Vignette #4 from Reinventing Education, Hope, and the American Dream, My worst day as a substitute teacher!

Vignette #4 took place in a high school gym class and turned out to be the single worst day of subbing over a ten-year period.

 

In this half day assignment, the gym teacher for whom I would be subbing was still in his office when I arrived. As he explained about the one class I would be handling, he instructed me to take attendance both at the beginning and, again, at the end of the period. He said this was a very large class, approaching sixty students, and the kids would skip out early if I did not pay close attention, particularly since this was the last period of the day. He said the only ones who will receive credit will be the students who are present for both beginning and ending roll calls. The class was fairly equally divided between male and female students and was over fifty percent African-American students, which was also true of the school as a whole. The rest of the students were evenly distributed racially with equal parts white and Hispanic students and with a smattering of Asian students.

Although the students were loud and not all were willing to participate in the planned activity, there were no problems of significance during the bulk of the ninety-minute period. The students who did not wish to participate sat along the wall and talked amongst themselves. The biggest challenge, given the size of the gym and of the class, was keeping tabs on them. In addition to the doors leading out of the gym into one of the interior corridors, there was an unlocked door leading to an outdoor athletic field and a door to an internal storage room for athletic equipment; also unlocked. Anytime my attention was directed elsewhere, one or both of those doors would open.

As instructed, I took attendance at the beginning of class. As we approached the last ten minutes of the period I got the class’s attention and explained Coach _________’s instructions for the end-of-the-period attendance. Of course, the students began complaining that the Coach never took attendance at the end of the class.

I began calling names and attempted to make eye contact with each student as he or she answered. About a quarter of the way down the list, an African-American female student answered in response to the name I called. She was standing directly in front of me, less than ten feet away. A short while later, as I proceeded down the list, this same student answered a second time, when another name was called. I immediately addressed the student, telling her that, as she had responded to two different names, I needed to know who she was and, also, which of the two students whose names I had called was not present.

The student immediately and loudly insisted that she had responded only to her own name. When I repeated that I had clearly observed her responding to both names she began screaming denials at me, coming closer to me as she did so. Within seconds, two other girls, also black, came to her defense and also began yelling at me and, by that time, all three girls were within inches of my face, screaming at the top of their lungs; saliva splashing in my face as they did so. I had been standing against the wall next to the door and I was trapped against the wall.

“Coach ______ doesn’t take attendance at the end of class!” one of the girls yelled. “You’re just doing this because we’re black!” she screamed.

Another of the group screamed that “we all look alike to you white people!” and repeated her friend’s claim that I was just doing this because they were black.

By this time, my heart was racing and my ears were ringing. I could also feel my face turning red as they pressed even closer to me and as I struggled to maintain any semblance of poise. I could also see that other students were taking advantage of my predicament and leaving before the bell had rung.

Striving to keep an even voice, I asked the girls to calm down but there was no recognition that I had spoken and no lessening of their screeching. By that time, my head was pounding. As I felt a sense of panic creep into my throat, I was desperate to create some separation between the three girls and me. At this point, I reached out with both hands and gently took hold of the elbows of the girl directly in front of me to push her away.

As soon as my hands made contact with her, she reacted suddenly and violently, and screamed even louder, “Don’t touch me!” she said, “don’t you ever touch me.” She then pushed both of her hands against my chest and shoved me back against the wall. All three of the girls were now screaming so loud and my ears were ringing so badly that I could understand nothing they were saying.

I kept hoping another teacher would hear the racket and come to my assistance but no one did. Given the distance of the gym from the main hallway, it is entirely possible that no one heard the screaming although I would have thought it could have been heard at the far end of the building.

By the time the bell rang, my whole body was trembling and I was feeling a rage grow inside of me. Fortunately, within seconds after the bell had rung, the three girls were gone. All I could think about was that I didn’t even know the names of the girls who had confronted me. As the last few students streamed out of the gym, I asked if anyone could tell me the names of the three girls but the students just walked faster, avoiding my question.

Fortunately, this was the last period of the day. When the last student had departed I sat down, feeling exhausted, and tried to calm myself. Before leaving for the day, I wrote notes to the gym teacher and to Student Services, explaining what had happened, in detail.

At no time, after leaving the school that afternoon, did I hear from the gym teacher, the principal, or any of the school’s administrators.

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