Sub, Part II by Ivars Balkits


Read Part 1 of Sub.

So, of course. I’m wearing my Rasta hat and the room is 420. Computer lab. Referred to temporarily as Study Hall. “Listen and Silent are spelled with the same letters.”

The chairs are in a regular classroom arrangement, which must be for the purpose of studying. I assume they are. The computers line the back wall. “Okay, you can read this poster. Now try a book.”

I don’t know what to expect — middle school, 8th grade, first period with another teacher, and then the rest of the day 6th and 7th grades by myself. No plans, no schedule.

The teacher for whom I am substituting has three children, widely spaced apart in age. The youngest is a toddler, the oldest, in a high school band uniform, apparently plays saxophone. “If you think nobody cares, think again.”

I don’t know whether to put on the Substitute badge now or later in the day. It’s red and it sticks. If I put it on now, I might need to take my sweater off, and with it will come the Substitute Badge, all fuzzy now on the backside. So… “30 years from now, it won’t matter what shoes you wore, how your hair looked, or the jeans you bought; what will matter is what you learned and how you used it.”

Deep thoughts for a 63-year old substitute study hall teacher.

Autistic child cries when it ends — the happy moment with the dragons and elephants, foxes, flamingos, and the cartoon children who go on adventure tours. “It’s time to get off the computer now and on the bus, smartypants Matthew.” I help him with the harness.

Roaring child, paper towel in mouth, during the Pledge, jumps up on the stacked chairs, roars, “I am king.” The roaring bothers the other children. I give him ‘half a smile’ for that. Boy feigns crying and I ignore him. B-but, he only wanted to make the other kids laugh. I point out to him he only succeeded in irritating them. Note to myself: Need to check with the gym teacher next period on his right to a ‘full smile’.

Little Braxton’s been to the zoo in Atlanta. One of his brothers is stationed there, in Atlanta. Both of his brothers are in the Army. His one brother shot a deer in Afghanistan. He also shot a man sitting at a desk in Afghanistan, in the head. He also came up behind a guy and slashed a man. Braxton thought his brother liked doing that, slashing the man. His other brother got shot here, and here. He shows me. His grandfather died in a war too, shot in the heart. Braxton has two nieces. He thinks they are younger than him.

Strains of “Yesterday” in the cafetorium as I pass: 1st through 5th grades apparently practicing. I hear it through the opened door of my assigned room, and the next song: “I’m looking through you… where did you go?”

Someone has left a condom under a CD in the computer lab. Who should find it but the biggest actor-out, football athlete, hero to his friends. The girls want to see it. One of them scoffs that it’s a Trojan, apparently knowledgeable, and sticks out her tongue. The laughter and embarrassment and energy, peer-driven, almost derails the search for research web sites, and the proper way to cite them. 10th grade, sophomores.

The school made a mistake too in having wheels on the computer lab chairs.

They really have the boys clamped down here. Not like at the other school. Two minutes for lessons and they stare at the wall or are given handouts or read silently or draw — behavioral problems, in ED, Educational Development.

It’s tough love and fear. They have a structured environment. The fully-seasoned aide concentrates on their social skills — no turning around, no unnecessary conversations. They sit wide apart. I want to joke with them but know I can’t. They will filter back into the regular classrooms when they are ready. It is a kind of long-term in-school suspension.

Only an occasional glance one to another shows they are still rebellious. Zack is doing nothing. Rodney draws. Bailey, the tough case, is looking at a book. It’s quite a contrast to Ms Laughlin’s bedlam, in the other school, poorer; and she has no aide. Still they play with their pencils and other paraphernalia here as much as do the others. Trying to deal, overcome, persist through. “Step out of line the man take you way-way.”

Apparently they have earned, deserved, are responsible themselves for these extreme measures.

Waiting for the aide to get distracted by administrative tasks. Waiting for the sub to become absorbed in his distractions — newspaper, journal, laptop. Waiting for this to end, to be free again to express their anger, dismay, rambunctiousness. Waiting to communicate their disgust with these boot camp measures. These silences imposed on them.

