I chose to be a substitute teacher.
When I graduated with a Masters in Teaching my children were still young enough to enjoy their mother’s company at school activities. Subbing gave me the opportunity to volunteer in the classroom, chaperone field trips, and attend assemblies. Besides, I told myself, there will be plenty of time and opportunity for my own classroom in the future.
In 2007 my husband was transferred to Walla Walla, Washington. As I was applying for my Washington teaching license it became apparent that my middle school aged children didn’t want Mommy hanging around their classrooms anymore. So I set about getting that long-awaited classroom.
I quickly found out I had three things working against my dream.
First, Walla Walla is a small town surrounded by even smaller farm towns. And like many small towns people get jobs by being related to the right person or by a reference from somebody that has known you since birth. I’m from Oregon… Strike One.
Next, Washington’s education system accepts teachers with Bachelor’s degrees and pays by education level. I had a Master’s with continuing education credits beyond that. I was near the top of the pay scale without ever having proven myself as a regular classroom teacher. Small school districts just can’t afford that. Strike Two.
Finally, we had moved during the establishment of teaching endorsements; those things that say you are highly qualified to teach a subject. I found that though I had taught long term assignments in English as a Second Language and Special Education, I was not qualified for permanent placement. Therefore, job openings that were plentiful and in need of good teachers were closed to me. Strike Three.
So, I continued subbing.
Let me tell you about life as a sub. There are many stereotypes you fight when you enter the classroom. Thanks to media representation, subs are viewed as incompetent, gullible, and socially awkward by both the students they teach and the regular school staff.
We are often given “make-work” (think worksheets, text book reads, or the ever-present video) to give students. Super dry fare for any grade or subject. The kids know the work assigned will never get in the gradebook so there is no incentive for them to do it. Bored kids play pranks and display other off-task behavior that the sub is expected to deal with in a professional manner.
The regular staff are usually friendly in passing but they hardly ever reach out and invite you to join the table at lunch and if there is a celebration in the staff room you are either not invited or forced to participate on the perimeter as inside jokes, student stories, and curriculum complaints are passed around.
But those of us that make the extra effort to actually teach, not babysit, are rewarded by the requests by teachers to be their “preferred” sub, leading to long term assignments and meaningful work for the students. Sometimes, they trust you enough to actually write lesson plans that fit in with their curriculum.
One of the districts I worked for, Prescott, soon regarded me as their preferred sub. The entire school district consists of one building that houses about 200 students, grades K-12. High school to the left, elementary to the right.
My background in ESL came in handy as most of the students were of Mexican descent and English was their second language. Imagine their surprise when they would say something naughty in in Spanish and I would tell them to keep it clean.
“You speak Spanish?” they would ask.
“Enough,” I would reply.
Then the testing would begin. Not for the students but for me. They would see how much I knew. It would start with a cuss word here or there, spoken when my back was turned. Instead of getting angry, I would laugh and tell them I knew that one and continue with the lesson.
If it got too lewd I would turn and use what they termed, my “Mommy” voice. I would put every ounce of serious tone and meaningful glare into my retort. “You will not use that word in this classroom again.” I would hold their eyes until the smile was off their face. Then, I would break into a laugh and tell the kid he or she wasn’t really in trouble. The result was instant relief for the entire classroom as they laughed and it was if I passed the test. No more cussing — I was the cool teacher.
Naming was a convention I threw to the wayside. I let the kids call me what they wanted as long as they were polite. One high school senior called me Maestra Loma and it stuck as did, Mom. Chewbacca was also one of my favorites.
I started eating with the kids during lunch. High schoolers would see me in the lunch line and invite me to eat with them. I gladly agreed. It was better than having a lonely lunch in the staff room. Elementary kids vied to have a teacher sit at their table. It made them feel special that an adult would join them. If there was no room on the bench they would squeeze tight until I fit. The cooks and para-pros asked why I ate lunch with the kids instead of sitting with the other teachers. I would answer, “Because they ask.” I was once told by one of the cooks that my presence was the only adult attention many of these kids got.
Over the years I listened to teen-age angst, brokered truces, and answered all sorts of questions about life. Students would come to the classroom for extra homework help during lunch, prep hours or after school. Elementary kids would “school” me on my terrible accent and took it as a matter of pride when I listened and did my Spanish “homework.” I taught them songs from my childhood, played trivia games about the videos they watched, and allowed myself to be a target during dodge-ball. They started inviting me to soccer games, quinceneras, and performances.
When I was working almost full time at Prescott, the staff joked that the district should hire me as a permanent sub as I was there every day anyway. However, I was still treated as an outsider in the school hierarchy despite the fact they thought I was a competent teacher.
Years went by with no job offer despite glowing references. Then we had a chance to move back to the Rogue Valley. We would be able to go home and be with our friends and family. It was an answer to our prayers.
My last day at Prescott was also the last day of school. The kids had trickled into the classroom I had been covering throughout the day. During lunch I ate with as many students as possible, rotating from table to table. We sang one of the silly songs I had taught them, high schoolers and kindergartners alike. They wished we well. “Could we be Facebook friends? Can I message you? Will you be back to visit?” And sometimes we cried.
At the end of the school day, two middle school girls came into the classroom. “Aren’t you coming out to the busses, Maestra Loma?”
“No, I don’t think I can. I’ll cry,” I told them.
“Please come, we want to say goodbye.”
I gave in and followed them to the bus ramp. The regular staff were standing in front of the school in a tight group waving half-heartedly, anxious to finish cleaning their classrooms. The girls dragged me past the cluster, straight to the busses.
Suddenly, from each bus excited cries burst forth. Arms of all sizes were reaching towards me. I touched one hand and it gripped mine fiercely. “We love you! Come visit us! I’ll Friend you!” Tears from their eyes were matched by mine.
I walked the length of the busses. They did not pull out until I had said goodbye to each waving student. As the last bus left the ramp, I turned to face the other teachers. They were staring at me with amazement. The principal looked perplexed. I just smiled and signed out for the day.
Those kids took me into their hearts in a way I never expected. I belonged to them. I made a difference to them. I never thought that I would ever have that much impact on someone’s life without my own classroom.
After all, I’m just a sub.
When most people think of the Bonneville Salt Flats they think of land speed records and vast expanses of salt that must be crossed to get to more interesting areas. At least that is what my daughter and I thought until our car overheated. Waiting for a car to cool is boring in any situation, but as we sat looking out at the flat, whiteness sitting in the car became unbearable.
As I was growing up my family crossed the flats many times. My father stopped once at the remnants of the Saltair Pavilion, a historic resort located on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, to let his children float in the briny water. We also pulled over onto the shoulder of the road once to scoop a souvenir bottle of salt. But that was all. The flats remained a place to cross without stopping.
Far from roads and business my daughter and I were stuck. We opened our doors to the warm, brine tinted wind and discussed the problems pioneers must have had crossing the area. “Do you want to go walk on it?” I asked. Fully expecting a disinterested, “not really,” I was surprised when she said, “sure.” So we stepped off the known texture of the pavement and strode forth onto the crunchy surface of the flat.
The first thing we noticed was the salt was not truly flat. Bubbles of gray clay from the ancient lakebed pushed the salt into ringed formations a few inches high. Layers of salt crystal formations made small spires only millimeters tall. In other places the salt formed smooth flows you would expect to see on a cave floor. Our footprints were edged with sharp crystalline edges and would remain long after we had traveled on.
We decided to walk to a high berm that cut across the salt desert about a half mile from our car. The sun began to set as we walked, painting the salt with a soft rose colored hue. We drew designs with our steps – swirls and circles, a double helix. We found remnants of glass bottles smoothed by the wind and salt. And throughout our walk the wind hummed across the expanse.
At the base of the berm the ground became soft. Our feet slipped below the crust into the gray muck of the lakebed. We scrambled up the bank to escape the clinging mud and were rewarded with a vista that stretched to the silhouettes of mountains in the far distance. The berm held the faint tracks of an old dirt road and we decided to walk along it for awhile. Were did the road go? Was it the remains of the railway that took visitors to the distant Saltair? Whatever its purpose in the past it provided a great trail across the salt without sinking into the mud.
Finally, the sun started to sink behind the distant mountains. We climbed down the berm and angled back toward the car. Noticing some dark blobs in the sand we detoured to discover that previous visitors had created artwork with found items. Rocks, sticks, and bottles were the medium of choice for unknown artists. As we walked parallel to the road we discovered alien animals, mandalas, names, and hearts filled with initials. Each the mark of other people who had taken a moment to stop, get out of their car, and explore.
My husband and I were looking forward to celebrating his 50th birthday on a beloved 70 mile canoe trip in Canada’s Bowron Lakes Provincial Park. We decided to take our then 19 year old son, 16 year old daughter, and our daughter’s friend as a last “family” vacation.
We packed for weeks. Mountains of food to keep us going for 10 days of paddling and clothing for any weather condition was heaped throughout our house. My husband crafted canoe carts out of spare lawn mower and hand-cart wheels to ease the steep portages.
Upon reaching Canada, the skies took on a grayish cast from the 50+ massive fires springing everywhere that year. The farther we drove north the worse the visibility. The smoke became so thick that everything stunk and tasted like a campfire before we had even camped one night.
When we reached the park we were told that we could only go halfway around the circuit as one of the fires had closed the lower corner of the park. Willing to make the best of things we gamely struck out on the circuit.
The first night a Canadian black bear prowled around our tents. Being a teacher, I proudly showed the rather large foot print to the kids and explained how I knew it wasn’t a grizzly (which is also native to the area). Understand, my son is deathly afraid of bears and wanted to turn around right then. My husband and I convinced him that it was unlikely that the bear would be at our next campsite. Needless to say he was the first one in the canoe when it came time to head out. Unfortunately there WAS a bear at the next campsite… and the next. Later we found out that my daughter’s guest had kept ramen noodles in his backpack which is why the bears had been attracted to our campsites.
Now, completely freaked out, my son had had enough. On the fourth day of our trip he jumped into one of the kayaks we were also using and paddled hell bent for leather back towards the starting point. My husband and I gave chase in a canoe and finally caught up with him in the late afternoon. Remember, my son was 19 years old and we were around 50. We were totally exhausted and could hardly make camp that night.
That is when it started to really rain. We strung up tarps to cover our kitchen and watched sadly as the pooled water dumped off the edge onto our eating area. Everything was wet despite tarping the canoes and wearing rain ponchos as we were paddling.
During one of our last portages my very petite daughter ended up taking the weight of a loaded canoe when I tugged my end too hard. Her shoulder ended up being severely wrenched so she was unable to help with the final portages and paddle the canoe. Down a paddler we had to work twice as hard to make headway. To add insult to injury one of the home-built canoe carts disintegrated on the last portage so we had to make an extra portage to collect the canoe, its baggage, and the broken cart.
So finally we are back in the car, so tired we can hardly move and headed for the nearest motel which was 3 hours away. At midnight we pulled into the motel collapsed. The next day my leg started itching. A red rash developed that slowly spread to all my extremities. When I got home I was diagnosed with mange mites that I had contracted from the motel bed. Of course by then my poor husband was infected too. We had to slather ourselves with a noxious cream to get rid of them.
But we had one final disaster… We decided to push through and drive home from the motel throughout the night. About 3:00 in the morning, only an hour from home, we heard a loud thump and felt the trailer carrying our canoes give a lurch. We all piled out of the car to diagnose the problem. Our trailer’s spare tire mount had fallen off, had gone under the wheels, and was laying somewhere on the dark highway. We searched along the road with flashlights trying to find the wheel. Just as my daughter said, “There it is,” a semi came over the hill and ran square over it mangling the rim.
At that point we could only laugh.
You might want to know that just prior to this trip while driving to Alabama a funnel cloud came down on top of our car. But that is another story.