diary of a substitute #3

sometimes it is sooooooo hard to keep a straight face while telling a sixth grader to be quiet, especially when what they are supposed to be listening to is possibly the least important presentation they will ever hear.  i’ve shown up just in time to participate in their community meeting.  the topic this week: dress code.

the administrator has put together a lovely powerpoint presentation for the fifth and sixth graders, with pictures of shirts tucked in, shoelaces tied, and a demonstration of the stark contrast between a boy with a hat on, and his hat taken off.  see how he’s taken the hat off?  yes.  i do see.  the hat is off now.  god.  i’m DYING to check my smartphone and see if something interesting has happened.  actually, i would take anything at this point.  any status update, any e-mail, anything at all to break up the banality of this guy’s voice.

which is why i can’t in good conscience come down too hard on these children who have already sat through about 20 minutes of this heroically and who are finally reaching their breaking point.  their shoulders are moving.  they’re starting to hang their teeth off the backs of their chairs, experiment with what the world looks like upside down, pluck at the headbands of those around them… anything.  they’re getting desperate.

the crowd has started chit chatting.  “excuse me.” the administrator says dryly.  he waits an unwise amount of time with an unwise amount of uncertainty as to what response he’s expecting from that ‘excuse me.’   the chattering continues.  he looks around stoically.  “if i need to do a count-down, that’s five minutes from your recess.”  i look at the kids and i see literal physical pain on their faces.  the last thing they want is time off their recess, yet they don’t know how much longer they can take without some kind of stimulation.  they scrunch their eyebrows and kick their legs, trying to send the inconvenient energy and curiosity out through their toes.

he’s moved on to the slide about “professional day.”  “can someone tell me what professional day is?”  a small girl towards the front raises her hand.  “yes, young lady.”  some imperceptible amount of sound comes from up front and he asks her to stand up.  she meekly scratches her head while she begins an admirable attempt at addressing the entire school for, maybe her first time.  “um… well, professional, professional day.  it’s, um… when, like, the rest of the days?  cause you have to wear your uniform usually?  but on professional day?  you don’t cause, um, it’s professional, like, so you have to wear different.  you have to dress different on that day.” she quickly sits.

“ok,” the administrator says.  “cara says you dress different on professional day.  do you all agree with her?”  the kids aren’t sure if they’re supposed to talk.  a few say yes.  a few others slowly nod.  still more look like they’re about to cry.  “excuse me.  i asked if you all agree with her.”  a few more say yes.  “that’s better.  ok.  so, if it’s true that we dress differently on professional day, why is that we dress differently that day?” a few brave, or maybe just bored, souls raise their hands.  “yes, young man.” he says to a boy up front.

“professional day is when you wear suits and look professional like you were going to a job interview or an interview for college so that you can learn what it’s like to be professional.”  i let out a sigh of relief that’s slightly too loud.  i think for a moment that this child has just succeeded in saying everything that needs saying about professional day and that we can now move on to another, possibly more interesting topic, like, maybe, the types of hair accessories allowed on campus.  but the administrator is not so easily thrown.  “young man, that was a very good answer, but i asked why do we have professional day?”  i’m totally at a loss.  i thought for sure this prodigy just answered that very question.  he raises his eyebrows in nervousness.  he’s drawing a blank.  what did he miss?

“we have professional day because that’s the day the upper school has college day, and we’re preparing you for college day.”  oh.  i see.  this kid jumped the gun.  he forgot that middle school is actually just preparation for high school, and that everything they teach you is in order to make it easier for your highschool teachers to control you.  what he doesn’t know is that he’ll actually need to unlearn all of this by the time he applies to college if he wants to have a prayer of seeming like an individual thinker.  here’s the lesson, kid.  here’s what this whole assembly is about.  don’t get ahead of yourself, and don’t think too deep.  focus on the rules, and the small world that forms your school.  don’t think outside of this little learning factory.  you won’t be ready for that until you’re good and broken in and ready to follow the rules.

“so, what types of clothes are acceptable on professional day?” asks the administrator as he clicks to a new slide showing pictures of men taken from catalogs, all wearing sports coats, collared shirts, ties, etc… one by one children raise their hands and guess parts of the dress code for professional day.  i am in absolute agony.  the boredom i feel is bringing me right back to childhood, waiting for my mom to finish a parent-teacher conference while i sat in the lobby thinking, jeeeeeeeeeez this is taking a long time, practicing the utmost will power to keep from running circles in the lobby, tearing all the art off the walls and making confetti with it.  except now i have something easier to gratify my excess energy which is a smartphone, and i know it holds all of the answers to every negative emotion i’m feeling right now; distraction, social interaction, new information.  and it’s just sitting there, burning a hole in my pocket.  i need it.  i need to look at it.  no!  definitely not.  i’m supposed to be modeling for these kids how to pay attention, and looking at my smartphone is an absolutely unacceptable example to set.  so i try to focus on the kids, since the presentation isn’t going to do anything to hold my interest.

what i see really kind of breaks my heart.  the kids have gone past their breaking point and they have regressed into zombie-like infants.  pulling on their tongues and lips, rolling their eyes maniacally.  they’ve lost it.  well, i don’t know what they’ll learn later today, but at least they’re docile.


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