by Johnny M. Tucker, Jr.
The morning school bell rings.
“AGH, NO! Here they come!” I say to myself.
It’s my first day substitute teaching middle school students, and I want classroom experience without anyone watching over me before I begin my required undergraduate student teaching. I’m confident in my specialized content, but keeping students seated and engaged, I know will be my biggest challenge.
When I first arrive at the main office, I am told that I am required to stand by my classroom door in the hallway to monitor students as they arrive at 7:30 a.m., during class transitions throughout the day, and then at 2:30 p.m. when students leave to get back on the bus.
At 7:28 a.m. I stand tall wearing a white-button shirt, a fun purple tie, sports jacket and pants, and black Tommy Hilfiger loafers.
Waiting these two minutes, I can smell ammonia that staff uses to wipe down lunch tables in the school’s cafeteria, which is just around the corner from where I’m standing. The smell is too much and I cough. Nervous, I peek back into Mrs. Johnson’s classroom to be sure that desks are aligned, to be sure that no trash is on the floor, and that the attendance sheets and assignments for each period left for me are stacked neatly on her desk so that I am ready to teach when students arrive.
Before I know it, the start of the school day bell rings. Over two hundred boys and girls push and trample over one another to be the first to their lockers or to be the first in line for breakfast. I think to myself that Black Friday bargain shoppers arrived, pushing and trampling over one another to be the first to get the latest Elmo doll at Walmart before it runs out—the first year I heard of someone dying from being trampled on just to be the first to get a plush doll. I mean, lockers can’t be that important, right?
I overhear students murmur that they have a substitute for Mrs. Johnson’s Social Studies today. I try to make the best of it; I stand with my hands held behind my back, trying not to look unapproachable.
Still, through the narrow hallways, students hustle their way to everywhere and nowhere, jamming the hallways like they’d just evolved from monkey to human: can’t figure out which side of the hall to walk or stand in the middle of the hall socializing because they are popular, and causing a major pile up is no big deal.
Every now-and-then a student walks by me, smiles, and then enters the classroom I will be teaching in for the first time in my life. Some are dressed like punk rockers: black cutoff pants, black boots, a Metallica T-shirt, and hair spiked or the color blue—boys or girls; some are dressed as if they had just left gym class and are wearing sweat pants, a t-shirt, and sneakers; some are wearing black-rimmed eye glasses and a dress or slacks—hair perfect as a ballerina bun.
Although most students are wide-eyed, others appear as though they must have just awakened from a nap on the bus. One student dragging his book bag on the ground slowly walks by me with his hair a complete mess, an unfortunate cowlick.
“Comb your hair, you friggin’ idiot.” But he’s only 12 years old, so I keep my thoughts to myself.
It’s an unfortunate cowlick similar to one I wore every day 28 years prior, walking into the very classroom I attended as a middle school student, the very classroom I am a substitute teacher in today. But no matter how hard I tried, I just could never get my hair to stay down.
Before the boy completely walks by me, I’m transported. I see myself staring up at a 6’-tall male substitute teacher who is wearing a half-grin and looking down at the high-anxiety middle school me, the idiot who can’t paste his hair down. I’m not a morning person by any means. Dragging my book bag on the floor, I slowly will myself to homeroom before the late bell rings: My stomach is nauseating from the early-morning stench of ammonia. I return the half-smile to the substitute teacher wearing a tacky gray suit, trying to impress whom—I have no idea. I make my way passed the substitute, through the classroom entrance and sit at my homeroom desk—folding my arms for a pillow and bury my face.