Tony (not his real name), the Goth kid in Mrs. Clary’s special ed class, mocks his art teacher, Mr. Miller. He puffs up his chest, lowers his voice, and says, “That’s it, Tony, no more Jolly Rancher for you!” You can tell, without knowing the person, it’s a good imitation. Authoritative and condescending. Best part, Mr. Miller is married to the woman responsible for my being fired from the Library those years ago. It’s funny to have the circle complete that way.

Tony (not his real name) is the name he goes by. Tony, by the way, thinks the substitute teacher Mr. B (that’s me) is cool.

What’s a Jolly Rancher?

Principal comes in after the bell for end-of-bathroom -break has rung. Sub is still in the bathroom. Principal is teaching the kids the words “infer” and “inference” — words he’s seen on every statewide test.

I return, stand at my desk, looking like the captain’s lieutenant. Looking grateful for this intrusion.

“Infer,” he explains, is what he does when he views the videotape recording in the boy’s bathroom (!) — sees kids goofing off and infers from the time-stamp on the videotape that that activity occurred during recess.

Two tests to hand out this period. There isn’t enough of one to go around. So I hand out the Reading Skills test, until I run out, then pass the remaining kids the Social Studies Skills test.

That was wrong.

Kids finish the SS test and are waiting for the Reading Skills kids to finish. Time is ticking away. I infer that I goofed.

First period planning. The literature room is being used by the music class for textbook lessons. It’s the room I blew up in last time. I don’t need to be here. So I head over to the HS teacher’s lounge.

Well, no one else would’ve said “blew up” actually. The farm boys greeted me that time with the “Yo, Dude!” greeting. In turn, I excessively mocked their behavior with a “Yo, Wha‘z Happ’nin‘, Brudder!” Not in a kind tone.

Today again I’m in that room and just before I leave for the lounge a music student or whatever addresses me as “buddy.” I dress him down. I mention the need for respect of one’s Mr’s and Mrs’s. I feel I’ve done right by myself, and him. But it’s her room again, Mrs. Burke’s. It’s haunted by bad feelings.

I was in a sour mood anyway that first time I subbed for her. The kids weren’t doing their assignment. They had been assigned the graphic novel Maus… to read in class. SSR: Sustained Silent Reading. But no! Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. Who would’ve thought kids liked talking so much.? Such an adult activity. Filling the room with yada-yada., yakety-yak, blah-blah-blah. And that’s all right. But they’re not reading Maus during SSR. I’m reading the teacher’s copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night.

And I’m going down, down, down in the blank despair of it…

So I rip a new asshole. I make it clear I am not their buddy or their dude. We are not on equal status. It’s loco parentis, dudettes and buddies — admittedly though on the Rent-A-Car model in my case. Like their parents I want them safe and I want them to learn.

Why I’m not sure.

This school sucks. The only place to get coffee is in wood shop, probably — but where’s that? The secretary doesn’t volunteer that information and it’s already time to scurry back to the classroom, before I’m marked (for life) as tardy, before that mark goes on my permanent record. And where’s that?

Scary how neat the classroom of the mathematician. All angles 90-degrees, all surfaces elegant. Unblemished, Uncluttered, Pure! as if newly manufactured. Neutral tans and clean blacks. All blinds drawn, all lights working. Nothing superfluous on the desk or in the drawers. Quiet reigns in that first period. Even I feel like being good.

NB: The math teacher is the guy who, shirt tails out, parka open, orange safety-vest half donned, hair mussed — who, in the mornings and afternoons, has the duty of blocking the student cars from coming into that one parking lot.

They took advantage of me in World History. Especially the girl who asked to use the instructor’s computer — for research, I thought. But she wanted to look up a sweater she wanted to buy. Others crowded around to give advice and make comparison.

Then lights out. Death, dead bodies, “comfort women,’ on the DVD about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Mostly in the back seats, check it out: cell phones, iPods, photos, and playing cards. The girl with the blackened-from-mascara eyes turns around to look at the ‘comfort woman.’ “Yuk,” she says.

Need a password to get on the school system. No one volunteers.

One is straightening her hair with an electrical device. Two are plugged into their music. Nap time has seemed to some an option.

Raja, short for Rachel. DJs and BJs. Two Madisons, one familiar to me. I know her mother and father. Some girls look like teachers. None of the boys do.

We have a parts-of-speech guessing quiz. A class in the hallway is working on a noisy group project. I poke my head out to ask them to be quiet. Cliff, a friend’s ex-husband, is there.

Amber and Latoshe are not reading much or taking notes. Anthony and the boy next to him are not taking notes. Another girl is helping Raja straighten her hair. It looks quite frizzy already.

Renee’s going home fourth period, feeling sick with the pregnancy. No planning period for me. I am transferred to substitute for her. Her class is writing a descriptive essay on their favorite television show or movie. It’s supposed to be persuasive.

“Don’t think because I’m small I’m not dangerous. I’m dangerous.”

I’ll keep that in mind.

Kid in art class does a mask of an alligator — used to be a mask of a dog. What does that convey?


