I wanted to share with you an experience I had awhile ago as a substitute teacher. The names have been changed, and the events slightly altered, but this is a more or less true story. I’m still not sure if I did right or wrong, but when I think about it, I do feel some pride in my actions. I’ll leave it to you to judge ultimately though
March 8, 2012
She wasn’t what you would call “after school special” material. She had bedraggled blonde hair, tired from an endless parade of crimping, styling, and bleaching. Throw in a dash of Texas heat and humidity exhaustion and you could imagine that if she did not look like she did today, she might have been quite beautiful. She was slender, but wouldn’t be by the time she was thirty, and everything she wore was High School Musical pink.
I must admit, her voice was hardly distinguishable from the dull drone of High School post-test release filling the portable building classroom I was banished to. I might not have even noticed her at all, if she hadn’t said something I did notice: the name of my niece.
It is a strange feeling when you hear something familiar and intimate like the name of a loved one in a place you have no connection to. So needless to say, I could hear nothing at all save her nasal vocal excretions.
“THAT girl was such a bitch. I went to the office every day because of her, but it was worth it just to see her ugly face when she cried. Can you believe she keeps trying out for Cheer? That cow will never be one of us.”
A murmur of laughter and nervous acceptance went up from the students closest to her, who I noticed were lounged around her like she was a particularly peppy cousin of Jabba the Hutt. I also noticed an Indian student two rows over slowly lower his eyes and turn away, as if the conversation were stinging him.
A new name, call her “Ginnie”, was introduced via interjection of Pinkie’s shorter, fatter, browner friend.
“That girl?”, Pinkie began, “Did you see what she posted on Facebook? I mean, how dare that bitch keep trying to come into our locker room, after she got kicked out for being such a skank with her boyfriend? And you know, even if you think that, you don’t put that up on Facebook, with Cheer in the name. Then we all look like bitchy elementary school students and everyone knows we aren’t like that. I’m glad I told Coach about her and that fag she’s blowing.”
The smiles on the faces of her friends look like slowly cracking mirrors. I catch the eyes of one of the boys sitting near her, and he shakes his head twice, silently begging me not to help. The farthest rows of students have turned slowly away, bodies sideways in desks, eyes averted as the ranting kicks into high gear. With each proposed name, Pinkie launches into a torrent of vitriol, laced with a enough obscenity to kick her off daytime television. The students who are clearly not her in-group look like mice trapped in a glass cage with a snake, hopelessly waiting until it is their turn to be devoured, and trying not to react to the hapless carnage visited on others like them.
I am flummoxed. Of course, I could ask her to clean up her language. But part of me has to keep watching, seeing how many victims she can tear through in the mere half hour we have left. These are high school juniors, so I have no illusions about what they sound like outside of class. Hell, I sounded like that by the sixth grade.
The barrage continues. Name after name, student after student ripped apart simply because there was nothing better to do after the test. I can feel myself fuming, but I know I shouldn’t. I’m a teacher. It isn’t really my job to intervene in petty disputes unless the object of the bullying is present right? I mean, if they are just bad mouthing some kid who isn’t even there, what harm are they doing to anyone under my care?
Except she said my niece’s name. This isn’t just some kid in another class. This is a girl I have watched grow up, who I have seen firsthand have to deal with the impact of bullying and social ostracization. I took her out to dinner the night she found out she didn’t make the Cheer squad a second time. I watched her cry into queso at our favorite Tex-Mex joint.
I’m gonna do something. I have to accept that. Now the only question is, what can I do that won’t get me fired?
I briefly consider writing her a referral for her language. Send the pink-piss queen to the office and let them deal with it. But that doesn’t feel sharp enough.
I could call her down in class, but then I’m just silencing her, saving the slings and arrows for the passing period where they might be lobbed at their intended victims instead of just circulating around this little outhouse like so much teenage flatulence.
I look around the desk, wondering idly if she’d be able to identify me in a lineup if I just put a staple in her hand. But that is just wishful fantasy.
Finally, my eyes alight upon the only thing in the room I do have control over: this week’s tests. The midterms they just finished; midterms which account for a third of their grade, for which the teacher explicitly stated no makeup exams would be given without a doctor’s note.
