Several years after my retirement from full-time teaching, I decided to join that most ridiculed of all American professions. I became a substitute teacher. It didn’t take me long to discover that there are no educational expectations associated with this position. Since the absent teacher was responsible for the lesson plan (and that is a very generous term, indeed), all that the substitute was required to do was take attendance, institute the lesson plan (almost always an activity that did not require my participation nor did it result in any meaningful learning), and keep the lid on. The social contract between the class and the sub is quite clear: we won’t bust your balls as long as long as you 1) ignore the fact that we’re not doing the assignment, 2) allow us full-throated conversations with anyone in the room, and 3) allow us free rein to wander the halls because you are required by law to give us a bathroom pass when we request it. With the exception of student demand #2, I learned to accept the compact and to use my time surfing the web or in creative writing. The following is one such product. The name of the school has been changed to protect the reputations of those responsible for its condition, namely, the entire community.
I’ve learned not to have any expectations when I sub at Peninsula H.S. My teaching experiences in a variety of schools over a multitude of decades provide me an unsolicited vision of what a semi-suburban American high school would look like and feel like. Only on occasion does Peninsula seem familiar. There are good teachers here, but not many of them. There are bright, attractive classrooms where students are respected enough to be challenged, but not many of them. Those few teachers whom one might call intellectuals, blessed with energy and hope are outnumbered by the many who are simply tired, finally overcome by the dismal environment and the equally dismal students.
Schools like Peninsula are what happen when communities lose pride and long-term vision and fall into dysfunction. Those citizens morally and legally charged with funding this school consist of seasonal residents who may or may not feel they are stakeholders in public education, a small year-round population of seniors and near-retirees living on social security, savings, and jobs cobbled from a seasonal economy who feel burdened by the local tax rate, and a growing underclass of undereducated, under-employed whose lives are often defined by dysfunction, manifested as either reluctant and inept parenting, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, or all of the above.
I was asked today to sub for a history teacher who was tending to an off-campus school obligation. Since my time with her before class was short, I am in no position to judge her teaching skills. But one only has to look around the room to learn a good deal about what goes on here on a daily basis.
Adequate descriptors of this classroom would include bleak, disheveled, disorganized, and depressing. Everything about this room is broken. There are five windows and they are all blocked by venetian blinds; little natural light can be found. From the looks of the debris found around the window sill, it’s safe to assume the blinds are always closed. Before the first class arrives, I attempt to raise the blinds in search of natural light. Three of the five work to some degree, that includes one that I manage to raise but must leave scrunched up and hanging at a forty-five degree angle. The fifth one lacks the vertical cord necessary to operate; so it remains closed. Whatever artificial light is present is generated by three sets of overhead fluorescent tubes. Unfortunately, only one set is actually turned on and when, after the teacher leaves for the day, I flip on the other two switches, a noticeable grumble can be heard across the room, much of it coming from two young men whose heads are buried in their arms at their desks. I suggest the lights might dispel some of the depression that is so evident; a young lady says it’s too early in the day for light. I ignore her. Five minutes later, the young lady walks to the front of the room and flips the two switches off. Experienced enough to know which battles can be won and which cannot, I settle for the semi-darkness.
The walls are masonry; three painted beige and one that some might call sage. What distinguishes them is the fact that they are all covered in pencil marks – large x’s, failed swooshes, squiggles, and some, semi-erased, that are not unlike the primitive art renderings of genitals and other body parts one might find on the inside doors of toilet stalls.
The teacher has not overlooked the potential educational value of room decoration. Being a history teacher, she has displayed historical photos, four of them. All four are hanging askew and bulging in the middle as if the extra four inches of scotch tape necessary for a firm attachment were either not available or deemed unnecessary. The four photos seem oddly appropriate, even if in an ironic sense. One is of Einstein standing proudly next to a blackboard filled with equations; two are of the Depression; and one is of the Bataan Death March.
Displays of student achievement are not overlooked in the overall decor. There are two student-designed posters proudly hanging, each curled in at the corners confirming the aforementioned scotch tape deficit. The one nearest the teacher’s desk is the creation of three students – a 15×18” group project using multi-colored markers. It is designed to demonstrate the knowledge gained during the team’s research of the Virginia colony. In addition to the clipped 4×7 map of the state are five varyingly-sized boxes containing critical information about the colony. One reads “Virginia has an amazing climate for farming. And when farming you can eat and make a profit.” Stick figure farmers stand next to some orange-colored cornstalks, not quite as high as an elephant’s eye. The next two boxes read: “Tobacco: In Virginia, if you grow tobacco you can make a fortune” and “If you buy a lot of land, you won’t have taxes!” (Apparently Peninsula has a Young Republicans Club.) In the lower corner can be found three purple stick figures. One is reclining on a chaise lounge and two others are standing next to a flourishing green crop of unknown species. The text box reads: “Slaves: In Virginia, you can own slaves to do your work so you can relax.” So much for historical insight. (To date, I have only subbed in Peninsula’s high school. I can only imagine what’s going on in the elementary or middle schools.)
Beyond these highlights we have the mundane: textbooks strewn about, hardcover books lying flat on their spines with their pages fanning out as if reaching in vain for a stream of sunlight, with plastic milk crates and lidded plastic containers over-stuffed with files, with a multi-colored, rotating globe with the most noticeable green mass being the “Union of Soviet Socialist’s Republic”. In the front of the room, in the corner on the floor, next to the dust-covered 1992-vintage computer monitor, is a nest of empty, battered, cardboard boxes. It looks like they are being saved, perhaps for June when it is time to put the tools of education away for three months, give the kids a much-needed break, and give the teacher a chance to wait tables at Grumpy’s, a gig that makes this all possible.
On my way out the door at day’s end, my eye catches a wrinkled piece of white paper taped, askew, on the scarred wall. It reads: “No hat zone. So take your hat off this means you.” Apparently seeing a much-needed opportunity to expand his self-expression, TK tagged his initials, somewhat symmetrically, in all four corners. It showed pride.
I have the option of returning here tomorrow. The teachers and students of Peninsula don’t.