Triage Teacher by Patricia Dubrava

empty classroom close up of desks and books

I mean to be here two days, subbing for a friend, when the principal says, “We mention your name and you appear. Come back here and talk to us for a minute,” meaning him and the two assistant principals who turn to look at me as I walk into the office.

My pulse quickens. Wait: how could I be in trouble? I don’t work here anymore.

“Can you do a long-term sub for us? Sort of an emergency.”

My eyes widen and I stare at him. “In what?”

“Seventh grade lang arts.”

“How long?”

“Two weeks.”

Stunned, I say I’ll let him know by end of day. Of course I’m flattered. They need me. My tendency to want to save the world kicks in: poor abandoned children, I must leap to their aid. Here comes Ms. Dubrava, super-teacher to the rescue. Ta-Dah! Obviously, by the end of the day, I say yes.

That ‘yes’ overrides the realistic part of me that’s screaming, no, no, no! Run away as fast as you can. You’re a high school teacher, can’t do middle school. Seventh graders! The dark side of hormonal disruptions! You can’t wade through all that emotion. You can’t get up at 5:30 in the morning anymore, you have half a dozen commitments in the next two weeks, and you’re out of shape for teaching work. It’s gonna kick your butt.

Well. I said yes. I cancel appointments, re-arrange my schedule, inform my husband there’ll be no cooking.

* * *

            The kids call the room “the meat locker.” It’s the only academic classroom in the basement, otherwise peopled by mostly music. Guitar and piano are down the hall, and the meat locker’s sandwiched between vocal music and theatre. It’s a narrow, windowless room, usually cold. I teach all the mornings I’m there with my jean jacket on while temps outside are in the 80s.

There are no staff bathrooms in the basement. The nearest are up a flight of stairs, down the hall past band and orchestra, behind the library. Such a trip is impossible in the five-minute passing period between classes. I’ve lost the teacher habit of being able to wait until planning period or lunch, and make sure I visit the bathroom in the last few minutes before my first class. If I go right at the end of lunch and don’t drink much water, I can make it through the next two 90-minute classes to the end of the day. I’m too old for this. My bladder is too old for this.

The nearest copier is in a teacher workroom upstairs. The office is upstairs and at the opposite end of the building. The rest of the seventh-grade teachers are upstairs and down the hall. The isolation is daunting. Old friends say, “Hey, I thought you were here subbing?”

I was. I saw no one.

I am charged with figuring out the big project that caused a storm of protest from parents, getting it clarified, presented and graded. It’s been assigned since day one, the kids have worked and worked on it, still have no grades on the books, and we’re at six weeks now. The first day I solicit feedback, redirect them every time they drift from specifics on the project to teacher bashing. After four classes of that, I am drained, but I have a fair idea of what the project is—and, incidentally, a fair idea of what the problems were with the teacher.

Part of me—the self-preservation part—is screaming, why the hell did you agree to do this?  I spend two uncompensated hours at home distilling the sprawling rubrics down to something I can understand, something gradable, one page instead of five, create presentation sign up schedules for each class. I wake in the middle of the night from a teaching nightmare with aching jaws, a sensation I thought I’d never have to feel again.

I’ve been retired less than two years. The seasoned teacher habits snap into service like rubber bands. I wake five minutes ahead of the 5:30 alarm, ramp up the old brisk pace, am out of the house in one hour flat, get to school 40 minutes ahead of the first class, have handouts copied and the day’s agenda on the board before students begin to trickle in, saying, “It’s cold in here.” I pace the classroom, hover where the chatter is, tap talking kids on the shoulder while I continue to explain the revised assignment, know the names of the squeaky wheels by the end of day two, know a third of them by end of day three, by day four recover my ability to complete attendance while responding to questions and issuing instructions to the class in general.

“What did I miss?” a kid asks as I’m doing all that. I register that he needs yesterday’s handout while I’m talking.

“The party. You missed the party. But you can’t make that up.”

A child overhears this. “Oh, yes,” she gushes. “It was a great party.”

I give him the handout. I’ve got my sass back, too.

The clenched jaw pain from the first day is intermittent but never really goes away for the two weeks. Indigestion I’ve been relieved of for more than a year returns as well. I have about twenty minutes to eat lunch. That’s how it always was before, but now my body revolts big time. I want to read the newspaper, have a second cup of coffee. How can I gulp this soup and run to the copier before afternoon classes? For the two weeks I’m there, I never finish my lunch. It is the pace of public education that physically destroys teachers.

After the explanation of the revised guidelines, the signup, the twenty minutes patiently answering their questions, I know I’ve succeeded when a hand goes up and the child asks, “Can you be our new teacher?”

“So. Tomorrow, half of the class is to finish this project and meet with me individually if you have questions and the next day we begin presentations, yes?”

They nod, yes. I smile at them, but my stomach knots. I know what it is to sit through 130 presentations, all sounding more or less the same, four classes back-to-back, and bad enough if it was MY project, but one another teacher assigned, much of which makes no sense to me, will be a bit of hell. I have to grade mostly as they present, must focus, focus and after the first four or five PowerPoint presentations each class, the audience gets bored and restless, so I’m policing the room while trying to listen and scribble notes I hope I’ll be able to decipher later to finalize the grade.

