|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.
“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