One of the best things about school was substitute teachers.
Especially in elementary school where you had them all day. But you never really expected to learn much when a substitute was there. The days with substitutes were like free days, especially if your teacher was out unexpectedly. No lesson plans prepared, no instructions to follow, that substitute was on her own.
Her own. Not HIS own. Aside from gym teachers or principles, I never had a male teacher in elementary school. Not once. I remember having male teachers for the first time in junior high at Smiley. It was so strange and kind of fun, something new to the old mix. Until I realized that they were just the same as the female teachers. Some were nice, some were strict, some enjoyed teaching, some were unfair, some were funny and some hated their jobs. And like all teachers, some days they were "absent" and those days were usually a bit more fun.
When I was in 5th grade at Wyatt Elementary we always knew when our teacher Ms Silberberg was going to be out because she told us ahead of time. She always let us know that she expected our best behavior while she was gone and wanted the hear good reports back from the substitute teacher. And for the most part we did our best to make her proud. But there is always an exception.
One morning when we arrived to class Ms. Silberberg unexpectedly wasn't there. No teacher was. After the tardy bell rang someone from the office came and told us that Ms Silberberg wouldn't be in and that a substitute teacher was on the way. We were told to sit quietly, to start studying our spelling words. Also the classroom door would be left open and there was not to be any noise coming out of the classroom. The office assistant then left.
"Study your spelling words."
This was probably the worst thing we could have been asked to do.
We didn't all study the same spelling list but had individual lists according to our ability that were kept in folders in a bin behind Ms Silberberg's desk.
These simple instructions, that must have sounded great to the office assistant as she said them to us, created a flurry of activity and caused 30 students to try to cram themselves into a 3 foot by 2 foot area all trying to simultaneously go through a stack of folders looking for the one with their name. It would have been more accurate if the office worker had yelled "LET THE GAMES BEGIN!" We were smart enough however to be quiet during all the pushing, shoving, blocking and teasing that went on and eventually we all made to desks around the room. Literally.
When we did well as a class, we were allowed to put our desks anywhere we wanted in the room and sit by whoever we wanted. As a class our preferred placement was around the perimeter of the room, against the walls. This allowed for the rug that Ms Silberberg had brought to be placed in the middle of the room. Some students faced their desks into the center of the room, some faced the walls. If we misbehaved our punishment was being placed into rows alphabetically "old school" style.
On this day are desks were around the room and we were sitting everywhere, but where we belonged, "studying" when the substitute came in. She was white, older (30's), short, had a small frame and a towering red beehive, my first thought was she just came off the show Hee Haw. She was clearly uncomfortable in this Black and Hispanic school. Her nervousness was palatable to the class and looks shot around the room immediately. This would be fun.
Miss Substitute came in and went directly to Ms Silberberg's desk in the back of the room and started looking for a lesson plan as we watched. No luck, there was no lesson plan. Her eyes briefly went around the room and she asked what we were supposed to be working on. Everyone answered at once. Some said what we normally worked on at that time, some answered spelling like the office assistant told us, some lied different things just for the fun of it. One enterprising classmate said recess.
Miss Substitute looked nervously back to the desk, most likely hoping that magically the lesson plan had appeared when Maria pointed out roll hadn't been taken yet. Grateful to have something concrete to do Miss Substitute got the Attendance Book and started down the list of names. This became another fun game for us as she mispronounced most of the names. Trujillo became True-jill-o; Belia became Beel-i-a, by the time she came to Maura, I yelled out the correct pronunciation before she said something that would become a nickname that I wouldn't be able to shake. We were laughing and teasing and enjoying roll like never before.
With attendance finally over and she asked again what we should be working on, Armando pointed out we didn't know her name. Miss Substitute walked up to the blackboard at the front of the room and as she went past him, Armondo shot a spit wad at that big red beehive, and it stuck. Everyone burst out laughing, Miss Substitute wrote her rather unmemorable Anglo name on the board, then turned and asked again what we should be studying. Marylin then said that Arthur wasn't in his seat.
That information brought forth even more commotion as Miss Substitute started trying to get everyone to his or her correct seat. After more time than it should have taken, everyone was in their own seat and Miss Substitute had amassed a sizable collection of rolled up pieces of paper and pencil erasers in her big red beehive. As she had gone around the room getting students to move, the boys had picked up on Armondo's idea and it became open season on big red beehives. No licence needed. Finally everyone was at their desks but there was just one problem, Randy was sitting on his desk, back against the wall feet on the seat, not in it. Miss Substitute walked over to Randy's desk and told him to sit down. "I am." he replied while looking at her straight in the eye.
Randy was tall in 5th grade, about 5' 5" a good two inches taller than Miss Substitute, and even while sitting on the desk still taller than her. Miss Substitute told him to sit in the seat. Randy didn't say a word, he continued his eye-lock with her, folded his arms across his chest, and tilted his head to the left. His body language screamed "Make me". For the first time since Miss Substitute came in the room it was quiet. Really quiet. No one moving a muscle quiet.
Miss Substitute gathered all her authority and asked in her most threatening voice "What is your name?"
The room erupted in a chorus of "Randy!", "His name is Randy!", "That's Randy!"
But Randy didn't answer, he just continued to stare at Miss Substitute and when it quieted down he slowly started spelling, "R-A-N-D-Y."
Miss Substitute started trembling, just a bit, and as Randy continued spelling she was either unable or unwilling to take her eyes off him, she stood there staring at him as he finished.
I was sitting next to Randy, my desk facing into the room, so I could see Miss Substitute's face, and just as Randy finished spelling his name, I saw Miss Substitute's complete fear and watched as her eyes fill with tears. This was no longer funny, I knew it and from the shift I saw on Randy's face, he knew it too. The class was now officially out of control.
Without losing face in front of the class Randy broke the stare down by laughing and plopped into his seat. The class, not having seen the fear or potential tears, or realizing Randy's conceding, started laughing too. Miss Substitute regained her composure as she walked back to Ms Silberberg's desk. Randy and I were the only two not laughing at that point. We looked at each other silently acknowledging that things had gone dangerously too far.
As Miss Substitute got to the desk I called out the subject we were suppose to be working on, by then our fourth subject of the day, and just as Miss Substitute was finally going to teach us something, the classroom door opened and Ms Silberberg came in. There was a spontaneous cheer from all the students and some of the girls rushed up to hug her. It seemed Randy and I weren't the only ones feeling things were out of control.
Ms Silberberg looked around the room a little shocked at the reception. "Well hello everyone." she said.
She then looked down at the girls and while smiling asked, "May I come in the room?"
During this time Miss Substitute had gathered her things and with no delay, goodbye or even a glance at us, she headed out the door.
I never really expected to learn much on a day with a substitute.
But there is always an exception.
On that day, though I already knew the word, I learned compassion.