It feels like prison, oppression, discipline of the no-holds-barred sort. What has the grip on them? Is it the aide’s 20 years of experience? The absent teacher’s iron rule? The principal’s policy? Or obedience to the rule of the moment…

I remember these punishments.

What do you do when a high school girl is slumped over her desk? She’s crying, having a kind of crisis. I say, “Okay” — meaning I won’t pry or bother her. Wasn’t she the one earlier happily trading hugs and tickles in the high school common area with that bearded boy from advisory? No. Not.

Now she’s recovered enough to look at her assignment. None of her classmates seem to notice or want to do much about her.

Next day, same lab, same actors. The lug who hurt her (and did nothing to comfort her the day before) is sitting with her now, and their mood is joyous, or? Hers is controlling. She is doing his homework, leaning over across his lap, typing on his computer, keeping his attention on the assignment. She’s going to take care of him until the next time.

Get a girl’s attention by annoying her. Get a guy’s attention by ignoring him. Practice.

Co-teaching today. In the lab with the ones who haven’t finished their papers, due today. James is way behind. He has only two or three lines written. He has asked me to spell “practicing,” asked me to spell “ceiling.” His friend who has finished is now helping him. Print, but the center of the page is too light. Librarian goes to get the cartridge. “Just came in,” she informs.

We watch a film next on a DVD about the Norfolk Four — men wrongly accused in a rape-murder case, bullied into confessions by an ambitious and, eventually-proven-to-be, crooked prosecutor. Those four convicted, sentenced, and years later only partly pardoned, having to register as sex offenders the rest of their lives.

In that same social studies class, I later must assign a packet of information about serial killers and their common and not-so-common traits. No one has paid much attention to it. I begin to read the packet, find it technical, with lots of statistics and just plain boring, over their heads. The students are to take notes and write their thinking about the notes. “What is thinking, Mr. Brooks?” one boy asks…

…to the co-teacher.

The Spanish teacher and her assistant don’t roll their r’s like anyone Spanish. Ohtrahz palahbrahz….

Puffy-white pink boy smiles shyly at the ‘popular’ kids banter. The girlfriend of blank and the girlfriend of the other blank make him giggle. He gets control of himself, before his forgetfulness becomes sheer hilarity.

Worth recording:

​- In a 3rd grade classroom, teacher’s warning: Three Strikes Your Out.
​- In a middle school art classroom, teacher’s instructions on What Is and What Is NOT Aloud.

How can anyone be against technology? she says. A former middle-school student of hers published a book electronically. In seconds she can call it up on her Kindle. If kids were issued iPads she could have had a change in lesson plan immediately to reflect this. They could have all been reading her former middle-school student’s story.

The teacher would like the children to write a pursuasive essay.

The story today is Mr. Brice. The gym and health teacher. He is rarely, almost never, out. I know now why. On the phone with me for 10 minutes or more, says the same exact thing about the folders, over and over, about the folders, the box in the closet, over and over, and the clipboards in the drawer, over and over — 3 times at least he tells me his instructions. Comes in anyway. He’s only down the road, he says. Has been fighting sickness for days. Wishes he could stay. On the phone again: Make sure you don’t lose them! of the clipboards with the rosters and grades. To get to his desk, which only has a small square of surface space remaining, I climb over the basketballs, volleyballs, dodge balls. Likewise the closet in the back is full of equipment. No light in there. Soapy-filthy grime all over the sink in the loo, on the floor, and so on. Gym-shoe smell everywhere.

All night long struggling with the way it should have been, what I should have said. What did I do? I didn’t do nothing, just like the kids in Ms. Laughlin’s class. They didn’t do nothing. Everyone else did.

