Smile Politely

The most dangerous job in America

Were I to take the time to print out a curriculum vitae (I’m a little amazed that my spell checker didn’t flag that), it would use up an entire ink cartridge. Those things aren’t cheap either. Yes, my resume is a colossal mess, a sprawling autobiography filled with intrigue, sex, red herrings, suspense, and a cast of thousands. I should have been a Russian novel.

Filling out job applications is a bit like the task of writing War and Peace. I feel as though I am chained somewhere in a gulag, scrawling upon contraband toilet paper with a half-sharpened pencil, trying to list all the jobs and schools and bosses and phone numbers of my life.

I like to work, but I cannot stand applying for jobs, and that probably puts me in crowded and good company these days of double-digit unemployment.

Maybe that’s why I am content to think of myself as a substitute teacher. Even though it is the furthest thing from the truth, I sometimes tell people that I’ve retired. I’m often asked the question and that’s what I reply.

“I’m semi-retired,” I say sometimes and that usually satisfies the question of what it is that I do or that I am.

Contracted worker, freelance writer, temp, substitute teacher, fool on the hill wannabe… Take your pick.

The odd thing is that I actually planned things this way. When I was taking my teacher certification classes at the University of Illinois, I readily admitted that I wanted to be a substitute. People thought I was crazy, but I shrugged it off.

Regular teachers have to prepare lesson plans, grade execrable papers, inhale toxic chalk dust daily, and memorize the names of students. Substitutes have to do none of these things. Regular teachers are often chided (woefully wrongly, I might add) for getting three months of summer vacation every year; substitutes take vacation any time they feel like it.

The phone rings. “Are you available to work today?” the sub line operator asks.

“Um, no, I’m afraid not,” I reply. “I have some reading to catch up on, poolside.”

The truth, however, is that I do enjoy work. My father also was a jack-of-all-trades and a tireless worker and good provider, but apparently there is a powerful, virulent, and possibly genetic need for variety in my family. That’s the only explanation I can give.

Being a substitute teacher today is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. At last year’s orientation meeting, a new substitute asked how she was to react if one of the children tried to give her a hug.

“Throw your hands into the air,” the principal demonstrated. “Never touch children.”

I’m not sure which causes more psychic damage in the long run, forbidding touch at all or treating kids like Mad Men‘s Betty Draper does, slapping little Sally silly for cutting her own hair.

I almost always turn down offers to teach elementary school. One day I reluctantly accepted to take over a first-grade art class. How hard could it be to teach finger painting to the budding Picassos? Upon arriving, I understood why no one else had agreed to the job. This was the day the art students learned to dance.

So there I am with a flock of first graders, a boom box, and scanty lesson plans about demonstrating creative movement. I had the students walk around in a circle in the tiny gym, wave their arms, skip, and try not to trample one another. One boy, whose name I have deliberately repressed, decided that pulling down his pants was the most creative thing he could do. I actually may have shrieked in a high-pitched tone at this point, and somehow it was all resolved, but not before a vision of spending the rest of my life behind bars had flashed before my eyes.

The day I taught high school cheerleading practice went better. For this one, I thankfully did not have to demonstrate anything at all, but merely sat there while the routines were carried out without incident.

Bait-and-switch is common. They tell you it will be a silent reading class, but when you get in the classroom, the plans are for you to give a solo performance of Romeo and Juliet to a group of students who will be texting to each other across the aisle and listening on hidden iPods to Cee Lo Green sing “Fuck You.” If you’re lucky.

The most recent example of false advertising occurred at the Urbana Middle School, when I agreed to teach health class while the regular teacher attended an in-school conference. The teacher was in the classroom when I arrived.

“The seating chart and lesson plans are right there on the desk,” he said before scurrying out the door and down the aisle. “There are handouts and a video, too.”

Before I could open my mouth, he was gone and I was handing 7th and 8th graders multiple pages of information describing the many and colorful varieties of contraception, the rates of effectiveness, possible physical and psychological side-effects, and the methods and ease of use.

Did you know that 22 percent of women between the ages of 16 and 49 rely upon the male condom for contraception, three percent rely upon withdrawal method, and that four percent use an intra-uterine device? Do you know how a physician gives (applies? bestows? inserts?) a contraceptive coil to a woman?

I didn’t, but that did not prevent more than one of the boys from eagerly volunteering to read the handouts aloud to the class.

And they did, quietly and thoughtfully, although stumbling over some of the more difficult words, like Depo-Provera and chlamydia . We had a real discussion. There was very little sniggering. Everyone agreed that abstinence was clearly the safest and preferred method of contraception and the only method with 100% effectiveness. And if these young people had learned anything that day, I had learned something, too. I learned that treating young people with respect and as beings capable of serious discussion can have real rewards.

So, it turned out to be a pretty good day in the substitute classroom after all. Every day it’s something new. Maybe the next time someone asks me what it is that I do or what I am, I’m going to say, “Adventurer.”

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