I had awaken that morning with a feeling that was one percent excitement and ninety-nine percent fear, trepidation and nausea. My first day as a substitute teacher. What in the world had I been thinking to do this to myself? I'd heard horror stories about the things pigtailed and cowlicked children did to unarmed substitutes. Did I have some latent death wish?
I set my bag of tricks on the regular teacher's desk and rummaged through. I hadn't taught first grade--or any other grade, for that matter--in ten years. Pulling out the books I'd packed so carefully the night before, I wondered, Would they even like these stories? I had a brief, horrific vision of the whole lot of them shrieking in disbelief, pointing at my favorite books and holding their stomachs as they rolled around the floor howling, "She's out of touch--and way old!"
I glanced at the clock. If I hurried, I could still slip out before the little terrors stormed in. Grabbing my books and bag, I scrambled for the door.
Too late. Standing in the doorway was the first of my tormenters.
"Who are you?" the boy asked. Did I detect a threatening tone behind that innocent question?
Before I could force an answer past the rock in my throat, he continued his interrogation, machine-gun style. "Where's Mrs. McGee? How come she's gone? Where are you going?" (This, with a glance at my "caught in mid-flight" stance.)
"She's absent today. She's having a root canal. And my silent answer to his third question: I think I'll join her.
A second boy joined the door guard, effectively blocking my escape route. Another head popped up to see what all the fuss was about. Soon twenty-nine students pushed through and filled the room, nearly all asking me an identical set of questions. I noted, with dismay and growing fear, several pigtails and cowlicks.
I had to give myself a quick pep talk. Yes, they all outnumber me. But I'm taller. My handwriting is better and I can legally drive a car. I have all my big teeth.
It helped a little. Gave me enough courage to read through Mrs. McGee's written instructions. I took attendance, counted hot-lunch takers, and introduced the first activity. My voice only squeaked twice, and I'm sure the shaking of my hands went relatively unnoticed.
Things began to roll along nicely. A few girls smiled at me. My spirits really began to lift when I realized I'd been in the classroom thirty minutes and not a single book had been thrown my way.
But then I noticed one small boy sitting with his hands folded on his desk. The paper I'd passed out earlier lay untouched before him. He lowered his glance when he saw I was looking at him.
I checked the seating chart for his name. Khotemir, it said. To the side of that name, Koty was written in parenthesis. I decided to go with the nickname. "Having some trouble, Koty?"
He smiled, but didn't answer.
"Do you need some help?"
Nothing. So this was it. This was my big challenge for the day. The boy was going to wait me out, see if he could frustrate me, try to make me cry. Well, there was no way I'd let him push me that far.
"I need you to get started on your paper now, Koty," I said firmly.
Not a flinch. Not a flicker of anything--not defiance, compliance, resistance or annoyance. Just that smile.
One of the girls nearest me leaned over and said, "He can't understand you, Mrs. Woodward."
"He doesn't know English. He's from Russia and he just got here two weeks ago and he has a big family and he never says nothing. And Koty is just short for his other name which none of us can say."
"Are you sure?"
The bearer of bad news nodded. Koty hadn't even blinked. His smile never faltered, not even when he heard his name.
"What does he do all day?"
"Kinda what he's doing right now."
I tried. I gestured, pointed, pantomimed, motioned and charaded myself through several activities, with little success. Khotemir managed to copy half of a six-line poem, but that was it.
And then it was art time. Mrs. McGee, apparently for my benefit, had planned a simple crayon and newsprint art lesson.
"Draw whatever you like," I instructed the class--as if any child faced with crayons and blank paper would do otherwise.
Khotemir's face lit up when I gave him his materials. This he knew.
I wateched his efforts with relief. For the first time all day, he was engaged. His was a full-body involvement. He wagged his feet, shimmied in his seat, and positioned his tongue firmly outside the corner of his mouth as he hammered at his paper. Color flew, and I saw the beginnings of a ship's bow begin to take form.
I meandered around for about ten minutes, checking progress and encouraging the other budding artists, before I finally made my way back to Khotemir's row. When I approached his desk and looked down at the ivory newsprint, I stopped still. He'd finished the boat. It floated above a choppy sea full of sharks and dolphins. On the deck, a smiling family of eleven stood together, their stick hands frozen in a Crayola wave. But something else waved in Khotemir's picture. High above the deck, the Russian child had drawn a large, proud flag ... a red, white and blue flag ... an American flag.
The boy did it, then. He made me cry.
Labels: my littlest friends