It shouldn’t be like this. I shouldn’t be trying to grade a major project while I’m beginning to learn who they are, while we’re in the wobbly transition of finding out how we work together. It takes a week and a half to discover that Nick is simply too hyper to sit still, gets up to wander the room without even knowing he’s done it, but his project is among the best and he’s read far ahead of the assigned pages in the novel, too easy for him, not a book I’d have chosen. I would deal differently with him after knowing that, but after that I’ll be gone.

This teacher, who I’ve never met, was new here this year, placed. He’d been “unassigned,” a dangerous status to acquire in public education. “The dance of the lemons,” some call it, callously. He’d been teaching and coaching 25 years, first high school and for the last dozen, middle school language arts. Every available space, even part of the white board, is covered with his neatly hand-lettered, laminated posters of standards for reading and writing, rubrics for essays, definitions of literary terms and genres, mottoes for success. All these directives, collected over years, shouting at me. They seem more defensive screens for the teacher than instructions for the students. My eyes glaze looking at them. There is not an inch of room on these walls for anything the kids might do.

In the storage cabinet where I find the copier paper, there’s a stack of framed photos: the teacher on trips with students, the teacher as coach with his middle school football teams, his hair getting grayer each year. How do 25 years of teaching end this way? No one tells me anything, except the teacher is “on leave” and not likely to return.

Meanwhile, these seventh graders have acquired an aversion to writing. When I propose a free write, they groan in unison. Why? I ask. They tell me. Kids will tell you anything. No, no, I say, while I’m here, free writes are free writes: no editing, no planning, no highlighting parts of speech. We are writing for fun, to increase our writing fluency. If you do it, you get the points. They burst into applause. I give them a silly prompt and ten of them want to share, make each other laugh with what they’ve written. I point out a few apt metaphors, make them repeat a fine sentence or two. Every day after that someone asks, can we please do another free write? No, we can’t, we have to do this bloody project so you can get some bloody grades.

In the midst of presentations most days, vocal breaks into sectionals and a quartet sets up outside the meat locker door, which has no soundproofing qualities.

First period, the middle school theatre majors run their scenes in the hall. The children are used to this, hear it the way city people hear traffic, as white noise, but it drives their temporary teacher crazy.

Seventh graders bond with you in minutes. By day three, some run to hug me in the halls. By day two I’ve identified the Velcro kid, the one who attaches and refuses to let go. You have no control over it, can’t explain how or why it happens, but there’s always at least one, a needy child. This one is in the class before lunch and lingers, won’t go to eat, comes back at the end of the day, just wants to talk. I keep him at arm’s length: I’m leaving after all.

Doing this reaffirms my confidence that I’m a good teacher. When I hold the individual conferences, some children whisper, “Why couldn’t you be our teacher?” Their still babyish faces work into pouts. They’re so young, can’t help taking all this personally. Was it their fault the teacher left? Was he bad because of them? Doesn’t anyone else want to be their teacher? Several parents I knew before drop in or email to thank me, but don’t ask me to stay. They get it. I’m doing an intervention. I’m the patching-up teacher.

These are children and don’t always tell the truth, often exaggerate, but even allowing for that, I can tell assignments were not explained or confusing, grades slow in coming, that he yelled often, used profanity, had been in rough schools and was rough with these kids who are mostly not rough. How can you walk into a classroom with all that experience and not see the difference? A wise teacher told me once, “You can’t plan until you meet your kids.” The plans I saw were downloaded, copied out of books, had been used over and over—cookie-cutter plans. They were certainly not geared to these students. Maybe he was no longer able to discern differences in his students. Maybe he’d lost the ability to teach more than one way, the way we lose the ability to touch our toes, by simply not doing it.

I listen to project after project, spend long minutes getting classes to settle before and between presentations. The noise level in schools is tantamount to that of sports arenas: the racket in the halls, the intense babble at beginning and end of classes, the clamor of lunch and after last bell. For this also I’ve lost my tolerance, go home with a headache daily. It takes five-and-a-half days of back-to-back presentations, but we get it done, churning out the major grade of the six weeks like assembly-line productions, quieting the parent uproar, the whine of children unable to tolerate the limbo of gradelessness.

For the two weeks I do no laundry, slap together meals, cancel gym dates, have bouts of teacher panic-attacks; I’m not ready, there’s not enough time and I can’t keep going this fast. I lose two pounds, in spite of devouring chocolate bars. And when it’s over, I sleep until eight, soak up the quiet of home, spend a morning mulling over word choices in the story I’m translating.

No, darlings, I can’t be your teacher. Already in the last week I yelled at you twice, when you wouldn’t get quiet. “There is no point,” another wise teacher told me my first year, “in losing your temper with a child.” And mostly I kept that counsel over the course of my career, but now—I was right to retire. You’re fine students, put hours of preparation into a project that had no clear point, doing your best to turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse. You are smart and funny and full of bouncy enthusiasms. I wish for you a teacher who won’t dampen those qualities. How horrible that I have to wish such a thing.

pat-dubravaPatricia Dubrava has two collections of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. She taught Spanish and Creative Writing at Denver School of the Arts for sixteen years. Recent publications include literary translations in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Aldus, and Café Irreal, and creative nonfiction in the Palo Alto Review and Talking Writing. Dubrava blogs on education, translation, humor and other topics at patriciadubrava.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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