written May 8, 2012
I had not yet subbed at Jefferson Elementary, an out-of-the-way school in a quiet residential neighborhood of Collinsville, west of the downtown. I immediately thought it looked like a smaller version of my own massive, red-brick elementary building built in 1892. But it seemed to be deserted. I went down the sloping right side of the school until I found a door.
I entered what appeared to be the basement and upon a tiny, make-shift cafeteria, only able to hold a few rows of foldable tables. The closet-looking room straight beyond this cafeteria appeared to have life in it. This, it turned out, was the office. I gave my name to the secretary inside, who wondered who I was supposed to subbing for today. I told her honestly I had had forgotten the name for once, told to me during a 6 a.m. phone call, and just knew I was supposed to report here. With a phone call to the district office she had her answer:
“Oh,” the old woman brightened a bit, “You’re here for Angie. You’ll have her–Ms. Huneke’s–K-4th grade classes until about 1:30. At that time you’ll head over to Renfro Elementary for the rest of the day.”
Seemed easy enough, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do about the P.E. part of it, standing there dressed as I normally would be, in dress clothes and a tie. But alright, I could figure that out. “Where’s the lesson plan?” I asked the secretary, whom I learned was Ms. Smith. It was with the principal. A few moments later as the time crept towards 7:40, a beleaguered looking man (the type that appears to have been selling encyclopedias door-to-door all day in July), came through the office. Mr. Stroot was clad in a simple green polo shirt, jeans, and old sneakers, by far the most casual principal I’d ever seen; Jefferson was getting to be an interesting place. He told me simply to follow him, so I did, into an inner office, which was really more a neglected hovel. This was Mr. Stroot’s place of business.
“Here to sub?” he asked, wiping his brow. Yep. “Okay then, here’s a walkie-talkie, and now follow me.” ‘Right…um…’ went my brain, trailed behind anyway. He took me around a few left turns, still in the basement, into finally what could only be an ancient boiler room.
“Sir,” I began, while looking around the musty room, very sorry to disappoint a man clearly used to disappointment, “I’m actually here for the P.E. position.”
“Oh,” he said, now understanding I wasn’t the substitute janitor needed that day. “You looked a little over-dressed.”
Luckily I had a few t-shirts and some athletic shorts in the back of my car. After retrieving them I had about two minutes to scan over what I would be doing. Ms. Huenke had left the kids two options: they could play some kind of capture the flag game with bean bags and bases made of hoola-hoops, or they could select kickball.
Alright, this could be some fun I told myself, something different. I searched out an adjoining equipment room and located enough gear for the games. By the time I returned to the “gym” (really an insignificant concrete room that was charitably named, and seemed to date from the 1930’s, with tiny windows at the very top of the far wall, again just off of the basement cafeteria) I found the first round of student, first graders, descending the stairs. In every hour I led off the class with simple stretches and exercises, which always ended with far less participants than began.
Giving them a choice of activity the first hour class chose the bean bag game, Breaking them like water into teams was followed by swiftly explaining the rules. Then I explained it again. Then I left them figure it out. Dead God. It was capture the flag anarchy. These people ignored clearly sanctioned tags, horded bean tags, switched sides with abandon, while one spun himself silly in the corner. I stepped into the middle of this human Jackson Pollack painting to remind them of the rules, but my cat Payton has heeded my wisdom more.
The second hour brought with it fourth graders. Okay, this I could work with. They tried out the bean bag game as well. Then I realized something happens to people between the intervening years of six to nine. In place of whirling dervishes of flittering fancy, children become absolute slaves to rules.
“Mr. C, Sasha didn’t sit down when I tagged her!” a girl cried . “Mr. C, Jefferey stepped over the line–on purpose!” came anther pro bono referee. I attempted to calm these touchy waters by telling the piqued pints not to worry so much, just play and I’ll officiate. Midway point of the hour: Alright, time for kickball guys!”
“Can we go outside, Mr. C?” several now implored. “We’re not allowed to go outside!” a boy shot back at the askers. “Uh-huh, if Mr. C says so!” Yes, getting some air would be a grand idea. Half of the hour still remained. To simplify things I kept the same teams as we traipsed up the building and down an insanely-angled hill to the wide fields below. The grass was still really wet at this point in the morning– hope I wasn’t making a mistake. For kickball I pitched for both sides, to keep it moving along, rolling the ball easily toward each striker. The results were always interesting and required my mediation to rule over the many loud interpretations of each play. But it was fun, and this too ended.
For third hour I went straight for kickball, booting aside the wrecked results that had been bean bag, while telling the assembled third graders we would play inside. They were excited about it, quickly trying to draft me onto their respective two teams. Then, as I coaxed them onto the old, wood-paneled “field” for the defenders, or for the other team starting on offense the far wall to line up and kick, the battle began of who would pitch when. I vetoed all of this and took the coveted ball. The game progressed with actual enjoyment and thrill for awhile. Until the injuries began. They came in all sorts of manner: falling on the way to a base, running into players, running into walls, but most often by being out on a thrown ball. One boy shoved a runner down. I sent him to the bench, where the offender began to cry as he sat and stewed. The sideline was now getting seriously crowded with the hurt and weepy. I began to choose who I thought should pitch from the remaining players, until everyone got a turn. The hour ended with a short stretch of tag as I consoled the wounded.
Fourth hour arrived with the teacher arriving too, with a message for me that “They can be a handful.” It ended, forty minutes later with the entire class ordered to be silent and stay calm, laying down with their backs on the floor, by myself and their flummoxed teacher.
After lunch came kindergarten. I sensed I had to toss all notions of these structured games out the window. “Would you like to go outside?” I asked to tiny, high cheers. “Alright, but we can only be out–and stay out–if everyone is good. Can everyone do that?” This is how I found myself cross-legged, in a circle of five year olds, playing Duck Duck Goose for the first time since break-dancing was a thing. “Can I be da goose now?” a little dark-haired tike on my right asked me quietly, tugging on my arm. I tried my damdest make his big wish happen, and when it did, well, he didn’t notice being tagged until the girl was nearly around the circle.
“Between Duck Duck Goose and juice breaks, you’ve hit the prime of life, Johnny.”
Amazingly this did not last long, and the circle began to rupture. I then began a game of tag, but these students free-lanced like hell, questioning who was “it” at any given second or jumping in or out of the game with supreme nonchalance. In the end the class broke apart for the the simple joys of the playground or ball field. I myself formed and played in the most turn-coat, “N0-fair-I-thought-you-were-on-my-team-not-on-Alex’s” soccer match I’ve ever seen.
With enough rest and prior warning I would love to return to Jefferson School.