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Published in Print: October 1, 2001, as Mr. Bill Goes To School

Mr. Bill Goes To School

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Once a rebellious teen, the author returns to the locker-lined hallways—as a sub.

Clutching a packet of tax records, health forms, and references proclaiming my potential as a substitute teacher, I sat down at the desk of the district coordinator. I was wearing what was, for me, an abnormally dressy button-down shirt for the occasion. Folders were shuffled, contact information was entered, and I signed a waiver promising that I would not use corporal punishment in the classroom. And that was it: Just two and a half years after my graduation, and without a day of college under my belt, I had successfully found my way back into high school.

Now, this turn of events was a bit odd, considering my background. Since suffering through the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance," I had spent a considerable amount of time touring the country, via bike and Greyhound bus, searching for adventure. My high school years, replete with stacks of busywork, were an advanced placement lesson in educational despair; so I'd hit the road armed with a few alternative-ed manifestos and a vow to avoid standardized-test bubbles for at least a year. I traveled from youth conferences to education conferences, from urban free schools to suburban private schools, and I stayed, along the way, with learning-is-living unschooling families and Bible-toting homeschoolers alike. The more I ed-ventured, the more I realized that surveying blueprints for sweeping educational reform on grassy hilltops wasn't enough; I knew that the only way to make real changes was to get in there with the youth.

Such an opportunity presented itself last fall, after a 6-year-old boy I'd met on the road gave me a call. He invited me to teach him piano lessons and live with his family in a mid-size city in North Carolina. I accepted the offer, and because my cash reserve was dwindling, I soon found my way to the steps of the local high school, where I presented myself as substitute material. Little did I know what the next five months had in store for me.

"Are you a new student?" I was asked as I fidgeted my way into Room C-203 and sat at the teacher's desk. Because I was a 21-year-old who's short and smiles a lot, that question would arise dozens of times over the next few months. But that fine February morning, I was serving as a stand-in for an 8th grade biology teacher.

In accordance with the lesson plans, I showed the class a Smithsonian video on the web of life and the politics of genetic manipulation. The roughly 20 students were obviously not too concerned with their ancient cosmic origins, and the sugar highs from that morning's bowls of Frosted Flakes and Captain Crunch weren't helping any. The principal even dropped by to lend me a helping hand. "This is a very deep and complex issue that requires you to think," he said during a pep talk that quieted the students for about 30 seconds.

I survived that first day, and a few weeks later the ante was upped when I was assigned the in-school-suspension hall for the afternoon. As I entered the cramped, windowless room, where 12 students—half boys, half girls—sat quietly, the morning supervisor issued me a stern verbal warning. "They have already had their bathroom time, and there's no reason they should leave their seats or talk at all," she growled. But as soon as she exited, a voice sprang up from the back row: "I don't like people the age of my boyfriend telling me what to do." My response was "I don't either," which prompted a collective double take.

But soon all the students were talking, a couple of them about boyfriends in prison. "Guys," I said, "I don't want you to get in any more trouble, and I don't want to lose my job. Deal?" After some deliberation, an agreement was struck: The discussions could continue so long as one of them policed the crack in the door for potential intruders; then, if someone did approach, one loud clap would send everyone back to the seats they'd been assigned that morning. All afternoon, there was only one clap, prompted by the supervisor, who peered inside the room and found a polite, orderly class.

Many of the faces I saw in the faculty room were masks of gloom or delirium.

As spring arrived, I accepted that I was now working within the system. But nearly every day I was torn between keeping classes "on task," as my substitute manuals advised, and committing the educational crimes of allowing laughs and voices to fill my classrooms without consequences. Teaching, for me, had become the art of listening to students and giving them room to think and breathe as I tried to appease the administration. I was also aware, of course, that, as a sub-someone not fully vested, careerwise, in the system-I enjoyed freedoms the teachers did not. Many of the faces I saw in the faculty room were masks of gloom or delirium. While I was talking to a veteran French instructor about my transition, she told me: "We teachers have to let off steam sometimes or we'd go over the edge. If only [the students] knew what we say at lunch time. Welcome to the other side."

I did feel welcome. Just three years after taking the SAT, I'd become strangely accustomed to taking attendance and going to PTA luncheons. And the students were giving more to me and taking more from me than I ever expected. On any given day, I'd listen to some of them sing "Amazing Grace" as others, thinking I wasn't looking, threw magic markers at their classmates' heads. In the library one day, a student sat next to me and recounted her ancestors' escape from slavery, a trek that took them from the deep South to the Canadian wilds.

Amid the hyperactive teenage antics and random outbreaks of dance parties and hair-braiding, I was shown diaries. I also was asked, "Why do you want to teach bad kids?" and I heard hundreds of young voices begging for ears. Here are a few of them:

"I'm a good student when I want to be. School just seems so pointless."

"All my friends that fall in love, all they get is pain."

"Teachers, man, they just don't get it."

"Five of my friends are pregnant. I gave them stuff for the baby."

"Here are the photos of my relatives who are in prison."

"You dance, Bill?"

Looking back, maybe I shouldn't have been so eager to listen. By the time April rolled around, these same students were suggesting, on a daily basis, that I return next year as a full-time teacher. One student even walked me into an adjacent classroom and said to his English instructor: "I don't want you as my teacher. I want Mr. Bill."

Eventually, the students and I agreed that they would circulate a petition seeking approval of a new, student-centered course. The "Independent Study Program" would allow them, under my supervision, to create their own innovative means of learning, for which they'd do their own research and present the results in diverse formats. Instead of regurgitating chemistry terms for Friday's quiz, for example, they'd study the chemical makeup of pollutants in the local water supply. And for their Romantic literature course, they'd interview local authors and write their own stories and poems.

In two days, more than 300 student signatures were collected and handed to me—along with reports that some teachers had confiscated copies of the petition. In fact, the vice principal dropped in on me one afternoon and, after throwing his copy in the trash can, suggested I "take this as a compliment." That same day, I submitted the petition and a lengthy proposal to the principal, explaining how the program would operate and why it would be so crucial for the students. He thanked me and said he'd consider the matter.

The next day, at 7 a.m., I got the usual call from the substitute supervisor. Only this time, she proceeded to interrogate me. Why had the students circulated such a petition? Why was I trying to sneak a program in through the back door? Why was I so sure the students were bored? I explained that I'd talked to students extensively; I even shared some of their stories, to which she responded: "You can't always trust the students."

I couldn't forget the ‘motivational’ poster on the wall of one classroom: ‘Life is not fair. Live with it.’

From that day on, my presence was no longer requested at the high school. Whenever I passed the building from a distance, I couldn't help but remember walking, each day, into a room filled with straight rows of desks, then watching them get more and more crooked and, finally, lining them up again after the ninth-period bell rang. I also couldn't forget the "motivational" poster on the wall of one algebra classroom that read: "Life is not fair. Live with it."

As much as I disagree with those words, I saw few options at the time and accepted defeat quietly. Still, there were hints that my efforts might have paid off. Every once in a while, as I trotted down the sidewalk, I'd hear a "Mr. Bill!" leap from a car window. That one voice would bring back the thousands of voices I'd heard bounce through the school's brick hallways. And today, I recall the words of one student in particular, a 9th grader. After he discovered I wouldn't be returning, he told me: "This school may think you're bad, but I think you're good."


Vol. 13, Issue 2, Pages 45-47

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