“Chicago Pubic School Substitution Hotline. Please leave your name and number, and we will call you back before 6:30 a.m. with the location of your assignment.” She left her name and number with no small degree of hesitation. Student teaching had been a bust. She had worked with one teacher who wouldn’t let her teach, so she was reduced to grading papers for an entire semester. Her other lead instructor was eager to have a student teacher but abandoned her on day one to sit in the employee breakroom reading a novel and eating donuts, so she was left without any guidance and foundered. She called in sick for an entire week of her assignment due to stress and avoidance. After all, she had wanted to be a writer, not a teacher, but she had lacked the confidence to stand up to her father, who believed she would never find a sensible job in the field with an English degree. She likewise lacked the confidence necessary to command respect from teenagers, who she found to be quick to judge. They were able to sense her weaknesses and would hone in on them like a hawk. Once, she was teaching a multi-cultural poetry unit and was feeling proud of her inclusion of diverse writings, when suddenly a remarkably under-sized student in the front row smiled cruelly and said, “Hey! You know who she reminds me of? That one from Dangerous Minds! Yeah, Michelle Pfeiffer! She thought she could save the inner city kids. Are you gonna save us, Ms. Owens?” Several students subsequently referred to her as Dangerous Minds for the remainder of the semester. In another instance, she had gone for a free haircut one evening at a beauty school and was mortified when they transformed her standard bob into the Uma Thurman haircut from Pulp Fiction. “Do you think you look like Uma Thurman? You’re blond! She had dark hair!” Another group of particularly cruel youth began mimicking the Uma Thurman and John Travolta dance from the iconic dance competition scene at Jack Rabbit Slim’s when she walked by.
She found it to be nigh impossible to find a full-time teaching position and was reduced to substitute teaching while she continued the search. Thus far, she had spent her first week subbing for a chemistry teacher who had not left any lesson plans, leaving her with a room of chaos in a school that was already of questionable quality. There was a collection of boys in the back of the room playing poker, which she allowed to continue only because stopping it would have led to a behavioral tete a tete that she was sure to lose. When they began lighting matches and throwing them on the floor, she had no choice but to call the office for help. The second week was comprised of one day teaching assignments all over the city where her primary responsibilities involved taking attendance, distributing worksheets, and hoping for the best. She had abandoned only one assignment so far, as the neighborhood was stark and terrifying, and the security guard at the school door took one look at her in her flowered dress and said, “This isn’t the place for you. I’ll walk you back to your car.” However, her last assignment had been the most unsettling. She had arrived that morning to find that she had been sent to an elementary school, while she was only certified to teach high school. The office clerk handed her a folder for a third grade classroom. She did not have any kids and had no knowledge of what one knows in third grade nor what they should know in third grade. When she pointed out that she was unqualified to teach third grade, the clerk sighed and said, “Honey, you’ll do just fine.” The experience was surreal and nightmarish. The kids were well-behaved, but she was completely unaware of the daily routine. They entered the room and began affixing popsicle sticks to a sign labeled “hot lunch” and “cold lunch” in two columns. Because she was unaware of the fact that she was meant to then convey this information via a report to the lunchroom by 9 a.m., she was left ordering and paying for pizza. Because no one had mentioned that she was meant to take them to P.E., the gym teacher had come to her room to collect the kids in a surly fashion. Because she didn’t know they had recess at 10:30 a.m., they were the only class that remained in their classroom. She had no concept of the academic level of her students and had no knowledge of what to teach them, so she sat them in a circle for the entire day and read stories to pass the time. With so many teachers rolling their eyes over her lack of skill, she marched into the office at the end of the day and returned her folder, ready to be told, “Thank you, but your services are no longer required.” Instead, they invited her back for the remainder of the week. She had a dream that night. She was back in high school and couldn’t recall her locker combination nor the location of her classes. The counselor’s office was locked. She knew she would never graduate. Lost.
This week had been different. She had been volunteering at a literacy center near her apartment, tutoring a woman from Vietnam who was trying to learn English. Due to a last-minute resignation on the part of an ESL teacher, the director had asked her to step in to teach an ESL class. She had walked into the classroom with her requisite fear intact but was quickly taken aback by the complete attentiveness and kindness of the students. They were all adults, with nearly 15 different languages represented. They were people with kids, with jobs, with life experience, with maturity. As she taught them basic vocabulary, their gratitude was palpable, and she found herself trying harder, bringing in funny videos, orchestrating group work, encouraging the shy students gently while scaffolding instruction carefully. On her fifth night in the class, two of these quieter ladies approached her together and handed her a wrapped package, a beautiful silken scarf. At her protests, the women waved her away while offering friendly smiles. One surprised her by launching forward with a fast embrace before returning to her seat. And she felt something within her beginning to change, to melt. This didn’t feel like work. This felt….rewarding. What if she could be surrounded by kindness? What if she were able to share herself without feeling bullied? She thought of her dream. She thought of doors opening, classrooms found, passwords known. When the phone rang with her assignment for the day, she paused, closed her eyes, and responded, “Thank you, but I think I dialed the wrong number.”