OK, substitute teachers – let’s compare notes on what we see as we randomly find ourselves in any of the myriad schools that call us! It’s a constant source of inspiration, wonder and surprise to be given these tiny glimpses into the lives of teachers, children and schools. This one is a smoothly running if high tension Middle School where my first assignment is to help serve pancakes at the holiday breakfast provided by the staff and served to the whole 8th grade. A calm and friendly rapport between staff and students, a gentle level of warmth and joking. A seamless flow between Spanish and English.
Next comes an 8th grade math class in these last days of 2012 – the students have an assignment but it isn't due until after the vacation, so while many of them work on it fairly purposefully, there is also a lot of socializing going on. About half way through the second period, I begin to sense that the students are running on empty, and that possibly there ought to be some kind of re-direction or a change of activity. How long can you keep plotting graphs and calculating transformations? I mention this to one of the students who has just got up to talk to a friend – “I get the feeling that you guys are getting bored, and getting silly – would you like a new activity or a change of pace?” Thoughtfully he ponders for a moment. Then he says, “But you see, this is our dream. To be in class but to be able to talk and act normal.” “So everyone is OK?” I ask. “Yes, you really don’t need to do anything.” He smiles. And of course he is right.
In the same school, but a different 8th grade group – one young man seems to have leaned a bit too close to another – who leaps up and cries “Ooh, he’s trying to kiss me!” A lot of silliness breaks out, and “He’s gay!” etc. The first kid (Chinese) smiles, he’s unfazed, and the second (Hispanic), keeps laughing and carrying on. “So what’s the big deal?” I ask – (pointedly) “Oh nothing”, they say, between giggles –“it doesn't matter, we’re just teasing!” One of the more serious girls looks at me – “We know some of us are gay”, she says –“we’re cool with that! You don’t have to worry.” Bless the changing times, coming to a Lower East side middle school!
Later in a 6th grade class, a serious young man frequently comes up with complex and insightful responses to questions about the young adult novel they’re reading. There are several very observant and attentive children speaking up in this class. One young girl catches my eye because she doesn't have the book, and I discover that she just arrived in the school. “Oh, where did you come from?” I ask (innocently, just curious). “Well I started out in the Bronx, but we got logged out of the shelter there, so we were moved to Brooklyn, and now they found us a place by here, so I’m coming to this school now.” Her 3rd school since September. OK. Not exactly what I was expecting, but she seems very matter of fact. Is that possible? Later, as the students go to their lockers at the end of the day, a brief melee occurs. A staff member jumps in and a student emerges with blood running down from a cut on his cheekbone, looking shell shocked. I had noticed him in the hallways and at lunch time getting in the face of other students, daring them to confront his height and his good looks, switching to a handsome smile to disarm the person he had just challenged with a lunge or a fist. Right behind him came the same serious 6th grader I had seen earlier – jaw clenched, but with studied casualness. Finally the boy had got in the face of the wrong person. In effect, “You asked for it – you got it!” Inevitable and maybe even necessary. Off they went to the Principal’s office. Some places, you better know what you’re getting yourself into – they don’t play!
When the students are doing silent reading in the gym, waiting to be called for lunch, one of them asks me “Are you from another school?” “No, I’m retired but I like to keep busy”. “Why would you work if you’re retired? My grandma is retired, and she just sits home and waits for her checks to come!” “I don’t think your grandma would like to hear she does nothing!” I say, laughing. “No, really, that’s what she does!” Oh to be 13 and free of the cares of the world!
On the last day before vacation, the whole school comes once again to the gym where they watch a very impressive gymnastics show by a selected group of students. Finally I see the talents of a youngster who has been a bundle of energy and sassiness, cute as a button but quite a handful. He moves like quicksilver and has no fear. Athletic, funny and a natural performer. Who would ever know if he didn’t have this perfect outlet? Have to wonder how many more like him languish in their energetic, streamlined bodies, never discovering the gifts they possess in our brave new world without recess or the non-tested "extras".
Soon after, each grade is called to receive the gifts they have listed for their Secret Santas, the employees of corporate donors. This school is supported by Estee Lauder and J. P. Morgan. As in another elementary school nearby, the employees pick up a list, purchase an item from it, and wrap and label it with a personal message. The heaps upon heaps of gaily wrapped presents gradually diminish as the children collect them and depart – some returning another way for extended day/after school, most going home to the nearby Projects and apartment buildings. Happy Holidays!