Joey can’t stop himself from bellowing. Milton can’t stop himself from bothering Robert. Robert can’t stop himself from being Robert. He is Robert. Sarah can’t help being a sneak. Sharon can’t help being the shrieker. Brandon stays in the background. Katie is behind, beyond, the background. Dakota feels ugly inside. Mavericc is the trickster. [The spelling is correct.] No matter what, Joey is angry. Dakota is ready to be injured. Milton has no conscience, could be a budding psychopath. Robert is from another planet. Joey is a mess. Dakota is a mess. Sarah has leadership qualities. She likes to cause trouble. Sharon is running hard. Something really bad is going on with her. Joey, he must get hit at home. I don’t know if Milton does. His mother is furious. I tugged on his arm to get him up and going to the principal’s the other day. He had looked to me to be attacking Steven. I forget Steven. He’s background too. He tells me his father is ‘retarded’ also. He’s creepy. The others find him creepy. He is happy though. It’s his birthday. He pulls things, says Ms. Laughlin. Steven is Steven. Milton can’t keep his hands off other people. He is never wrong. Joey is never wrong, and always injured. It was dark in the room because we were watching a movie. I didn’t really know what was going on. Milton had his hands on Steven’s face. I had just seen the kids playing with scissors. I thought he had scissors in his hand. I didn’t know he was putting tape on Steven’s mouth. Retaliation. Steven had told Robert to put tape on Milton’s mouth. Why did Robert do it? Robert did it because Steven told him. Robert is Robert. Now Milton was taping Steven. I didn’t know it was tape. I thought Steven was in danger. Out in the hall I hadn’t calmed down. I wanted Milton to go to the office. Now! He was resisting. He stood up when I tugged his arm. I didn’t wrench his arm. Mom is furious though. Who knows how he told it to her. I will handle it, Ms. Laughlin says, It’ll probably blow over. But I am worried. I am also pissed. I am pissed off at myself. But there it is. It was not a violent act. He was not hurt. Ms. Laughlin would like me to sub again for her. But I am not going to sub in that room for that class in that school again. I promise.

I am the figurehead today. The student teacher tells me ‘ought to be an easy day for me. It really is. I spend most of the day writing on the laptop. Recovering from the virus has freshened me. After reviewing the rules, the class goes to the computer lab. My role is not needed there. I watch a kid take a quiz and another kid write a Conclusion.

A test. An unserious test. Quiz on an animal rights raid on a monkey lab. Reading comprehension, or maybe a film shown to them in class. All quiet. All serious. In their quiz positions, waiting for the slowpokes to drop their quiz papers into the quiz basket in front of the desk where the quizzical substitute is sitting. The whiz kids return to their assigned positions. Even then it’s hard to tell if everyone is done.

The horse and the goose in a photograph on a table. Reading glasses with folded arms. A copper cent. Dalmatians atop draft horses in another photograph, on another table. The scent of rosy hand sanitizer. Roland catching up on his studies, joined by a fellow conspirator. No floss. Giant bunny with Santa hat on the bulletin board near the wall. Whisperings. Typing sounds, not loud. Librarian gets her lunch. Chimpanzee in Sherlock Holmes get-up in another photograph on another table. Sleepiness. Poinsettia on the counter of the circulation desk. Geographic globe on a round glass table barely larger than the globe. Clues. Somewhere. Trouble with the student’s screen. Peer-resolved. Blue slotted plastic chairs. Poly-plastic.

A media center now. No longer a library.

At either end of the spectrum: The boy who has done his work and is now bored, and the boy who intends to do no work, is bored, and wishes he were truant.

Then the girlfriends: Doomed to disappointments in love, the red-haired one who one passes close, looks the sub in the eye directly, may have brushed her shoulder against my elbow, deliberately; she will find such an approach, such an experiment in control, does not last. That’s okay, if she’s going to be okay with that. Her sidekick will likely have more happiness.

Then there are those too young for their bodies (counting myself among them). They need to establish the situation: Who are you? Mr. B. Weren’t you in another class of mine recently? Yes, some other class. She will head up some clinic, dining hall, camp, or crafts center, always wondering how her subordinates and supervisors feel about her.

Hey dude! I’m not your dude.

The first to say Hello. The first to say, A sub, sweet! You may not find it so sweet, I say, in return. They too need to establish the situation, for many of the same reasons, but are more likely to end up cleaning the halls of this institution years later, or employed in a non-professional garage (one without the matching t-shirts and caps, I mean), or working a car wash or a register in a convenience store, or, if unlucky, something criminal.

