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Schools Days: Substitute Teacher

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By Lori Mehler

I broke up with a long-time boyfriend the night before a substitute-teaching assignment at a school in Bensalem. The break-up wasn't a surprise, but it was emotionally draining. I got two hours of sleep, then mustered the wherewithal to pack an orange, pour a cup of coffee, and drive an hour to the school.

My fifth-grade class had its own anxieties because of the simple fact that their regular teacher was out for the day.  The loss of our routines, our familiarities, our comforts, would intersect at 8 a.m. Tuesday morning.

I've learned how children interpret compassion.  I view the teacher's desk as a place to visit only when my feet need a ten-minute rest.  Otherwise, it sits as a steel container - filled with fun objects like paper-clips and band-aids and post-its and hand sanitizer.  It used to be a safe barricade, in the days when I was too scared to get around the classroom and peek over shoulders, look under the desks and deal with young tempers.  I used to think I was teaching to my potential, but I wasn't. Now I know that I was simply projecting the image of the teacher I wanted to be, but hadn't yet become.

Teachers will tell you with a knowing smile that there's always the one or two students who need "special attention", one or two who are "really challenging."

 

Meeting Brandon

I met mine that Tuesday morning, and he was easy to spot.  They always are.  Maybe they are just a little too loud or their energy is a little too powerful to be contained. They must sit, in their little bodies, behind desks, and listen to directions for hours at a time.  These children are some of our most powerful messengers.  They remind of us what is like to struggle in the human experience, to feel pain and rejection, loss and sorrow.

On Tuesday, it was Brandon who brought the message.  He was tormenting the children in his area, cursing, and fidgeting in his seat.  I asked him to step into the hallway for a moment. 

"How are you doing?" I asked, looking at his face.

"Bad," he said, kicking at the carpet.

"Looks like you're having a tough time.  Are you okay?"

"No.  I hate school.  I'm failing everything.  I want to quit."

I was 36 and Brandon was 10, but I realize we both had pain inside that wanted to dominate.  My job, at this moment, was to help him with his.  His face seemed frozen in time, beside the construction-paper displays, above the tight orange carpet, amidst the scurrying teachers in the hallway.

"I want to tell you something," I sighed.  "The longer you live, the more times you'll want to quit."

 I felt a lump in my throat and got mad at myself for even considering crying in front of this boy. I took a deep breath.

 "But you can't," I smiled. "You might think you can't do it, but you can.  You're smarter than you think."

 

Smile and a frown

He stopped kicking at the carpet, and his lips turned up just a little.

He might have started to smile, but immediately frowned again. 

"How old are you?" he asked, suddenly, with a smile.

"Let's try to have a good day in there, okay?" I deflected.

"Okay," he shrugged.

When we walked into the classroom, I turned to my left and saw a laminated poster on the wall. It read: "Life is all about making mistakes and learning from them."

Brandon didn't get out of his seat or bother another child for the rest of the morning.  In fact, when it came to reviewing the Math homework, he was the star, explaining the few problems that had stumped the others in the class.

I smiled at the end of Tuesday, pleased at the little piece of hope and understanding that Brandon and I shared on what began for both of us as a very difficult day.

Our encounter reminded me that we all carry pain.  I had helped Brandon with the challenges of his frustration and disappointment.  In turn, he exemplified for me the message of hope, and the power of encouragement.

My break-up didn't feel quite so broken anymore.

 

Lori Mehler is a writer and teacher who lives in Philadelphia.

 

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