Sometimes it’s a good thing to be humbled. Even if you’re a big fancy newspaper columnist.
Occasionally I take a job as a substitute teacher for one of the local school districts. It’s a break in the routine, and puts something extra in my wallet.
If I hadn’t gone into journalism, I probably would have become a teacher. I admit I’m far more comfortable with classes that involve literature, civics, and language in general than advanced science and math. For whatever reason, I seem to be able to get teenagers to engage in discussions about the moral implications of the writings of the world’s greatest authors without the eye-rolling and sullen disinterested posturing that teens often show when pushed ever-so-slightly out of their comfort zones.
For me, those are the best times in the classroom.
So occasionally I accept the early morning computer-generated call asking if I want to sub that day. You say yes without knowing what your class will be. You click 1 to accept the job, show up and take your chances.
Recently I got the call, and decided to take the job. I showed up at the high school and received my assignment—I’d be subbing some special ed classes.
I’m embarrassed to say that I felt a flash of disappointment. This is not to my credit, and only shows what a jerk I can be sometimes.
I’ve subbed such classes before, and usually left school at the end of the day feeling like I hadn’t been of much value to anyone. I certainly hadn’t been able to demonstrate my strengths in a way that caused a student to perceive the world in a new and wider way.
Nevertheless, an assignment is an assignment. I went to work and felt like I was doing an okay job of executing the day’s objectives.
But in the afternoon that all changed.
In one class we finished our work early. I glanced at the clock and asked when the period would be over. One student raised her hand and said “when the big hand is on the two.” I looked at her to see if she was making a joke of some sort.
“Oh,” she smiled without guile. “I don’t know how to read those kinds of clocks.”
Sometimes inspiration comes when you least expect it. I was able to smile back and ask offhandedly, “Okay. Would you like to learn?”
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She was slightly hesitant, but said “um, okay.”
The rest of the class was occupied, so I walked to the wall and pulled the clock off the pushpin that held it in place.
I explained the hard part, how the 1 means 5 minutes, the 2 means 10 minutes, etc., and how “quarter past” and “quarter of” worked. And then the hardest part: explaining how the short hand works as it moves from one number to another.
And then I began moving the hands around and asking her what time it was. She was hesitant at first, but it began to click, and she started nailing it.
About five minutes later I was at my desk and casually looked up at her. “Hey, what time is it?”
She looked at the clock, hesitated just a moment, and said “two-oh-three.”
“Thanks,” I said nonchalantly, and dropped my eyes—but not before seeing her smile.
At the bell, I found out what her next class was. I sneakily asked her next teacher to ask her what time it was at some point during class.
There’s nothing wrong with studying literature, and debating whether or not everything really depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with white rainwater beside the yellow chickens. (Look it up.)
But that day I taught a teenager a small life skill that will make her feel more at home and competent in an often hostile world. It wasn’t in the lesson plan. In retrospect it would have been the easiest thing in the world to brush off. But I didn’t, because for once I noticed a quiet, unstated need and responded. I don’t do that nearly enough.
So the teacher taught and the student learned. She was the teacher. I was the student.