I think these kids are having a hard time pinning me down. And I don’t mean literally… but I could.
“I’m not used to this,” I’ve yelled once or twice, over the volume of a room in which thirty-odd people are all having loud conversations. “I usually teach college!”
I don’t know why I bother. Yelling this is roughly as effective as yelling at them in German – they all stop, sure, but after a curious pause they’re talking even more loudly than before.
Really I’m sure they don’t think about me, not too much. It’s egotism to think, as I once did, that they would have many questions about my life outside of school. To them, I am merely an obstacle – an ineffective impediment to playing with their iPads or throwing paper around the room, whatever it is their childish hearts desire. I’m furniture, or a shouting robot, or a pencil dispenser. A sub.
They’ll even talk about me in front of my face. Which would have killed me when I was actually in middle school, but now that I am a grown-up, it’s more often than not just hilarious.
Last month, I was at a Montessori school that was trying its best with students who had come from particularly rough circumstances. In homeroom, the kid in charge announced, “We’re going to go around and share what our roughest moment ever was,” and my co-teacher was like “Well, maybe not your roughest, maybe just something funny…” but it was too late, a twelve-year-old had already just nonchalantly gone, “The time I got shot,” and they were off, each sadder than the last.
That day, they’d finished a project, so all we were supposed to do was watch “Shrek” and remain more or less quiet. Still, I had for some reason shown up in a carefully chosen Teacher Outfit: a knee-length skirt, a white-edged sweater, cat-eye lenses, red lipstick, heels. I now recognize it was possibly the whitest ensemble I could have selected, but I was very proud of it at the time.
At passing, I was perched on the desk, greeting students, when a girl I’d met before brushed past me to talk to her friends. At perfect, ear-splitting volume, she said: “Yo: why she dressed like she eighty-five?”
It was perfect. Dead on. Yes, I realized, a lot of my outfits do look like something a maiden aunt could have worn at any moment of the twentieth century. They are modest and spintsterish, ideal for teaching college and Being Taken Seriously, but they also look like they could have tissue jammed into their sleeves.
I said, “For authority, Georgine.”
And Georgine looked at me and went, “Oh.”
I was proud. Of her for the retort, and of me for my answer. (She spent the rest of the period being very nice to me, for the record.)
Only rarely do the children ask questions. Usually it’s just, “Can I go to the bathroom?” (“No, your teacher said nobody can have hall passes because there have been too many fights.”) “Can the nurse see me?” (“Look, your finger is just fine. Sit down.”) “Can I read my book?” (“Jeez, you’re supposed to finish your work, but, I mean, god, I am never going to yell at you for reading, so if you do it discreetly, I probably won’t, like, care…”)
But today, two girls asked to go work in the hall because of the aforementioned room loudness, and I told them yes, godspeed. I went out to check on them and there they were, worksheeting away. So proud.
And one of them went, “Hey, are you married?”
They were both squinting up at me. Plainly they had discussed this.
I sighed. Apart from “How old are you?”, that’s the only personal question I ever get asked. Not “Did you recently receive a prestigious graduate degree?” Not “Did you ever live in Europe?!” – just whether or not I am, you know, man-yoked.
I said, “No.”
They said, “Do you have kids?”
And I said, “No.” (The “Thank God” was implied.)
And they said, eyeing my spinsterish outfit: “Well, you live alone, then?” Plainly picturing me lint-rollering off the hair from my dozen cats before work, my nights spent drinking tea and stroking a photo of my lost beloved.
I was about to say, “No, I live with my parents.” But to be frank, that seemed sadder, and as of next week, that won’t be true anymore.
Here’s my news: at the beginning of June, I’m going back to TIP in North Carolina to teach for 2 months, and then, after that, I am moving permanently to Minneapolis to set up house with my boyfriend and one (maybe two) friends. We don’t know where yet, but we know we will have an awesome house full of books and also probably a porch and quite possibly some sort of dog. We are all jazzed, but it’s weird to be moving somewhere permanently after years of vagrancy. And on occasion I get anxious – what’s it going to be like to acquire furniture? I hate winter, why have I decided to live here?
On the whole, though, I think I am ready to settle down, at least for a bit, and I realized it today, when I answered the girls.
So as to avoid saying “I live with my parents,” I answered with a lie, or at least a temporal inaccuracy. “I live with my friends,” I said.
Their eyes widened. “You can do that?”
I nodded. “Oh, yeah. It’s a lot of fun. We hang out all the time.”
I don’t think anyone had ever told them this was an option.
“We cook meals, and have talks, and play games…” I opened the classroom door, then whispered, “That’s a thing you can do if you’re not married,” and shut it, reveling in the perfume of mystery that wafted behind me.
Ms. H your substitute has it all, kids. A first name, a whole backstory. Everything.