by Christopher Paslay
The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility. The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September. (Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
It wasn’t until the first week of October, 1995, that I got a call to substitute. The phone rang at six o’ clock in the morning, and the woman in charge of dispatching assignments on the other end of the line told me that an elementary school needed a sub for one of their 3rd grade special education classes.
Although I had a degree in secondary English and was trained to teach high school, I accepted the assignment with a positive attitude. I drove through the predominantly African American neighborhood to the school, parked my car on a side street, and found my way to the main office. I was greeted by the secretary with a smile, given my roster, and told to proceed to the third floor of the building.
When I got to the room, a staff member—a special education teacher who was on her prep and covering the class—met me at the door.
“They’re all yours,” she said, and left.
The class was made up of only eight students. They were all boys, all third graders, and all special education. They were sitting quietly at their desks, drawing on loose leaf paper. When I arrived, though, my presence stirred things up a bit.
“Who are you?” a boy asked.
“I’m Mr. Paslay,” I told him, and then explained to the class that I’d be their teacher for the day.
“Where’s Ms. Riable?” another asked.
“She’s not here today,” I said, and tried to keep things positive and friendly.
Ms. Riable had left a lesson plan on her desk and she’d written several assignments on the board. I was supposed to have the students take out their math workbooks and complete a basic arithmetic lesson. I instructed them to do this and they cooperated for about five minutes, but soon they started getting up out of their seats and walking around the room. I asked them nicely to sit down, but they weren’t responding.
“Guys, come on,” I said patiently. “You have to stay in your seats.”
I changed activities, giving them coloring books and crayons, hoping this would keep them occupied. It did for five minutes, the same as before, but then the same thing happened: they left their seats and started walking around.
I sat down at Ms. Riable’s desk and figured I’d let it go for a while. I’d let them stroll around the room and use up some energy; they didn’t seem to be hurting anyone. But as I scanned through the rest of Ms. Riable’s lessons to see what else I could do with them, the screaming started. I looked up and saw that one boy had tackled another to the floor and that they were now wrestling.
“Guys!” I shouted. The boy that got tackled started crying. Not knowing what to do, I picked up the emergency telephone on the wall, the one that went to the main office. When the secretary answered, I explained the situation. She said she’d send somebody up to help me out. A few moments later, one of the special education teachers from across the hall came in and told the students to behave themselves. They sat back down in their seats.
This routine continued for the rest of the morning. I’d do my best to get the students interested in something from Ms. Riable’s lessons, they’d get distracted and leave their seats, and I’d have to pick up the phone and threaten to call the office to settle things down; after I called the office twice, they stopped answering the phone.
At lunchtime, another teacher came and took the students to the recess yard and I got an hour break. After lunch, I took a shot at reading the class a story. To my satisfaction, I pulled it off. I read them Clifford the Big Red Dog. They sat Indian style around me in the front of the room, completely silent, listening intently.
Just then, the teacher who took the students to lunch an hour before popped in to see how I was doing. “Oh, you’re so good with them,” she cooed, and walked away smiling.
When the story was over they wanted more. I was tired of reading, and asked them what else they liked to do.
“Legos!” one boy shouted. He took me to the book case in the corner where there was a container filled with them.
“You guys are allowed to play with these?” I asked the boy.
He said that they were, that Ms. Riable let them play with them on Fridays if they were good all week and got their work done. It was only Monday, but what the heck, I figured I’d let them play with some Legos. It might keep them occupied for the last hour of the day.
When they took their seats, I gave out the Legos. They played with them . . . for a while. After ten minutes however, they started throwing them around the room. Lego pieces went zipping through the air like exploding fireworks. I shouted for them to stop, but in the end I had to go around, student by student, and take the pieces away and put them back into the big white bucket.
I spent the last 15 minutes of the day cleaning up the room. I found Legos pieces everywhere. I shut the classroom windows as I cleaned, afraid that if I didn’t, one of the kids would literally jump out the window while my back was turned and fall three stories to his death.
When the bell rang I was told to take the students out back into the recess yard so their parents could pick them up. On the way out into the yard, one of my students suddenly jumped on another boy’s back and threw him to the ground. The boy on the bottom bumped his head on the concrete and started crying at the top of his lungs. The mother of the crying boy came up to me, picked him up off the ground, brushed him off, and told him to settle down. She proceeded to wipe the snots coming from his nose.
I explained what happened, but she didn’t seem too upset; it was par for the course. I apologized and she left.
I went back inside to the main office so I could return the roster and sign out. There, the secretary said to me, “Thank you so much. Will we see you tomorrow, then? Ms. Riable will probably be out for a while, maybe six weeks, and we need a long term sub.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
The secretary seemed confused. “Well, you have a job here for the next four weeks, if you want it.”
I told her I’d have to think about it, which was a lie. I knew I’d never be coming back to that school. In fact, at that very moment, I was sure I’d never teach another day in my life.
It would be 23 months before I set foot in another classroom.