I stood between my dad and stepmom and I said, “I just want to do the right thing.” This is carryover from elementary school subbing. In the industry, we say, “If you are [standing up/punching a cardboard box/going to get your backpack], you are doing the wrong thing.”
With my dad and stepmom, we were only discussing if I would drive or fly to my stepsister’s wedding, a situation I realized, once I said it, had actually no moral value. Well, I mean, I was offering to keep my dad company on the drive, or accept his offer of a plane ticket so I could work more days, but.
The school where I subbed on Friday was different.
At least three times, I opened the door to the classroom and stood in the doorway, because I could not figure out what else to do. Kids were yelling, wandering. The teacher had left me a thin packet of worksheets, a thick packet of worksheets, iPads, and directions to “not let them get into verbal arguments,” which was… comical.
Let me tell you, there is no way in hell worksheet packets and iPads are going to keep rambunctious third graders occupied for an entire day.
I opened all the cabinets, closets, and found nothing but games without pieces, markers, and (thank heavens) books.
I cruise near this line of feeling like you have enough of the kids’ attention to keep them safe, and then I drift away from it. Whoa. They wouldn’t hear me if I said, “Fire, let’s go,” and at any moment, it seems clear, the calling back and forth about your mom could erupt into (third grade) violence.
A girl comes up to me and hugs me. “I’m sorry,” she says. “They’re bad.”
What I can’t figure out is, what is the right thing?
I spent seven months at a place labeled one of the worst schools in New York. Kids called me every profane name in the book, threw things across the room, out the windows, refused to sit, to get up, to shut up, to leave the room, to stay in the room. Just the volume of the classroom slowly wore down and then tore at my nervous system.
It was so important to me that the kids not see I was threadbare, and never to think they had “won,” because this would mean they had lost, that adults could not protect them from themselves, and this broke my heart.
Only one day did I kind of storm out of the building, and by storm I mean that with two hours left in the day, I went to the secretary and said I had to go, someone would have to take my class for two hours.
That was so, so expensive for me. Under the surface of healed layers, of the last couple of years I was tutoring, and everyone was always perfectly nice to me, and these last couple of months of subbing, when there were odd moments I thought, oh, boy, I never really saw myself lose it, like you can see your sane self drifting away, like a ghost out of a body in a cartoon.
On Friday, I had one moment I did see that. Teachers had come by and offered to take kids I had to kick out, but they drifted back eventually, claiming they had been sent back, and I had no idea, and no way to know, if this was true.
A boy had left the room as I asked. Then he came back. I opened the classroom door (which I could not lock, from the inside or the outside, school security gurus, FYI, no one cares about the safety of students at a school in this neighborhood). He was there, and I leaned down, and I knew I wanted to scream at him for being a little shit. It takes me a long time to get to that point, but it scared me how much I wanted to.
Instead I said, “No.” And I shut the door.
He came back. His buddy came back. I stood in the doorway, as far as I had opened the door, and each of them tried to push me aside, in turn.
“I have to get my backpack,” he said.
“I have to get my stuff,” the other kid said.
I stood in the doorway while they tried to push me out of the door.
It came to be time for “dismissal,” but I had no explanation for how the kids would be dismissed. Eventually an administrator showed up and helped. While we waited for another twenty minutes (apparently dismissal was not exactly dismissal), I thought about having a panic attack, and if I should leave and go get my medicine.
I don’t know what of my anxiety mess is from actual life stress, and what is from chemical imbalance, but for sure, being in a room of screaming kids is clearly not great for one’s nervous system.
The right thing. To stay, and prove to the kids who were so sweet and patient all day, that I wanted to stay? To stay, and prove to the kids who sometimes were little shits, and sometimes were very sweet, drawing me a picture, or telling me about a little brother, or going to see “Black Panther”? To go, and say, “Fuck this,” and not feel my blood pressure rising and rising? Because I can tolerate it, complete the day, show the kids adults can stick in there for them, because I can, I should?
They were paying me about $12 an hour, after taxes, no health insurance, to be the “guest teacher.”
We had a lovely time when I told them to draw pictures. And when I told them to write stories. And we played one calm, lovely round of BINGO.
To pay back for privileges unearned. To participate in putting the world back together. To be a force for healing and not more destruction. To learn from challenge. To know that one’s life is about something other than making money and buying more crap. To approach one of the open, bleeding sores of our broken society, which somehow, always finds plenty of money and care for the rich and the lucky and the white and the strong.
How much work, help, kindness, pays back or shows respect to my dad and stepmom for letting me stay with them, lending me a car? How much do I owe anyone, everyone? This idea of owing, of debting and paying and exchange, it always seems to lead to more stress and strain.
Three kids were punching a cardboard box of food from Harvester’s. I figured it was for them. They were punching it, hard. I told them they would stand on the wall at recess. Five minutes, I said. I did get each of them to stand there, five minutes, though it was one by one, and after going to get them from the playground. They deserved consequences. We don’t punch things. We don’t punch food. Punching things leads to punching people. Punching food is disrespect. Disrespect for things is disrespect for you. I don’t know.
I stood outside while kids waited for their parents. Finally. Finally. “What are you going to do this weekend?’ I said to a kid who had been quiet and patient all day.
“I’m going to play with my friend.”
“What do you play?”
“House and tag,” she said.
“How do you play house?”
“I’m the auntie,” she said. “My friend is the mom.”
“I’m an auntie, too,” I said. “Whaddaya know.”
Image: late 15th century French door, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
3 thoughts on “Right”
Ah, Elizabeth. I chuckled. Great ending. And thought of Stephen as he returns from school subbing (he’s been at Center Middle School (not Central) for several years.) The kids know him, except for the sixth graders who are new. And when he comes in the door, he closes it, leans his back against it, and I hear a deep sigh.