Driving my kids to school yesterday morning for their first day back from summer vacation, I reminded them to keep their heads facing forward and hands to themselves in line, to be respectful even if someone else is being a jerk and to keep their lips zipped when a teacher is talking.
I was no paragon of model behavior when I was a kid, but my children are a lot smarter than me. They take after their mother. One day when Liana was in third grade, her parents went to her school and, unbeknownst to her, peaked into her classroom. It was like animal house. Students were boisterous, throwing spitballs and running around desks. All the while, the teacher kept talking, but no one was listening. Except dutiful little Liana, head upright, eyes and ears fixed on the teacher. I would’ve been one of the kids throwing spitballs.
I tell my kids that I don’t want them giving their teachers any reason to talk trash about them in the staff lounge.
Liana and I emphasize to the kids that their actions don’t just reflect on themselves. If they make trouble, then we look like crap.
But you have to give them room to grow. Expecting your kids to never make mistakes would be as realistic as thinking the sun’s going to rise in the west. One evening, I came home from work and Liana said, “Dad, Sam has something to tell you.”
His third grade class had a substitute teacher and he was showing his classmates a picture he drew of her with the word, “stinky” written above it. The kids’ laughter caught the teacher’s attention and she confiscated the picture.
“How would you feel if you were that teacher?”
“Bad,” he answered with repentance in his voice.
I wanted to ground him from his Nintendo Wii for two days, but Liana reminded me that he had confessed out of his own volition. That was cause for clemency, I agreed. We told Sam we were proud of him for taking ownership of his actions, but we did have him write a letter of apology to the sub. His regular teacher would probably have him do that the next day anyway. His letter read:
“Hello. I’m sorry I called you stinky. Will you forgive me? If you don’t, I understand. Actually, you are one of the best substitutes I’ve had. Signed, Sam.”
The letter was still in his backpack the next day. His teacher hadn’t said anything so apparently the substitute hadn’t reported the misbehavior.
“Maybe, writing the letter was punishment enough,” Liana said. Maybe, but something didn’t seem right to me.
I was working as a substitute teacher in a third grade classroom. Some girls wrote my name on the dry erase board: “Mr. Guy.” I turned to the para-educator in the room and said, “If they were in middle or high school, some smart aleck would turn the u into an a.”
It’s happened. A high school girl called me “Mr. Gay.” What was I supposed to do, get all offended? Say, “Yeah, well my wife is one happy woman”? I just wrote her up for sexual harassment since she meant “gay” as a pejorative. The teacher thought that was a nice touch. “Oh, she can get in a lot of trouble for that,” he said. Good. There may be a teacher or student who is gay. They don’t deserve that abuse.
Kids will never be as good for a substitute as they are for their regular teacher. It’s party time, a free-for-all. I accept that, but I will not sub for PE or music at the middle and high school levels. Been there, done that. That’s when these hormone-driven beasts are most riotous and the room starts to resemble a London riot scene.
An obstreperous eighth grade boy wanted to bring out every ball in the storage locker to play dodge ball with. I only let them use one ball and this kid’s friends still wound up holding him down when he got mad and tried to beat the hell out of another boy who lodged a ball into his head. Never let kids play dodge ball.
Most kids, by the time they get to middle school, do not want to be in music class and they let you know it. On the two occasions, I subbed for middle school music, it was like trying to manage a lunatic asylum and the residents were cruel, vulgar cretins. Their parents must be proud.
“I don’t have to do what you say,” this tough guy wanna be told me. “My mom told me I don’t have to listen to substitutes.”
“Well, that explains a few things,” I replied.
“Oooh,” he said, face tightening. “You talkin’ smack on my family. I’ll kick your ass.”
I ignored his idle threat. I’m not a big guy, but what was this scrawny little kid going to do to me? I did almost call security to have him removed from class before he left on his own.
Most elementary school kids still respect their teachers, but discipline is still a challenge. I heard two teachers sharing war stories about their students at the end of the day. They talked about poor parenting, how kids haven’t learned manners and self-discipline at home. This thought kept flashing in my head:
Not my kids.
Making things right
It was the last day of school. I told Ashton, the school secretary, about Sam’s mistake and handed her the letter of apology.
“He doesn’t remember the name of the sub, but she was the last sub the kids had for the year,” I said. “Could you find out her name and make sure she gets this?”
“We’ll get it taken care of,” Ashton said with a voice that conveyed confidence and efficiency.
Sometime during the summer, I told my wife and son that I had the letter mailed to the substitute.
“I bet that touched her heart,” Sam said in an ordinary kid voice, unaware of any sentimentality.
“I’m sure it did, Son.”
Liana was nervous about how the kids would do in getting back to the school routine. Sam, entering fourth grade, would be in the intermediate school, and Kenzie, a first-grader, would be on her own in the primary school. I assured her they would be just fine.
Later in the day, I got a text from Liana.
“Kids had a great day.”