O, the range of fates and choices!

4th graders are telling me 1,000 ways to die. Evidently it’s a program on SPIKE. How a man playing pool gets the ball stuck in his throat and dies. How the sword swallower tries an umbrella that then opens up. How a bear tears out a person’s insides. How the condemned criminal rises up from the table because his arm is only constricted by a surgical band — then the poison is released as he makes his break.

The boy going into the military is at the board right now. His friends know it. It’s deeply felt. I cannot lecture them on war tax resistance.

Not that I ever do.

1st grade. Special ed. 5 kids.

Jasper, you spit in my face. Well, you went first. You have to roll to see what you see. Matt goes first. I go second. Actually, I was the second to roll. Then it’s her turn, then it’s my turn. No, you don’t. Uh-huh. Uh-uh. But you can’t buy them yet. Hey, this is the same game we played but it’s a bigger version. Be quiet, the teacher is starting to write. Dude, I found more money. This is a free ticket to go round. Another free ticket. Hey, you can’t do that. Oh, roll again. Okay, don’t roll. 1-2-3-4. Look, I get to pick one of those. You have to roll, first. I’m still new to this. 1-2-3-4-5-6. Wait, no, you can’t buy it. Oh, you’re with me. My turn. No, it’s my turn. No, it’s Joy’s. Hey, put my dog back on there. You’re not allowed to do that. Yes, it says two dollars. No, you have to go there. I don’t think John can play because his money’s all mixed up. I don’t care, the game has played. He can play me. I will help John, okay?

What is the solution to John?

Nuh-uh, dude. That’s my money. I have no idea how to play Monopoly Junior. No, I want this one. Look, 1-2-3-4. You get to buy it, man, if you move one. I go first. You have to. You can’t buy this. Dude, she hasn’t bought anything. 1-2-3-4. Stop. Hey, my card’s right here, dude. Hey, give me a four and then the three. Quit throwing stuff at us. Yeah. Uh-uh. Take the money out of there. No, you can’t do that. Then I’m going to skip you. Ow. They’re throwing stuff at us. No, I didn’t. What are you writing, Mr. B.? Uh-uh, she hasn’t passed Go. Yeah, you have to. If someone lands on my house, they have to pay a $1. Stop throwing the houses at us. Why do you keep on rolling? She’s doing like this, she’s doing it, too. I got two houses. No, I skipped Jasper. I’m going to lose.

Alexis joins in the game under protest by the others.

1-2-3-4-5-6. Yes! Free ticket. Where’s the dice? I just bought a house, man. Winning, I’m winning. My turn. It’s my turn. You’re out. You got bankrupt — you owe me $4. No, I don’t. Mr. B, tell him he owes me $4. So, I get a house? No, you’ve got to go there. Whoo, I get to roll again. You don’t know how to play this. No, you have to pay me $3, $4. You landed on my property. I’ve got six. Everybody can see I’ve got six.

I thought having the game first would calm them down for lessons.

“Whale hero. I could be a whale hero.” said the 2nd grader, showing off his ninja paper cutouts…

Ivars Balkits prose poems have been published in such small magazines as Grasslands Review, Sonoma Mandala, The Prose Poem (2x), New York Quarterly, Sphere, 171/2 Magazine, Even My Dog Doesn’t Want This War, etc. Several poems were selected for anthologies, including: A Measured Response (Pecan Grove Press), Smashing Icons (Curious Rooms), and I Have My Own Name for It: Modern Poems of Ohio (University of Akron Press). Ivars was recipient of a 1999 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council. He has written and occasionally performs a dramatic monologue on labor history and coal mining in the Hocking Valley, titled: Albert Guess: Terror of the Valley. Most recently he completed a full-length play with the same theme but more characters and a broader look at the 19th century industrial union known as The Knights of Labor. He resides currently in Crete, Greece, but lived the past 15 years in Athens, Ohio. His story,Sub, was nominated for The Donald Murray Prize and The Best American Short Stories. Read his poem, Mixed-Up Chakras.