Education Opinion

The Boss Of Us

By Esme Raji Codell — May 01, 1999 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
A teacher puts a troublemaker in charge of her classroom and remembers what it was like to be on the other side of the desk.

Billy Williams is just out of control with the whining and tongue-clucking. “You always giving us homework, and you ain’t never give us no free time in class. I hate you!”

“You can hate me all you want. That’s your prerogative, your choice. But no matter how you feel about me, I will always love you.” I mostly say this because I know it just drives them crazy.

Sure enough, this sends Billy into a tongue-clucking frenzy. He stands up behind his desk. “I hate you!” he roars.

“I’m sorry you’re angry, but I still love you, and I won’t allow you to fail.”

“Dang! Dang! You always saying you love us. Well, your love mean nothing to me, woman!”

“Oooh, you breakin’ her heart, Billy Williams,” laughed Selena. We all laughed.

“You think it’s so hard to be on your side of the desk,” I told Billy, “but you sure make it hard from where I stand. I’m pretty sick of it. How about you see how hard you make it for me? You teach tomorrow.” The 5th grade class went up for grabs.

“Shiiit! That your job! I ain’t doing it!”

I put up a thumb for attention. All was quiet. “Here’s the deal. Teach tomorrow or be suspended for swearing, arguing, and not doing your work. Take your pick. Or rather, pick which one your mother would prefer when I call her about your decision tonight.”

Billy looked like he would kill me.

‘Would Mr. Williams please pick up his students.” I got ahold of the intercom. Ms. Coil, the vice principal, was made privy to the disciplinary action. The morning bell had rung. The class waited outside, delighted, in a perfect line. Billy was hiding in the boy’s room. I told his mom the night before not to let him say he was too sick to come to school today. I waited for him. Finally, he emerged.

“You really gonna make me do this?”

“Just for a day.”

“All day? You crazy!”

I had forgotten how scary it is when you forget to study and how easy it is to feel stupid even if you’re smart.

“No, I’m Billy.” I took off his jacket and headphones and put them on. He’s as big as me, so they fit. I put one of my boyfriend Jim’s ties around his neck. “Got any gum, brother-man?” He didn’t think my imitation was funny.

The rest of the class did.

I handed him the Trouble Basket, a big green basket into which the children pantomime unburdening their home worries so they can concentrate on school.

“I ain’t doing this!”

“Then you’ll have more troubles than this one basket can carry,” I threatened. “Don’t forget to say, ‘Good morning.’”

Billy tried to take attendance. “There’s some boys still out in the coat room,” I heard Selena point out. I was having fun, hanging out in there with B.B. and Kirk.

“Come out of there!” Billy stuck his head in. “How I’m ‘posed to take attendance? Damn!” B.B. and Kirk, realizing the consequences that Billy would deliver after school should they not cooperate, reluctantly went to their seats. I moseyed.

“Come on! Or I’ll give you five dictionary definitions to copy!” Billy warned me.

“Dang, man, don’t have a baby! I’ll git there when I git there, and if that ain’t good enough for you, well, ain’t that too bad!” I leered.

Billy maintained his character, looking slightly saddened, but ignored me. Some smart girls offered to help him with the lunch count. He got everybody lined up for art in the room across the hall. He let them enter, then proceeded himself.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I stopped him. “Do you see me go to art? You have lesson plans to prepare. Lucky for you, it’s a double period.”

We went to the teachers’ lounge. I brought books with various science experiments in them. Of course, he liked some exciting ones, but I reminded him that there weren’t many materials at his disposal. He finally decided on paper airplanes. He had to choose which pages to make handouts from. He ran the copy machine. Then he took notes for background knowledge. I reminded him to use the washroom before picking up the children, that it would be his only chance in the day.

Billy picked up the class and took them to the washroom. By now, the novelty of the situation was on the wane, and the children were in full form. Two girls started smacking each other.

“Cut it out!” Billy broke it up. They went back at it. “Don’t make me suspend y’all!”

“You can’t suspend us, Billy Williams.”

“That’s Madame Billy Williams today,” he corrected, “and I believe I can.”

The girls turned to me for reassurance. “What cha’ll lookin’ at me fo’? Like what you see?” I flashed them my winning Williams smile. The girls looked at me, then Billy, laughed nervously, and fell into line.

Walking back, I followed about six feet behind the rest of the class, like Billy does.

