Last week I finished substitute teaching—no more barking orders like a school marm gestapo for me!

I thought I wouldn’t miss anything about it.

But I was wrong. I learned a lot about schools, teachers, and our pressure cooker of an education system. And I find myself going back to some of the hardest days with the most appreciation, because, even on those hard days, I was learning something miraculous about kids

This day stands out in particular.

***

When I walked into the classroom, the signs were not good. Some chairs stacked, others on the floor. Papers, books, and supplies in haphazard towers.

And even at eighty thirty, the corner room in the large brick building was already collecting the rising steam from the two sweaty floors beneath.

At nine o’clock, I sent a particularly unmanageable despot to the office. I could see her belligerence tempting the rest of the young padawans to the dark side, and I decided to make the call and remove the disturbance to the force altogether.

By mid morning, the classroom was really heating up. I turned on every available fan, shut off the the overhead lights, and opened the windows. We pulled down the shades to avoid getting roasted and blinded.

I made one kid cry after he got in trouble.
Another kid was so ADHD she didn’t spend five minutes straight in her chair.
Two tablemates squabbled vocally about a long-standing vendetta over their seating arrangements.
Gym got cancelled, so I found myself with an extra hour to lesson plan on the fly.
The classroom got so hot the projector overheated about every twenty minutes.

And it was Joel’s birthday.

Joel (not his real name) didn’t speak much English. I told the class we would sing to him closer to the end of the day.

But at two o’clock, I looked up to see Joel throw a pencil across the room.

Joel! Pick up that pencil.
No response. He sat down in his chair.
Now! I could feel the sweat on my face, and my voice getting louder than its typical substitute shout.
Joel, honey, you threw the pencil, so pick it up!
His eyes stared resolutely ahead. Lips locked in a line.
Do I need to call the office? Come on, pick it up!

By now the class was watching. Then Joel burst up and ran out of the classroom. I turned to the phone again to let the secretary know we had one on the loose.

Joel came back a bit later, but too close to dismissal for us to sing happy birthday to him. The teacher who brought him back explained he shuts down over confrontations and that he was probably goaded into throwing the pencil in the first place. I realized I had yelled at the wrong kid.

Joel’s parents didn’t pick him up on time (apparently, that happened a lot too). As I was walking with him to the office,  I tried to talk to him about his birthday. He stayed silent, but I could tell he was perking up.

Before I left, I ransacked my bag and the classroom for anything that could pass as a birthday trinket. The results: a mini bag of goldfish crackers, a lollipop, and funky pencil. Maybe it could make the poor kid’s birthday a little less miserable.

He flashed a big smile when I gave him his gifts. I left with a high-five and a “Happy Birthday, buddy!” He smiled again. We didn’t say much, but we parted reconciled.

***

That’s what I will miss. Kids, even the naughtiest of naughties, can miraculously forgive and forget with a sigh and smile. They demonstrate affection with an alacrity and effortlessness that takes my breath away.

Holding grudges, being stingy with love—these are grown-up sins. Sure, kids have their own struggles; they can totally be self-centered lil’ rugrats. Kindness comes with time and practice after all.

Over the past year, I have dipped in and out of so many kids’ school lives—a day here and a class there. I’ve not invested much in relationships, or sacrificed a lot, and sometimes only scraped just enough patience and goodwill to get through the day. But my tiny efforts have been rewarded in countless hugs and smiles. Quick reconciliations, and many scribbled “I love you” pictures. All quite undeserved.

If only grown people could go back to school and learn to say ‘I love you’ so easily and often.

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