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Spring/Fallbrook Union High School

It’s early May, one excruciating month before summer vacation, and most, but not all, of the students have finished the multiple-choice test on Of Mice and Men. I’m the substitute, so I sit at a stranger’s desk beneath a poster that displays a Ferrari in the driveway of a mansion. “The rewards of higher education,” it reads. There are other things in the room meant for inspiration, such as the posters issued by the district’s Character Education Program that read RESPECT and FORGIVENESS and COMMITMENT and COURTESY. The posters contain a definition of each virtue. The door of the portable is propped open for air, and in the heat we hear the thump of metal doors swinging shut as student couriers collect the rolls and deliver messages. Through the open door everything is bright yellow, the air moves, and the possibility of release seems unbearably distant. “Only 22 more days of class, dude,” a boy says. “God, I wish we were done.”

The class is supposed to start reading The Outsiders after the test, and I pass out the books, which sit unopened on the desks like small, glossy packages. “Is this for homework?” a boy asks.

“I don’t think so,” I say. I want to lie and say there will be a quiz on Monday, that 50 pages must be finished before the bell, but there’s no way of enforcing this. Substitutes are entitled to observe, but not to change, the path of education. They are stepmothers, more or less, with two options: to pander or punish. Because English was my subject when I was a real teacher, I choose not to pander today, and I walk the aisles in hopes of enforcing silence.

Four Hispanic boys sit laughing together near the front. A tap on the desk keeps them from talking, but in the far corner, every circle that I make seems to deepen the hatred and impatience. A boy named Eric who was called to the office during the first hour is working on his test and talking to two girls, so after three warnings, I give him detention.

“You bitch!” he shouts across the room. “How come you’re not giving detention to them?” He points to the Hispanic boys and says, “They’ve been talking too.”

I explain that they were willing to be quiet after a warning, while he was not, and they were finished with the test. Beyond this, though, I know there may be another reason, one I cannot explain, even when the hatred escalates and his two female friends chime in with him. What Eric, Cynthia, and Samantha don’t know is that the boys have been abused once already today, and the only dignity I can muster is to refuse to punish them further. Earlier in the class when I asked a blonde girl to move away from her friend and into a seat near the Hispanic boys, she looked at them with revulsion. “Gross,” she said. “I’m not sitting by them. If I catch something, you’re in trouble.” This said, she moved her bookbag to the seat and tried to keep her clothes from touching the chair.

We remain in these positions until the bell rings, I in my seat beneath the Ferrari and the mansion, the Hispanic boys with their legs in the aisles, the books unopened, the light unchanged, the wooden floor already trembling beneath Eric’s feet. On the desk I have a stack of journal entries from another class, in which the students describe a time when they felt misunderstood. In blue ballpoint, the first one, written by a girl in a short black dress, begins, “I feel that no one listens to me. At home, my parents don’t listen, and even my friends at school don’t really like me. I guess I always feel misunderstood.”

The bell will ring, and then another and another, moving me far away from Eric’s rage, this class, this room. When my car leaves the parking lot, the girl in the black dress is standing on the shoulder of Stage Coach Lane, her skin exposed like a confession.

Spring/Mary Fay Pendleton School

The road from Fallbrook to Camp Pendleton is called Ammunition. With the fuchsia school pass on my dashboard I can drive past the guard, past the white wooden storage buildings, and into the light green hills. The live oaks and meadow grass are clean where they meet the road. There’s no litter, just feathered sky, acres of yellow flowers, and hills. The exploding flares, the circling red lights of helicopters, and the munitions that send a subterranean shudder through our house in the evenings are invisible now. There is nothing military or human for a long time, not until I cross Harm Road and then a sign that says Watch for Explosive Trucks Crossing. I do, but I pass only a public bus with a flashing digital sign on its way to Vista. When at last I reach Marine Road, there are Jeeps parked outside corrugated metal buildings and then base housing — plaster apartments with flat little concrete tongues for porches, cubicle hedges here and there, grass clipped down to the nubs. The damp apartments face the road and the school, to which children are streaming with the help of parents and crossing guards, girls and boys in orange day-glo vests.

I’m given the key to Mr. Alder’s fifth grade class, where a pet rat with black and white fur scuttles through pine shavings in a wire cage. The class is in a portable building, so the floor has the characteristic hollow sound, like carpet over a plywood crate. Outside the window above the rat and the sink, a dozen men in fatigues are measuring and digging in the ground that lies beyond the tetherball poles and foursquare grids. In their khaki T-shirts they look like men at ease in an occupied country.

At the back of the room, the rat pushes the steel ball at the tip of its bottle and the steel clicks while he drinks. When the children burst in, the military atmosphere vanishes. They wear purple and pink sweaters, jeans whose seats crumple somewhere near their knees, jackets that wind up twisted on the floor, barrettes and caps and sneakers that come untied. Hey, you the sub? It’s my turn to pass out papers. Make him stop hitting me.

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