“Come on, yo’ highness!” Billy imitated.

“Dang! Dang! Always raggin’ on me!” I railed.

“Five definitions.”

“You hate me!” I clenched my fists. “You hate me ‘cause I’m black!”

“I love you,” he retorted, “but I don’t always love the choices that you make.”

“We ain’t got to do what the teacher says! He ain’t the boss of us!”

When we returned to the classroom, Billy added a letter “w” to the “h-o-m-e” that was already spelled out on the board from yesterday. If it spells “homework” on Friday, that’s what they get. The kids howled.

“That’s for fightin’ and arguin’ in the hall. Y’all know better.” The kids continued to complain noisily. “Next time, you’ll make a better choice,” he consoled. I had to hand it to him.

“Now, Mr. Williams and elephants never forget,” he sing-songed, using one of my pet phrases. “Test time.”

“Oooh!” The kids complained, none louder than me.

“We ain’t got to do what the teacher says! He ain’t the boss of us!” I tried to incite mutiny, as Billy does whenever a test is mentioned. “He ain’t said nothin’ about no test!”

“Says here on the board ‘t-e-s-t,’ which I believe spells test, and ‘T-h-u-r-s- d-a-y,’ which I believe spells today, so get out your pencils, which should already be as sharp as I know your answers will be.”

I nearly fainted. For a kid who doesn’t do what I say, he sure hears what I say.

“Wait! Is Madame Esmé taking Billy’s test?” Selena queried. Billy looked at me.

“Of course,” I came out of character for a moment to announce, “I’ll take it, as Billy would.”

Billy didn’t look very comfortable. “Did you study?” he asked as he handed me the test.

“Y’all didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout no test! Dang!”

Billy rolled his eyes.

Throughout the test, I made a point of leaning over to see Ruben’s answers, tossing paper at other kids’ heads for their attention, and sighing audibly with frustration. Billy sent me a mixed assortment of disapproving looks. Finally, I turned in a C test, figuring that was at least a full grade above his average.

Billy took the children to lunch. I bought him a teacher’s lunch, and he ate with me in the teachers’ lounge. He looked funny, sitting with all the men and women in his T-shirt and tie.

“So you’re the teacher today, huh!” one of the teachers quipped.

“Yes’m,” he muttered.

“Doing a fabulous job, too,” I added.

Billy smiled into his sloppy Joe.

After lunch Billy launched into his paper airplane lesson. While he was beginning his explanation, Mr. Turner, the principal, walked in. Billy was poised with a sample airplane, and I was slouched down at his desk.

“I didn’t do it!” I yelled when Mr. Turner entered. The class laughed.

“Raise your hand if you have something to share,” Mr. Williams corrected patiently.

Mr. Turner looked at us, one, then the other, and walked out. At the end of the day, Ms. Coil told me he came back to the office and said, “Something’s going on in Cordell’s room, but I’m not sure I want to know what it is.” The way he mispronounces my last name makes me wince.

“I’m sorry you’re angry, but I still love you, and I won’t allow you to fail.”

I let Mr. Williams off the hook at the last period of the day, assigning the class a composition, “The Day Billy Williams Was Our Teacher.” I wrote a composition during the period, too, “The Day Madame Esmé Was Billy Williams.” At the end of the day, I read it to the class: how I had forgotten how hard it is not to chew gum, how uncomfortable the seats were, what a pain it is to have to go to the washroom with the class when you don’t even have to go, how scary it is when you forget to study, how easy it is to feel stupid even if you’re smart.

I let Billy have my composition, and he took the rest of them home to grade. I looked at the one on top, by Zykrecia:

“I cant beleave she rilly did it. She said she would and she did. Billy Williams was our teacher today. He couldant really control us but other than that he did a good job. He always givin trouble well now he got some, I think he learnt a good lessin. Madam was actin just like Billy. It made me feel good that she remembers what it like. She ast me for gum but I didint have any. Maybe Ill be real bad so I can be teacher next.”

After school, I complimented Billy on a job well done and said that I thought he would be a fine teacher someday, if that’s what he chose.

“Ain’t choosin’ it,” he grumbled, smiling. “Too hard.”

I gave Billy my old harmonica from when I was 11 and told him I’d teach him to play it, if he still wanted me for a teacher.

Note to self: Give Zykrecia some help on contractions.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as The Boss Of Us

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP