it sucks, really it’s just the worst feeling in the world, when a group of eighth grade boys is laughing at you and you don’t know why. it’s a trap and there’s no way out. when you get to this point, it’s the result of one folly and one folly only, incorrect expectations. the kids are laughing at you, always, because they see you expect something that you’re not going to get. it’s hilarious.
what can i say? i was thrown off. when i arrived at the school, mentally prepared to sub for 7th and 8th grade math (the worst!) i was given the delightful surprise that instead i would be teaching first grade. i loooooove teaching kindergarten and first grade. these guys are so easy. first of all, they love you, without you having to do anything. and when you show them special attention, they absolutely melt. they’re easily entertained with the simplest and most tedious of games, and their rewards and threats can be minimal and inspire intense concentration or deep remorse. but as i walked into the classroom i could tell that actually this group was not just your average cute group of six and seven year olds. these guys were a dream. i picked them up from recess and their single-file line was impeccable, really, truly stunning. they were silent when i arrived but as soon as they saw me their little eyes widened with the anticipation of all the questions they could ask me, later of course, now wasn’t the time or place, they knew that.
we walked slowly and deliberately into the classroom and i, quite sincerely, complemented them on their extraordinary line right up to the entrance, where they put their backpacks on their hooks and marched onto their little squares on the rug at the front of the class. i came up to the front of the class and took a seat, beaming, and announced, “good morning, boys and girls! i’m ms. rachel, i’m your substitute today.”
“gooood morn-eeeen missess raaaa. chelll.” they chorused.
“wow, i’m already so impressed with this group.” the lesson plan had said that the morning usually started with a song. “would you all like to learn a new song?” they nodded eagerly and exchanged sideways glances with each other, shifting in their seats a little bit. i started them clapping on their laps and hands. lap, clap. lap, clap. lap, clap. lap, clap. they were already giggling.
i had a little frog
his name was tiny tim
i put him in the bathtub
to see if he could swim
he drank up all the water
he ate up all the soap and then he
burped last night
from a bubble in his throat!
*hiccup* excuuuuuuuse meeeee!
they totally lost it. they were all hiccupping and burping and saying “excuuuuuuuse meeee.” ah, the little ones. if you reference bodily sounds of any kind they’ll be yours forever. after we finished the song, a boy painfully stretched his hand as high as he could with a look of intense desire and strain. “yes?” i asked. the room immediately became attentive to the boy with the raised hand.
“can we play cat, dog, mouse???””
something flashed in the eyes of the other kids as the power of this possibility hit them. a murmur of whispered “yeahyeahyeahyeah…” spread throughout the group.
“well…” i pretended to mull this over for a moment. “right now you have art, but afterwards i think we’ll have some time to play it before recess.”
if the kids could have screamed they would have. obviously they couldn’t. they knew that. so they silently opened their mouths and looked at one another as if they were screaming.
after art, we indeed played cat, dog, mouse. the kids got into a circle, already smiling in preparation of whatever about this game was so silly to them. one of the girls instructed me, “now you say, cat or dog or mouse.”
“cat.” i said. everyone looked around confused. another boy came up to me and said, “you have to tell us to start walking in a circle first.” the group nodded in agreement.
“oh, sorry. ok, start walking!” the smiles returned and they walked, half giggling in the circle. “cat.” i said. they all turned around and changed directions. now they were completely overtaken by the giggling. “dog.” i said. they lost it again and began spinning in circles. suddenly some of them were sitting in the center, hiding their faces in their hands while laughing in fun, slightly embarrassed shame. i had no idea what was going on. “mouse.” i said. everyone froze. one little girl, looking at me with a smile, started moving. she wasn’t getting past the group. everyone saw her.
“valeria’s moving! she has to go to the center!” they yelled. she sat down, smiling.
just then someone walked into the class room. “hi, sorry for all the craziness this morning,” she said. i shrugged. i didn’t know what she was talking about. “we’re going to take you upstairs for seventh grade math and then you’ll be back with these guys in the afternoon.” what, dude? you gotta be fucking kidding me. “great!” i smiled.
so i walked upstairs to room 202 and was relieved to find a completely silent classroom and the teacher for whom i was supposed to sub. “great, thanks for coming,” she said warmly. “let me show you what’s going on.” i saw all the signs of a classroom that was extremely well-behaved. and based on the experience i had with first grade, and the school culture so far, i figured i was in for a refreshingly well-behaved seventh grade group. she showed me the work and said, “it’s ok if there’s a little whispering…” this was a key piece of information. if a teacher believes that silence is possible, that’s an extremely good sign.
i got prepped for the 8th and 7th graders and walked outside to greet the 8th graders as they lined up. as they came in i waited expectantly up front. the students were entering rowdier than i expected. the volume level was already high enough that i couldn’t use my relaxed speaking voice, so i decided to start strong and decisive. i tried the countdown. “ok everyone i’m going to countdown from five and by the time i get to one i want to see you all in your seats, silent, and looking at me. five!” they continued talking and falling on the desks like drunk people. “four!” i started to feel uneasy. i saw not even a flicker that they registered that i was even talking. shit. this is the problem. when you think something’s going to work, you try it, and then when it doesn’t, you can’t just abandon ship. you gotta see it through, and play the mean sub. that was the situation i was now in. i increased the volume, “THREE!” i screamed. a few kids turned to me and started chuckling. shit. shit, shit, shit. now they hate me, and i have no control of the class. the worst possible combo. by the time i got to one i was actually pissed off. i felt it in my blood and it scared me. it’s dangerous to be this emotional in middle school. for students and for teachers. the stress and resentment of the previous days started flowing into my veins. i was supposed to be camping… but my car died and so i had to be subbing for extra cash. these facts rose into my consciousness as justification for anything evil i ended up doing to these little shits.
after three exhausting periods of power struggle, i was returned to my model first graders. my face was transformed from the hard, bitter, tired bitch that resentfully subbed the middle school into the kind, approachable, fun-loving lady the first-graders knew me to be. their faces lit up as i entered the room. “ms. rachel, ms. rachel! can we play cat, dog, mouse again?” they pleaded. i pretended to think again. “hmm… yeah. i guess we can do that.” the class erupted into gleeful screeches.