For a while, I was a substitute teacher. I was not very good at it. I like kids, and generally enjoy them. I have a sibling and babysat a lot when I was younger, so children are not frightening or mysterious to me. But being a substitute teacher - a good one - requires a person of uncommon qualities. I did not have these qualities.
Maybe if school started later, it wouldn't have been an issue. I am by nature a night owl. I despise morning. Waking up at the crack of dawn to deal with a herd of screaming children, all demanding your rapt attention, is one of the circles of hell. So whenever I was called in, a lucky class full of bright-eyed students got a cranky, semi-comatose substitute who wanted nothing more than to declare an eight-hour nap time and curl up under her desk.
Despite my groggy demeanor, the students overall liked me. I often started class by stating, 'Look, I am not your teacher. I'm just here for the day. Let's just get through your work and we can all relax. You guys still take naps, right?' I didn't pretend to have any real authority, and I didn't bully them. I liked to think of myself as a cool older relative whose primary goal was to make sure nobody ate paste or set anything on fire.
I think my failure as a teacher can be summed up in one day. I was subbing for the art teacher, which is only slightly less hilarious than the time I subbed for the gym teacher. If I had to run for my life, I would die. If I had to draw a map to save my life, I would die, after being ruthlessly mocked for my tragic stick figures. But the administration didn't care about my inherent artistic abilities, so I was the art teacher for the day.
Teachers are supposed to leave you a syllabus for each class. You follow the syllabus, and unless a kid tries to stab someone with a crayon, it's pretty uneventful. But as the first graders filed in, I found myself without an assignment for 30-odd hyperactive 7-year-olds. It was not an enviable position.
It was the day of President Obama's inauguration, and I knew the kids had all watched his swearing in. I had what I thought was a brilliant idea: I told the kids to draw something that made them think of America.
"It can be a picture of the White House, the flag, a bald eagle, whatever you think of when you think of America!" I enthused. I'd had a lot of coffee that day, and was pretty pleased with myself. The kids would color, I would read a book and not have an existential crisis when I discovered that small children had more expensive phones than I.
And it worked. For a few minutes. The kids colored industriously, with a modicum of talking. I oversaw their work, feeling like a Real Educator. Then one little boy approached me to show me his drawing.
LITTLE BOY: I drew the White House!
ME: That's great! And who is that outside it?
LITTLE BOY: John McCain.
ME: Um... OK.
LITTLE BOY: My parents like him. They say he should be President.
ME: A lot of people thought that. But that's what's so great about America - we can all have different opinions.
I'd like to mention that I was enormously proud of my diplomatic response. And then it all went to hell.
LITTLE BOY: I don't like Obama.
At this point I should have pat him on the head and distracted him with something shiny. 'Look, an iPod! Justin Bieber! A unicorn! Justin Bieber riding a unicorn while building an iPod!'
If you are thinking of being a teacher, my one piece of advice is this: do not engage in political debate with someone who just recently mastered eating solid food.
ME: Oh? Why is that?
LITTLE BOY: He wants to kill the penguins.
LITTLE BOY: The penguins. He wants to kill them.
ME: The penguins.
LITTLE BOY: Yes.
ME: Kill them?
LITTLE BOY: Yeah, he's going to kill them.
ME: I don't think the President wants to kill the penguins.
LITTLE BOY: Oh, he does.
ME: We don't have any penguins in America.
LITTLE BOY: Well, he's going to drive to the penguins and THEN kill them.
By now the boy was looking at me like I was either incredibly stupid, or part of the Penguin Killing Brigade. And I realized I was arguing with a 6-year-old about the leader of the free world hunting down and murdering flightless birds.
It was a surreal moment.
Luckily, the situation was defused by the arrival of snack time. Rather than alerting the principal that I was plotting the demise of penguins, the little boy scampered off to enjoy his juice box.
As I watched the kids dig into the Goldfish Crackers and wheat-free cookies, I glanced down at their drawings. If you recall, I'd asked them to draw what they thought of when they thought of America.
Almost all of them had drawn money.