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Excerpt from, "The Warrior: Tales of a Substitute Teacher and Job Coach," by Andy Palasciano

What if THE HOKEY POKEY

      really is what it’s all about?

                 -   Anonymous

 

Before the Beginning

 

I have always had an ability to get lost.

          You know how kids look up and the shopping cart they are holding onto is not their mom’s?  That was me. Every time.

          One time I went through a series of women’s dressing rooms looking for my mom. I opened each curtain and said, “Mom?”

          I still remember those screaming women.

          My mom has a similar ability.

Driving me around when I was a kid, she’d smile. “If we hadn’t gotten lost, we wouldn’t have seen this.”

          We saw a lot, and, in the same way, in my life I have, too.

          But through my working career, I began to find my way. This book is a road map

of that journey.

 .          .          .

 

          The first class I ever taught was high school math. I got to the class late and found no lessons plans. So I learned, I think from a student, that I was supposed to go over the previous night’s homework. I looked at the work and had no idea how to do it.

          Convinced I had to maintain authoritative control over the class, I stared at them stone-faced, fearing I’d be exposed as a fraud.

          “You in the front row,” I told a student. “Come up and do the problem on the board. And class, you tell him if he’s right or wrong. I’m not going to help you. You guys should know how to do this stuff.”

          It worked.

.          .          .

 

          I got another assignment similar to that one. Waking up late, I threw on pants my mom had just bought me and I drove to class. Still trying to maintain authoritative poise in this high school math class, I spotted a girl raising her hand and snapped at her, “What?”

          “Do you know you have the tag from the store on those pants?”

          I quieted the class, but 10 minutes later, that same girl raised her hand “Do you know you have another tag on those pants?”

         I’m more careful with my attire these days.

.          .          .    

 

          Teaching another class – high school French? – two students came up to my desk and asked me if they could get a drink.

          “Ok,” I told them, amazed at how well I was handling this class. The students came back, their arms full of soda, and started calling out, “Who had the 7-Up? And Dr. Pepper” and began distributing the cans around the class.

          I think I got a Diet Coke.

 

.          .          .    

 

          Powerless permanent teachers bowed down to tyrannical Substitutes. Substitute Teachers wielded the real power. A Substitute is like a Chihuahua that jumps when it barks: Arf. arf. arf. And people bow down and pay their respect. This raw power helped me see where I was going more clearly, even if the glare from the dog tag on my collar was a little bright.

 

.          .          .

 

          I taught music classes where I ordered a kid to conduct the orchestra. I taught a drum class where kids beat drums with their hands and fingers. I taught fashion design.

 

.          .          .        

 

          I should have listened to other teachers who tried to give me advice on how to control a class. When I first started, a teacher told me, “You can’t show fear. You have to believe in what you are telling them.”

          Fear was all over my face. I refused to bribe the kids with candy bars (one teacher’s suggestion), and I couldn’t keep threatening them with detention (another teacher’s suggestion). “I’m going to give them the choice to listen to me,” I told myself, “or run rabid.”

          The kids chose the latter.

          I kept chasing them in my classes, sometimes trying to get them to put down their chairs or dodging things thrown at me, and others.

 

.          .          .     

 

          The best and worst six words in substituting are “The children know what to do.”

 

.          .          .        

 

            Embarrassing moments don’t define us. Humiliating ones do. Being a Substitute Teacher always made me feel the same way I did when I shopped at a craft store over Christmas: demoralized. The whole time I could see the front of the line. It just wasn’t moving.

 

.           .          .

 

            I realized that it took more energy to conserve energy than to expend it. Adults might have similar amounts of energy as children if they did everything with all their hearts, the way children do. The problem for me was that I had nowhere near that level of heart back then, so students would run circles around me.

 

.          .             .

 

            A fellow teacher was thinking out loud in a teacher’s lounge.

            “Teachers are playing with kids on the playground and losing their rapport with the students, and having a hard time controlling their classes.”

            I laughed because I never had any kind of rapport with my classes and not an ounce of control.

 

.        .       .

  

          Teachers who were successful at keeping control of the class weren’t necessarily angry at the kids. At the time, I thought I didn’t yell at the kids enough. I thought, “I’m giving them the choice.” If I yelled and forced them listen to me, wouldn’t that be wrong?

            Successful teachers got control by love.   

 

 .         .         .

 

            At recess with one class, the kids were gathered around me, and I was hitting the red rubber ball into the sky with my fist. There wasn’t a cloud anywhere. That ball soared higher and higher. And when it would come down to the ground, the kids would yell, “Again! Again!” And I would punch the red ball again into the stratosphere.

            I was the hero for a few minutes in my teaching career.

 

.            .         .

 

            I wrote my name on the board.

            “Can we call you Mister P?”

            “Yeah, that’s fine.”

            “Can we call you Master P?”

            “Well, I don’t like that as much, but…it’s a funny story, I…”

            A kid made a move toward the light switch. I have never had a positive result after someone flicked the lights on and off.

 

.       .      .

            The kids taught me to love others and enjoy my life.

            One girl saw me in the hall. “Mr. P!”

            Another girl who was not in my class, looked at me. “This guy is a teacher? He’s like one of us.”

            I felt honored to be on their level. On that level the kids taught me to have fun and accept others.

 

.            .         .

 

            One day, after a storm, a rainbow appeared. One of the students gave me a trinket at the end of the school day and said, “Mr. P, can you put this at the end of the rainbow?”

            I drove out of the parking lot and headed toward the end of the rainbow. I’m not sure if I reached the end of it. But I put the trinket in a field.

            Dreams were being planted all the time.

First published by Lymer & Hart

                   Garden Oak Press

Andy Palasciano was born in Connecticut and has lived in San Diego for sixteen years, where he is a part of the Full Moon Poetry Circle. His work has appeared in The Penwood Review, The Journal of New England Writers, and the San Diego Poetry Annual.