Kid combs hair forward. Youngest receding hairline I’ve ever seen. Crumples a paper to play a shoot-and-goal game with, yes, the boy with the lowest hairline in the room.

She wasn’t here yesterday. She can’t do the assignment today.

The billed cap is pulled up and turned around and placed back. The billed cap is pulled up and placed backward. The boys examine their playing cards.

The other sub today at school is his brother, he says, looking out the window: “His van’s still here.”

Throws his pencil as if dropping it. As if only retrieving it picks up the assignment of the boy who has gone to the restroom. “Put that paper back, please.” Ohhh…

Muted discussion of sports scores, plant identification test coming up after music history.

“Ohhh… full sentences? I’m not going to write in full sentences.” Ohhh… scientific names? He’s not going to worry about the scientific names.


In the hallway between periods: “How did you do?”

“I got a high D.”

Resisting empathy for the kids in the bourgeois school today, the school for children of college professors and local professionals. They have everything: nice layout, clean new furniture, new books, renovated auditorium, an entire renovated middle school (when does that happen, ever?).

I want to scold them for their privileged ignorance of other schools and the other children — rural schools funded insufficiently through property taxes. But here they are in Social Studies, buckling down, reading, doing the assignment, quiet, no sass, no backtalk, no acting out (or very little). They’re easy.

Fourth grade. Brendan already has the label on him. As does Nicholas. Destiny’s on the trouble-maker list too, but strictly because of attention. Instead of cutting out the mask, she cuts it to pieces. She’s the line leader today. Isis does the weather.

Shyra draws a rainbow frame. Other girls draw mother and daughter. Boys draw mostly monster trucks. Ben says his is made of plastic, can be seen through, has a door to enter. It’s more of a monster rocket.

Per their chemistry teacher’s instructions I’ve asked them, the classes, to write a 3-quarter-page synopsis. Individual students have asked me: Is that 3 fourths? Is that 3 fourths? — pointing to a page 1-quarter-page covered. One kid heard 3 pages! the article to be synopsized was not 3 pages.!!

But I’m gritting my teeth and not knowing why. What do I care about their synopses in chemistry class? Then some object to the word ‘synopsis.’ “It’s abstract, not synopsis.” Synopsis, abstract, summary, it’s all the same thing, I retort. Still some eye me skeptically…

High school, tenth grade, ninth grade.

Someone left a Trojan condom under a CD in the computer lab. Who should find it but the biggest Actor Out in the class? Football athlete, hero to his friends. The girls want to see it. One of them scoffs at Trojans, as if she knows, and sticks out her tongue. The laughter-energy, embarrassment energy, peer-driven — almost derails the search for research sites and the proper way to cite them.

10th grade, sophomores.

P.S. They made a mistake putting wheels on the computer lab chairs.

                     health is the discussion today
                     in Family and Consumer Science

Presentation by a nurse, whose mother is… the school secretary.

Teen sexual activity. A pregnancy information clinic essentially.

No, I’m not uncomfortable with this activity.

Use correct words: I expect we will be able to say penis and vagina, without giggling and acting like little children.

There will be group activities…

Consider carefully sharing information about abuse and neglect — for I am a ‘mandated reporter.’ All persons in the medical and legal professions are mandated reporters. So it would help me so much if you would dot dot dot…

                     so they start with forms. Time drags on.

The girl in the jaunty man’s fishing hat, bald from chemo apparently, usually albino-bright, today pink. Hand on cheek, hiding her eyes partially.

Take it seriously. Code numbers, no names.

Student teacher in Ancient Cultures. Not much for me to do except be a body as a legal requirement. ‘Let it go,’ he whispers to me, when the teen truck mechanic cruises in, cusses, makes the class laugh, puts his arm around the student teacher, mocks him, calls him ‘Willy.’

I have six days of this. It’s painful to watch. It’s painful to let go.

It would be nice if I could get on email. I can’t. I’m serving as substitute guard for what is known formerly as In-School Suspension (ISS). I repeatedly think of it and refer to it as In-Seclusion.

I’m glad to get the work. I’m here tomorrow as well. ISS is what they do when kids lose control or just plain disobey beyond what is deemed corrective by mere lunch detention. Usually their behavior here is tolerably serene; they have no audience; they don’t need to put it on here — and know the consequences if they do: alternative school, what we used to call reform school. Or maybe it’s alternate school. I’ve heard Saturday School too.

Nice kids in here some times. There was Britney, with the pink dyed hair, 17, mother of a one-and-a-half year-old child, moved only recently with her mom from Cincinnati to Albany. Hippy-style kid, eats tofu, and other good, organic foods. Food was the problem. She was here in ISS for several days for refusing to leave her breakfast and return to home room. She didn’t want to waste the food.

There was Tyler, too, with the Mohawk, lots of friends, not dangerous, spent a good part of the time marking up the white board with: ISS is torture! Drew the wood shop next door with its grinding noises and the band room filling the hall with unprofessional sound. These he drew on either side of a screaming head similar to Munch’s “The Scream.”

