A bell rings. The big metal door flies open, and hallway sounds of boisterous chitter-chatter rush into the empty classroom like lake water breaching an ill-built dam. Now comes a paddling of young humans, averaging four feet in height, boys and girls, freshly bathed, wearing Sunday-dinner-clean clothes, carrying new books and extra-small daypacks.
This is first period at Harmon Elementary School, Las Vegas, Nevada, and this is my first day as a substitute teacher. I am subbing Mrs. Mehner's fourth-grade social studies class.
The bell rings again. It's a loud bell, much louder than I anticipated. I canvass classroom walls but do not locate the bell, which causes a slight but noticeable bump in my anxiety. I don't need more unease. I arrived 30 minutes early because I'm nervous, and when nervous I want to be in place, with the playing field reconnoitered, food stores stocked, powder dry, long before combat begins. I've passed the time rehearsing my opening remarks, "Good morning. I am Mr. Daugherty, your substitute teacher for today." I plan to pause here, turn my back to the class, and print my name on the blackboard, indicating, I believe, serene authority.
I wait until 32 squirming seedlings settle into their desks, clear my throat, and begin, "Good morn..."
The bell rings. Damn, that's a loud bell. I feign a worldly smile and begin anew, "Good morning. I am Mr. Daugherty..." A loudspeaker, fastened to the wall above the doorway, spits, then transmits the bored, condescending voice of an adult female. This is the voice of someone who hates her job and cannot be fired. The woman reads school announcements. I hear something about a bus schedule change and a field trip to Red Rock Canyon. Then the woman begins a full-on verbal avalanche. The topic is class pictures; the where and when of them, the correct size of class picture envelopes, the importance of acquiring the right-sized envelope and then delivering the right-sized envelope to the right place at the right time. This is followed by a long list of right places and right times. Forward to the topic of parents, their money and their signatures. And then the patronizing zombie voice tells us about parents' night, the need for parents to attend parents' night, the helpful reminder notes that will be entrusted to the students of Harmon Elementary School, and the importance of hand-delivering these notes to Mom and Dad. The voice seems, especially, to hate this announcement. I zone out.
A period of time passes. I notice, with a start, that there is silence and has been silence in the classroom. Very good. "Good morning. I am..." The loudspeaker spits. Again. A second woman's voice announces morning prayer. I thought this was illegal. The prayer is amorphous but sounds vaguely Christian. It ends.
"Good morning. I am Mr. Daugherty, your substitute..." The loudspeaker does what it does, and prayer lady returns with the "Pledge of Allegiance." Thirty-two spawn of Las Vegas jump up as one, stand at rigid attention like Hitler Youth at a Nazi Party parade, place tiny right hands over tiny hearts, and recite the pledge, perfectly and in unison. Then the class sits with one movement. My mouth hangs open. I blink rapidly as sweat gushes from my forehead and armpits. Now comes the familiar spit and a new voice, this time a girl's, begins reading today's lunch menu. She ends with the word "Jell-O." Silence. Twenty seconds pass. I ask the class, "How long does this go on?"
"That's all," chirp a dozen students, delighted with their first victory of the day.
I wanted to teach. I wanted to do well. I wasn't conscious of that until this moment, which is the same moment I see that teaching these kids anything is impossible. While those idiotic announcements have been droning along, I've had time to feel what it's like to be in charge of 32 kids. To drop in here for one day and hope to do anything more than keep the peace is absurd.
This is what Andrew Prins told me yesterday afternoon. He's an old friend and lifer high school teacher. We were having beers at the Rocking Horse Ranch. Andrew said, "The school only wants two things from you. Number one, take roll. Attendance is where their money comes from. Taking roll is what counts. Do this before anything else. Do this if you do nothing else. Number two, keep enough order so the class does not generate complaints. You don't want kids screaming so loud as to cause the teacher next door or a teacher walking in the hallway to complain. You don't want students hitting each other, at least to the extent that parents will notice their wounds. You can ignore this and still continue to sub, but, I found that it makes for a more pleasant day, for you, if you keep them to a reasonable level of uproar." Andrew chugged a 20-ounce mug of Heineken, smacked his lips, and said, "Oh, and don't, don't, for God's sake, don't try and teach anybody anything."