I can already feel the ecstatic rush of adrenaline as I imagine the sound of ripping paper and the look on her powderpuff face when she gets back a failing report card. Zero on the midterm. No sir, I don’t know what happened. She wasn’t there, as you can see I clearly marked her absent on the roll sheet.
I let myself drift in punitive bliss for a few minutes, just long enough for it to start feeling dirty. I mean, this is a child, someone ELSE’S child who I would be doing that to. I am more powerful than her, doing something terrible to her which she can’t stop me from doing. Just like she is more powerful than my niece, who can’t stop her from doing what she does either.
Now I feel angry and evil and powerless. I realize I am cradling the tests in my slightly sweating hands. I look up to the class just in time for the bell to ring. The crushing exodus of patently disinterested student bodies is almost overwhelming. I see my quarry escaping, like a smug pink bitch-bunny. I feel my pulse pounding in my body and as she passes my desk, I say quickly, “Umm…hey! Hey, could you stay behind a minute?”
Pinkie and her brown friend exchanges glances and I point to Pinkie. She stumbles away from the herd, a confused look on her face.
I lick my lips as the rest of the students file out and ask her, “Ah, so…what is your name? I just…when you…turned your test in I don’t think I saw a name on it…and I just…want to make sure.”
I’m winging it now, but she smiles very pleasantly and says, “Oh, no problem Sensei, it’s Tiffany”
Tiffany. I hate the name. I curse it as I curse hell, all Montagues, and she.
I find her test. She dots the I’s with little hearts.
She smiles, “Oh see! I knew I put it on there, anyway, thanks!”
I swallow and say, “Wait! Tiffany…”
She pauses, and I pull her test out of the stack. I continue, “You know, I couldn’t help overhearing how you were talking about the other students in the class today, with your other friends…you said some pretty harsh things.”
Her smile fades and she backs away towards the door, “Oh…yea…well…you know…kids are kids. We were just…you know joking.”
I lean forward on the desk, “Who was it that you started with? What was that girls name?”
She says my niece’s name with a question.
I nod, “Yes..her…did you know that I am her uncle?”
Thick silence fills the room like spray can insulation and hardens around us. I notice that her over-glossed lips have developed a throbbing lump on one side. Her eyes are watering now. She tries to answer but just shakes her head once and finally stammers, “I…I’m sorry…?”
I smile pleasantly at her, “I should think you would be. But you see…I am in this terrible dilemma now. You see…I have this test here. Your test. See…your name right there? And I’m thinking to myself…I wonder…what’s going to happen to this test?”
She stumbles towards the desk and grips the edge, “What are you saying? I…you…”
I lean back in my chair and tap my fingers on the clutched test, “But you know what Tiffany? Do you know what is going to happen to this test?”
She shakes her head, now beginning to cry. I lay the test back on the pile and nod at her, “Absolutely nothing, Tiffany. This test will be delivered to your professor exactly like you prepared it. I’ll take extra special care to make sure he gets it. And when you walk out of that door today, I want you to remember that someone was kind to you when you were not kind to others. I know who you are now, and I will expect you to pay my kindness forward to the people around you. Do I make myself clear?”
She is sobbing now and nodding, blubbering over and over, “Yes, yes! I will!”
I make a short dismissive gesture with my hand and barely have time to turn before she hits the door.
I sigh to myself, shaking, unsure if what I did was appropriate. I more or less threatened a high school student. But I felt good about it in a weird way. I knew that she wouldn’t forget it. And I had told her I wouldn’t be doing anything at all to her, and only asked her, in a very particular way, to be kind to others. Yet I could just see some parental group losing their mind. This might be the end of Sensei. Then, from the far side of the classroom, I hear a voice:
“Oh my GOD! You are the most amazing substitute of all time! You just made the most popular girl in school bawl her eyes out! She’s made two teachers QUIT. How did you do that?!”
I freeze. There had been a straggler student. I thought we were alone. I look over and smile awkwardly at the twittering girl in the corner, “Oh..uh…yea…I just..wanted her to be nicer…I guess.”
She rushes over to my desk, “Oh my gosh, PLEASE let me and my friends eat our lunch in here? You are so amazing!”
I shrug my shoulders and nod, and think to myself, maybe this was a victory for Sensei after all?