Posted December 2nd, 2018
I am sharing excerpts from my experience working Odd Jobs that have since been turned into the lovely book you see pictured above.
And you can buy a copy of the book here.
Odd Job #23:
How I found the gig: Referred by a friend
Time worked: 7 hours
Usually, word would start to spread around second period. “Mrs. Nelson isn't here today.”
In high school, there was no greater thrill than having a substitute teacher.
“Yeah. I think her brother died.”
“Oh my God. That's amazing.”
The poor sub never had a chance. Half the students would cut class, and the other half would pretend they were someone they weren't during attendance, as, you’ll have to take my word for it, this was the most hilarious prank in the world. As the period went on, the room would turn into a gymnasium, the noise level would escalate past that of a Boeing 747, and the substitute would frantically try to get ahold of his therapist for an emergency session. In our eyes, the fill-ins were never really human. They were more like the guy in the picture clipped to the clothesline at the shooting range.
So when my friend, a teacher in a school district 30 minutes outside of Boston, proposed that I be a substitute where he worked, sirens went off in my head.
“Well, I don't have a teaching degree,” I told him, fumbling for an excuse.
“Doesn't matter,” he said, shrugging. “I think they just want someone with a pulse.”
It was good to see that the standards for being a sub hadn’t changed since I graduated.
“How much does it pay?” I asked.
“Something like $70 a day.”
“What time would I have to be there?”
“Probably 7 a.m.”
No wonder they never got the most qualified individuals.
It was bizarre walking through the halls of Willis Middle School, watching students bustle to and from their lockers around me. My only experience with this ecosystem was as a member of its population. I had only ever been that kid running to class or that one talking loudly to a friend about the upcoming weekend. That person for whom there was no bigger villain than the earth science teacher and no bigger dream than getting a date with Becky Summers in English. I had never been the spectator able to step back and observe how inconsequential these seemingly all-important things actually were. I suppose decades from now, this is how I will look back at the things I think of as problems in my life today.
“Here ya go,” Ms. Jennings said as she turned on the lights in the classroom where I would be filling in for the health teacher. “Now if any of these kids gives you a hard time, let me know. I'll take care of them.” It was the second time one of the teachers had told me to let her know if the students gave me a hard time and subsequently offered to “take care of them.” One person saying it would have been comforting. Two people saying it had the opposite effect.
Ms. Jennings left, and I familiarized myself with the room. I noticed that the curriculum for health had not changed much in the last 15 years: Namely, everything fun will ruin your life. I saw a diagram breaking down all the bad things that could happen if you smoked pot next to a diagram of what could happen if you drank alcohol next to a diagram of what could happen if you did crystal meth. Because marijuana, alcohol, crystal meth, those things are equal.
A poster on the wall showed a teenager who couldn't go out with her friends because she had to take care of her if-only-I-had-used-a-fucking-condom child. “Going out doesn't mean going all the way. Going all the way might mean you can't go out,” it read. I smiled. It was clever. Not clever enough to trump the appeal of sex to a teenager whose hormones were going berserk, but still clever.
“Hi, are you the sub?” I heard a voice ask from behind me. I turned around to face another teacher. “I'm Ms. Harrington. My classroom is right next door. I just wanted to introduce myself and say that if any of the kids gives you a hard time, let me know. I'll take care of them.” What the hell are these children doing to their subs? And why does everyone seem to have such a lust for “taking care of them?” I thanked her, and she left.
I leafed through the lesson plan I had received. The first class would be watching a VHS tape from the Red Cross on CPR, so I'm guessing the school’s Health Department was having some financial struggles. It may have, in fact, been the same cassette I had to watch back when I was in seventh grade. The next class would be doing a rigorous set of worksheets that had something to do with self-esteem. But it was third period with the eighth graders that caught my eye. Two other teachers and I would be assisting Ms. Norton as she taught a class on sexuality. Because if there’s one thing kids like more than talking to an adult about bumping uglies, it’s talking to a group of adults about it.
I breezed through the first two classes, delighted to discover that I did not need to contact any teachers to “take care of” anyone. Soon enough it was third period, and Ms. Norton, the sex-ed teacher, was walking into the room.
