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Thursday, November 11, 2010

In School Suspension

As some of you know I have a master's degree in education and am certified to teach high school English.  In You Never Know I wrote about some of my experiences teaching high school on Cape Cod.  At the time I was 26 years-old and not yet ready to confine myself to the rigid regimen that the successful execution of the profession requires.  Instead of teaching I lit out for new adventures and found them in travels both foreign and domestic.  For over a decade, I moved from city to city - never keeping a single address for more than a couple of years at most (and sometimes the duration was no more than a season).  I spent many months of my 20s in and around Boston, but from there I left for a few months in London, three quarters of a year in Amsterdam, a summer in Toronto, and on it went.  Though Boston was my base and the city to which I most frequently returned, it was never long before I grew restless there.  For all it's comfort and offerings, Boston was too familiar, staid, and provincial (ironic as that is to say now - read on).

In my early 30s, I left Boston again for Europe, intent this time on living in Switzerland.  And while I lived there for a time, I never took root. I fled Zürich and made an attempt at solitary introspection hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail for a month (see also Kiss it Goodbye).  I spent hour after hour watching my step as I walked over hill and dale.  At month's end I exchanged my hiking boots for sneakers, my tent for an extra room in my sister and brother-in-law's Manhattan apartment.  My romance with my now wife was budding, but it took a move to Long Beach, California to blossom.  We lived there a year before marrying and returning to Massachusetts - this time to the more suburban North Shore towns of Beverly, Marblehead, and Salem.  Aside from my years growing up in Mansfield, Connecticut, Salem was the address I kept the longest in life - all of 4 years.  And now I find myself but a 30 minute bucolic drive from my old hometown, set amidst the same thick woods, rocky fields, and verdant farms of my youth - and from the high school whose senior class of 1987 voted me, deservingly I immodestly think, Class Clown.

For the past several weeks, I've been substitute teaching in my high school.  Only a few teachers from my era remain and the building itself has undergone major renovations so I don't feel as though it's a complete time warp.  However there remain just enough vestiges of the past - so as to provide more than a few surreal déjà vu moments.  The old gymnasium appears largely unchanged; what used to be the math wing (the roof off of which I once fell - as described in My Bad Back) might well have been teleported from the 1980s to the present.  And just as it was when I was in school, the Boys Soccer team is amongst the best in the state - and a top 5 team nationally.

It's been more than a decade since I last walked the halls between classes, heard the din of the cafeteria at lunch (at 10:36am!), or stood, hand over heart, for the Pledge of Allegiance.  Instead of asking for a pass, I write and sign them.  I now call teachers by their first names.  Students give me a wider berth in the halls and a level warier stares in my direction (or alternatively avoid eye contact completely).  I am the now sssshhher and not the shhhshee; I am the mover of student's seats and not the pupil being centered in the front row before the watchful gaze of the mistrusting and annoyed teacher.

The classes I've been substituting for of late are heterogeneous, but trend heavily toward lower performing students.  Many of the 9th and 10th graders I see in class have various accommodations to address their special needs.  Some students have aides and others take tests in a resource room.  The few brighter students in the class 'get' somewhat more than their classmates, but appear equally unable to focus for more than a few seconds at a time.  They fidget, twitch and seem to reflexively belch, "WHAT?" when called upon, unsure if it's to answer a question or answer for playing with their iPods not so slyly hidden below the desktop.

When I occasionally sit in with a new class, the first words out of their mouths are nearly always the same, "Are you a sub?!"  When I confirm the fact, there is never a trace of disappointment.  "Yes!" is the universal exclamation.  Often I am there merely push play on the VCR for them to watch the movie the teacher has left for me to show.  Other times, I pass out a worksheet.  Though I wander between the desks offering assistance, only infrequently do they accept.  The sub rarely, if ever, is more than a proctor's pointer.  For the students, as well as for me, this moment in time feels like little more than a weigh station - a caesura in life, a chance and brief encounter that will surely be forgotten as quickly as the homework assignment itself.  When the bell rings, the students shuffle off to their next period.  And like I was, after enduring several thousand bells marking time, they'll be off on their own unpredictable adventures.  (Bell arithmetic:  approximately 18 bells per day; 180 days per year times 4 years = 12,960 chimes.  Consider the veteran teacher who has been there 30 or more years....)

It's strange, to say the least, to see my life of today framed by the this institution of my past.  It's too easy to say, "if I only knew then what I know now," but only because it's so true, so very, very true.