Monday, January 4, 2010

Breakfast and Other Calamaties

"'There is no use trying, said Alice; one can't believe impossible things.' 'I dare say you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

This has been a long Christmas break because, as a family, we spent about thirteen days together. My husband worked two days in this period, but he didn’t log in his usual number of hours per day. Yesterday, my thoughts were, let the children go back to their classrooms; my husband can go back to his lab and I will return to subbing. But I was sure that I wouldn’t work the first day back after a long break because few teachers are going to need a mental break after a vacation and how many could possibly be sick? I’d get to stay home and recover from my cold while the snow melted.

Still believing this, I got up today at 5:25AM, but took my time showering. Standing in my underwear, I was about to choose my casual shirt, when the phone rang. The Gatekeeper gave me an assignment at the school I’d just subbed at before break, where I seem to be getting the most gigs. Since it’s an early school, I made the mad scramble to finish getting ready, wake the groggy kids, put together breakfasts and pack lunches for the children, and pack my bags.

I arrived at the school just before the bell, and was told by the secretary to wait while she printed plans. Since I didn’t have high hopes there would be plans, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d subbed for this Humanities teacher once before, and I didn’t mind the middle school here, though I wasn’t thrilled about how gleeful students were that there was a sub when they poked their heads into the classroom. Because this school has a block schedule, I’d have a long break and long classes.

Near the end of my morning break, I went to grab breakfast out of my bag to find out that I’d forgotten my yogurt. All I had was lasagna, a V8, and two clementines for the whole day. I didn’t even take a granola bar that could replace breakfast because I didn’t want to be tempted to eat too much. I considered asking the Spanish teacher for whom I’d subbed for just before break, since she’d offered me snacks in her plans, but I hadn’t taken any. I decided that was NOT professional.

The teachers’ room! I’d spent all of December 23rd making photocopies in that room, while students and teachers had piled the table with cakes, cookies, and sweets. Surely there was something left. I sped to the room, only to find an empty table. On the shelf were: a ketchup packet, sugar and sugar-free packets, salt and peppershakers, and a box of baking soda. I wasn’t that desperate. Then I found a can of soup with a note that read, “Free. Take me.” I felt like Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately I was without a pot, bowl, or can-opener, though I had a spoon for the yogurt I’d forgotten.

I returned to the classroom in defeat, wondering how I’d handle a two-hour class with only two pieces of fruit and one stuffy nose. Then I ate my clementines.

The eighth-graders were a little difficult to settle, mostly because the assignment packet was confusing. The teacher had said it was a “pretest” and they should separate their desks even though the packet instructed “group discussion”, so I had assumed they’d already brainstormed play ideas. Turns out, NO. Because they thought the work was stupid, the eighth-graders were noisier and less focused than usual. Great.

The second assignment was to do a short story on a time the student had stood up to something s/he thought was unfair or unjust or create a fictional story. I shared two memories: one about my sister’s friend, a graveyard, and a swastika; the other when I was in a creative writing class in high school, and called a lesbian by a jock who asserted that all gays should be shipped to their own island because of Aids, and I disagreed with him. These tales got their attention, so most of them began writing immediately. I walked around, encouraging them to keep writing and to refrain from talking.

One student wrote while he talked to everyone around him.

“You’re an enigma,” I said.

“A what?”

“An enigma. A mystery wrapped in a riddle. You’re the only one who does his work while he distracts others. Everyone else either quietly works or talks and does no work.”

He smiled. “I like that. Will you write it down so I can put it on my My Space page?”

I wrote it down. After that, he talked less.

By 10:20AM, my stomach grumbled, and by 11:20, I was ravenous. After class, I had Advisory for fifteen minutes, and then rushed to the teacher’s room to eat some lasagna. When I got there, half a coffee cake, some cookies, and four Lindt truffles had mysteriously appeared on the table. Where were they when I needed them? I swiped a truffle just before the start of the next period, because although there was no sign that ordered, “Eat me”, it was implied. I think.

The seventh-graders began with their Word Scavenger Hunt assignment, rather than the confusing one, and after several minutes, everyone was working quietly. I shook my head when I saw that most students struggled finding words in the dictionary.

“It’s not here,” more than one student said regarding cheerful.

“I don’t think any dictionary would skip that word.”

“Has anyone found nervous?” a student called out.

There was a chorus of, “No!”

“Under sad it says ‘dull’, but that means ‘stupid’,” two students insisted.

“Look at the other definitions for ‘dull’.”

“I can’t find sorrow,” a student said.

“It makes me sorrowful that you can’t find sorrow.”

“I can’t find mournful,” I student complained.

“That’s because you spelled it ‘mornful’. It’s not like morning and night.”

When we got to the play assignment, I had it be a group discussion, which worked better, and I hoped the teacher didn’t mind that I veered from her lesson plan. I left my usual note, giving details of the day. Then I left to pick up my children, drive home, take some medicine, and eat a snack.


  1. Thank you for letting us in on what you do as a sub. I have had some good subs and some that never open the sub folder for the work or plans. I really hate putting all that time in creating plans and then the sub has them read all day. That happened just recently.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Joan.

    As an assistant, I've worked with a number of sub over the years. It's frustrating to get a bad one.

    I think any problems I had yesterday were because the teacher hadn't gotten to look at the packet in detail. It probably needed an introductory lesson. But I can't imagine skipping a teacher's plans.

  3. Your day subbing sounds like a typical day at my house during the winter break... confusing, loud and at moments, satisfying.

    I want to thank you for building up "Enigma" boys sense of self, instead of putting him down. I think you might have been talking to my son... or at least I wish you had been. He is exactly like that, and he has a photographic memory and he has an above average intelligence for anyone, let alone a 14 yo man-boy.
    Actually, I think I will refer to him from this point forward as EnigmaBoy! Now to convince him to use his powers for good, not evil!

  4. Thanks for the comment, Dawn.
    When I was an assistant in the fifth-grade, teachers I worked with would constantly get annoyed at the boys who fidgeted or whose minds would wander, but those children always reminded me of my son, and I'd defend them. When I teach, "perfect" students are appreciated, but not required.

  5. I also blog about substitute teaching. I hear about so many subs who never use the teacher's plans...what exactly do they do? I'd be scrambling to fill time without plans.

    Anyway, glad to find your blog!

  6. I agree, Vagabond Teacher. While I have a pile of "just in case" papers, I don't have something for each grade and subject. Besides, it depends on the time of year - the students may have have covered it.

    I belong to the Enchanted Learning website which is great for handouts for the younger grades. The site saved me when I subbed Spanish earlier in December. Luckily, I've only been left without plans a few times.