Kicked 3 kids out of 1st period. Of whom I’d been pre-warned. Jade, the boy in the gray and black sweatshirt, kind of dark skinned, usually reserved and to himself, lately he has been bullying others.

Two in the class are dark-skinned and have gray sweatshirts! Hey, dude! But I stop him in mid-sentence. It hurts his feelings not to be thought a peer. “Mr.,” I tell him. After more sass from him, I move him. That doesn’t help. Two goon-brethren join him in giggling, disrupting. Out they go today! No mercy. No wanna deal.

Two student teachers, one substitute teacher, four students — in Intervention. Dustin hasn’t any work to do. Wasn’t here Friday because of Special Olympics. Head down on the table. No one is doing much of anything for him. I’m here evidently as security again. The boy knows the process, the administration of activities, but learning is not in the cards today. What am I doing here? Warehousing, restricting, possibly punishing.

Om Nama Shivaya (masculine).
Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha (feminine).

Being Mr. Wise. Or just being Mr. Whiz-Bang. Mostly Mr. B., the dude, the man who substitutes for Ms K and Mr. C and the whole honorific alphabet.

Being Mr. Work. Losing the Mr. at home and in the teachers’ lounge. Losing the term and the strained respectful tone, losing track and losing a human race, losing the bottom and the top.

Being Mr. Four Corners. Being Mr. Pick Up and Go. Being Mr. Relax and Shut up. Losing the Mr. and just Being the Being for a change.

Substitute teacher learns… of two kids who have been molested, no penetration says Mr. Downs, who has paper work to catch up on, will be in the building if needed.. The boy acts up at times, may even need police intervention — for his own safety, says Mr. Downs. The girl does not act out, but may suddenly break into tears if she’s stuck in her schoolwork — was stuck on word “flushing” for two hours on a test yesterday. Thanks, Mr. Downs, for the pre-information.

Meting out punishment to Alexander Hamilton. He is in the wrong seat, or doesn’t have permission to be there. At least he won’t be in ISS.

Half the six grade is in lunch detention. The line into the food area is moving slowly. Foot-longs are the meal today. And crinkle fries. I must sit with Tessa. She must sit with me.

For the rest of the day I am paid to sit with one child. She is to have no joy or uplifting moments. We close the door to ISS so as not to hear the music classes. Is this how to learn being grown-up?

I keep mis-thinking of In-School Suspension (ISS) as “in seclusion.”

I’m shifted to ISS from middle school math, in charge of three boys, 9th, 10th, 8th, who compare spending last year about the same time here and in the alternate school. They discuss who was rude last year (of ISS and alternate school faculty), what were the infractions, and how many days left to freedom this year.

At 9 a.m. we go to the awards ceremony, 1 hour and 18 minutes. Was that more of a punishment? No, because there was human energy, laughter, pride expressed, praise — though Bo, one of the hoodlums here today, was disappointed at not receiving his expected good attendance award. Last year it was 2 days missed, this year 1 day or no days to receive the medal and certificate. Everyone who gave blood this year is asked to stand up. One of the boys with me does. No certificate.

Awaiting the day. Assignments in flux. Soon I will know where to place my bag down. Coffee and bananas for breakfast. The principal has just come in. The secretary has been regaling me with stories of recent tornado scares. Her daughter helps out before going to class, opens doors to rooms for substitutes. Middle-schoolers begin to walk in from the buses. Other substitutes report.

On the speaker phone in the middle school office:

Busdriver A: Is today the day you’re taking your baby to the doctor?
Busdriver B: Yes.
Busdriver A: Now you stay calm and don’t worry.
Busdriver B: I won’t.

T-shirt messages on middle-schoolers:

Here I Am. Now What Are Your Other Two Wishes?

Not Now. I’m Busy.

What’s In It For Me?

Pre-school. Jadens. One a boy, one a girl. A Jade Lynn. An Ashton, who is one unholy terror. He and boy Jaden are like a bombardment. Jaden threw a fit when I took the chair from him. He was hauling it around in a half-seated position. He later wanted to show me stuff, leaned against me.

Forgiveness is easy when you’re just starting out.

So that’s a Jolly Rancher! It’s a kind of hard candy. Is this actually the office of Mr. Miller?

So I’m in alternate ISS. They’re going to bring in another table. The ones to be seated will be kept separated. How will it go today? I’m glad I’m not in a rough school.

I’m waiting for the overflow from central ISS. They have gobs of kids they are punishing all at once. I get the sense it was not the result of a riot, but serves as a scheme to get them to complete their end-of-the-year school work. Often the infractions are minor here as compared with other schools.

I suspect it’s a strategy to raise the school district grade at No Child Left Behind HQ.

Line ’em up. Churn ’em out.

Ivars Balkits writes, “This is a piece of creative nonfiction based on a journal I kept while employed the past two years as a substitute teacher in several school systems in southeastern Ohio. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing though the journal itself reflects a lot of frustration I felt with schooling as it’s done in Ohio and in the US in general.”

This piece has been nominated for The Donald Murray Prize and The Best American Short Stories.