There is always something unsettling about professional sex-ed teachers. Their goal is to make students comfortable, to help them understand that they don't have to be embarrassed to talk with an adult about sexuality. But as these instructors speak nonchalantly and act like the cool aunt or uncle, they come off as a little too eager to talk to someone 30 years their junior about doing the funky funk.
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer someone like my seventh-grade gym teacher, who taught us with the disposition of a man trying to avoid a lawsuit with every word he spoke. Who spent most of the time shaking, sweating, and avoiding eye contact as he bumbled through words like “erection” and “vagina.” Now that's what a sex-ed teacher should look like.
“I'm a nurse in the high school,” Ms. Norton explained to the class. “And I’m here to talk with you about sex. Anything you want to know, you can ask me. Now what do you want to know?” I have never seen the phrases “sex” and “nurse” form a less arousing sentence than that one.
I looked around the room at a mass of early teens who, not surprisingly, weren't leaping out of their seats to express their ignorance about fornication in front of their peers.
“You can ask whatever you want,” she announced, as she passed out slips of paper. “Write down your questions, and put them in this box. Then I'll read them out loud anonymously and answer them. If you want to know where to get condoms, I can tell you that. If you want to know where to get free condoms, I can tell you that.”
Wait, free condoms? I sat up in my chair. Someone ask that question. And ask if adults can go there, too.
“Are condoms expensive?” one of the students asked.
“Yeah,” interjected one of the teachers as though she couldn’t stop the words from coming out. We all gave a commiserating nod which probably didn't belong in this conversation.
“Or maybe,” the sex nurse continued, “you want to know what percentage of high schoolers have had intercourse. It's not as many as you think.” Ooh, fun. Ask that, too. I want to know. “Here, I'll tell you,” she said. “Does anyone have a guess?”
Growing up, this question always made me feel insecure. It was my estimate that maybe 40 percent of our student body had done the deed, and it was also my estimate that I had definitely not. Where was this woman then, coming to tell me that it wasn't as bad as I thought? “Does anyone have any guesses?” she asked.
“Ninety-nine percent,” said one smart ass.
“Two percent,” said another.
“The truth is,” she went on, “only 55 to 60 percent of them have had intercourse.” Wait, what? That's your can-you-believe-how-small-it-is-number? Are you freaking kidding me?! You just told 20 middle schoolers that if they don’t screw anyone in the next four years, they're in the minority! I didn't even think 55 to 60 percent of adults were doing it.
The teacher started going through the box. I was hooked. The first slip asked how old you should be to go on your first date, which she sidestepped brilliantly. The next read, “Why do guys always talk about their penises?” which was a fantastic question. The other male teacher had to tell them that, sadly, this did not change as you got older.
"Is that true, Mr. Krieger?” the sex nurse asked as she turned to me.
Huh? Why are you asking me? How is this the first time you’re deciding to involve me in the conversation?
“Yes,” I answered. Everyone laughed. Then I went back to being silent. I was elated to know that this was the entirety of my co-teaching responsibilities.
“Ooh, here's one,” she said. “Why is it called getting your cherry popped?” Another great question for which I myself was curious to hear a response.
As the children laughed uncomfortably, the teacher drew a diagram of the vagina that even as an adult I didn't really understand and explained how when you penetrate the vagina for the first time, it breaks the hymen. Sure, yeah, go on. “So, a lot of people call that the cherry. And that's what gets popped,” she explained. Wait, so why is the hymen called the cherry?
The class nodded as though she had effectively answered the question. Wait, how was that a satisfactory explanation? Why is the hymen called the cherry??!!
“Next question!” she announced. Then the bell rang. It was devastating.
The day continued onwards, and eventually it was 2:15 p.m. and time to go home. It had been nothing like what I expected. Everyone was relatively well-behaved, and I walked away with no signs of PTSD. The group dialogue was kind of fun, I had gotten a lot of work done on the blog while those videos were playing, and $70 wasn't nothing.
I guess getting my substitute-teaching cherry popped wasn’t too painful after all. I only wish I knew why they called it that.