What Len Taught Me

There was a time when I thought I might make a pretty good teacher. People told me I was kind and patient, understanding, and knowledgeable. They told me I had so many qualities of one. Then I worked as a substitute in a public school district.

What Len Taught Me

My Mediocre Career Substitute Teaching

There was a time when I thought I might make a pretty good teacher. People told me I was kind and patient, understanding, and knowledgeable. They told me I had so many qualities of one. Then I worked as a substitute in a public school district. With most kids, in most classes, I was short-tempered, impatient, and had no idea what I was doing.

But there was one class I did pretty well in, middle school special ed. It was a whole different vibe. For one, I was not the only adult in the room. I was usually placed as a substitute aid to support the teacher, and there were always several other aids. I had a lot of help.

Two, the kids did not follow the typical school routine. They all stayed together in one room for most of the day; a few periods excepted like gym and lunch. Instead of a flow every forty-five minutes through the day of new classes who each thought it would be funny to harass the substitute, it was the same core group mostly all day. They had the first period to gawk and wonder about the substitute, but then the novelty ended, and we had the rest of the day together.

Third, I was usually the only white person in the room. Didn’t white kids have special needs? And I was always the only male adult. I frequently substituted in these classes because the women, the aids, and teachers, they liked me. They requested me. And I liked them. I asked for them back so far as I was able, which generally meant always saying yes when asked. We’d talk and share music and laugh together. They were warm and funny and welcoming. But they had difficult jobs.

The teacher and aids in these classes did not conduct a traditional class. No, I guess that would have been almost impossible. The students did not sit in orderly rows to quietly digest lectures or dig deeply to recount lessons from last evening’s reading assignments. It was so much more haphazard than that. The kids lounged provocatively across the school chairs and desks with coats on, or hats, or headphones, each cocooned in their ensembles of the day, forcefully displaying indifference to their current circumstance. Go ahead; I dare you to reach me. Just try.

They could not sit for long, needing to rise and roam the room — or simply leave it — in frequent intervals. And if asked to complete any task, each child would require intensive, continual attention, guidance, encouragement, and repeated review of the instructions.

And that was not even for complex learning. It was for basic things, like completing a circle that showed the moisture cycle after it evaporated into the clouds. Next, it condenses before it then falling to the earth as ______. We weren’t looking for the word “precipitation” or even “rain.” We were looking for the child to draw an arrow from the cloud to the ground. Draw the arrow, kid. Just draw the arrow.

I never thought we were teaching. The best we were doing was showing these kids some acceptance and care from adults. The work was to coax compliance in exchange for a passing grade that, in a larger administrative context, equivocated to the child moving on to the next grade level and, eventually, engaging in society as an adult.

Understanding why rain occurs is not the same as being ready to move up or into high school. Though that would be nice. It was more of a sense that if you can get them to complete the worksheet amidst all the defiance, it shows that they have broken off their mask, or forsaken their intention not to learn, or that something within them is percolating. And that was what we called hope. It probably meant that they would be able to be trained for work at a movie theater or drive-through.

No, we weren’t teaching. We were making low wage workers who would stuff the lowest levels of our economy. They might still be illiterate by the end of the year, or still not truly understand why it rains, but they would know how to follow instruction from those in authority over them — broken by years of worksheets and punishment. It wasn’t just me as a substitute. That’s the system.

These children were together all day, not mainly because they had special learning plans or lacked mental facilities to participate in regular classrooms (perhaps both were true though). They were generally there because they filtered down into the room. Through outbursts, failure, fights, or a general disinclination to engage, they ended up here — the unteachable. Kept together in a basement room with cinder block walls and little light, sent down by teachers who could no longer tolerate their explosions in class, or attitude, or the time sink they represented, holding back the learning for the rest of their classmates.

I said I did pretty well in that class. I guess it was because I found out that these kids could learn, and they had academic interests, and they did put their guard down. I respected them. I expected something from them, along with their ever-patient teacher and the other aids. I learned to wait for them to be ready. One of the other aids once told me that the kids in the room liked me, and when I asked why she said, “Because you keep showing up.”

How desperately frustrating is that?

It isn’t a happy story. I want to say that in later years, I stood up as one of those middle school kids, then grown, was called up to receive a college diploma, tears all around.

But no.

As much as the other adults in the room or I might make a connection with a child, one of trust and respect that helped move a small step up, maybe even someday up out of that basement, many of them existed within a larger, stormy ecosystem that regularly clawed them back into indifference or short term needs-fulfillment. I am going to be a professional athlete. I am going to die young, so nothing matters. I am never going to succeed in your world. Your world.

One of the kids I liked the most, let’s call him Len, was charismatic, funny, and smart, what you might call a naturally gifted leader. Remember, this was a middle school kid, but I could see great things in him. We worked together on lessons and built a rapport, and maybe, just maybe, I even earned his respect.

I talked with him about college, good jobs, about the power he had to make his own life. One night, after months of working with Len, I was at a movie theater concession stand, seasoning my popcorn or getting straws, and there was he was, there was Len. He was with a dozen or so older kids, each dressed in black hoodies and black pants. Len was high as a kite, eyes shiny as a marble.

What was he? Twelve? Thirteen years-old? Rolling out with this group of teenagers, so stoned he could barely stand. It was a school night.

Len, it’s me, Mr. Chris.

There are some battles we cannot win. When you try to be a teacher, you usually end up being the one doing all the learning. As a mediocre substitute, I learned that we can not warehouse our children but expect anything different from what warehousing produces. There are no miracles in raising and educating children. It takes a lot of complicated, frustrating work. And teams of people. And time. And care.

We, as a society in the United States, are failing many school children. But it does not have to be that way. As an adult, if you ever get the chance, knock on the special needs classroom door. And then keep showing up.