids were well known in NYC at the time: Most had an IQ of less than 90. Couldn't talk, couldn't sit, couldn't read or write but were still in high school. The rest were Juvenile Delinquents: Each class had a a couple of kids who'd committed murder, setting their parents on fire, or shooting a bum on the trains 20 times.
They were all shuffled into "m" classes. Retards.
Mom hated getting the assignments but did the best she could. Her tires were slashed countless times. Her windshield shot. I replaced parts of two engines in her old Dodge Dart after it was set afire with solvents. Tough classes.
That's teaching "m" classes in New York, circa 1970.
But in 1971 my play "Anele" was produced. And Richard Minsky, perhaps the most famous bookbinder of the 20th century (the first bookbinder to rebind one of the 17 or so extant Guttenberg bibles), wrote the score. And Minsky brought in half-a-dozen musicians to play it.
And while my dad had died a couple of months before the production--I was disappointed because he was a Broadway actor with 7 Broadway credits and 2000 live television shows under his belt (not famous, but the NY Times gave his picture and two columns on his death) and wanted him to see this, my fourth off-off Broadway play and the one that would make me as a playwrite--my mom came to the second show.
And the full house roared appreciation at the end, and then we filed out and I saw my mom and gave her a hug and then one of our musicians, a freaking crazy guy who was making violin bows from horse hair as an apprentice to a real bow master saw my mom and ran over to her and jumped into her arms and she nearly dropped him--she weighed 135; he 200--and he screamed "MRS GORMAN! MRS GORMAN! DO YOU REMEMBER ME? I'M SO AND SO AND I WAS IN YOUR M CLASS FOUR YEARS AGO! YOU HATED ME BUT YOU CHANGED MY LIFE AND NOW I'M THE BEST VIOLIN BOW MAKER IN THE WORLD! THANK YOU. AND DO YOU KNOW THAT THE WRITER WHO WROTE THIS PLAY IS ALSO NAMED GORMAN??? WHAT A FUCKING COINCIDENCE!!!! UNBELIEVEABLE!
And then he kissed her 100 times on her cheeks, nose, head, anywhere she couldn't turn away from.
And in that moment I realized that my mom was changing people. She didn't always know it, but she was doing it. This was just a rare occasion to get some proof positive. And not one where she was looking for it.
So this note is sent out to all you teachers who don't know if you are making a difference. All of you who wish you had Tasers to control things. Don't sweat it. No matter what you think, you are affecting kids. You're doing just what you should be. Hard at it is. Keep the faith. Someday one of those lost kids is going to jump into your arms and tell you that what you did was the difference. So don't give up.
I think my mom's smile from that real life scene lasted 5 years. It was the payback in spades for all the tough times.
Each one, teach one.
You are all special.


Hummingbird said...

Good stuff, Peter, thank you for sharing!

I hope all teachers can be uplifted by your words of encouragement because it is truth-- and we all know how truth can be temporarily obscured by... uhhh... circumstances.
And if we do help just ONE along the way, the ripples go out affecting another one and yet another one, and that adds up.

My grandmother picked up every penny off the ground she found, carefully, with a tissue to protect her hands from the germs. She always would comment, "You never know, THIS penny could be the one to put you over a million bucks... they all add up over time..." She washed the coins and then placed them in instant coffee jars with real lids, and we would count them and roll them into bank rollers and haul them to the bank for tally into our account.

In the same way, one student at a time adds up to a whole bunch of students by the end of one's career. And we don't always get to know about every success. But it really counts in that one's life, and that is the reward. We sow; we nurture; sometimes we water and sometimes we reap.

Thanks again!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this. I am starting my first day of subbing in public school. I will have a positive attitude now.