Some six months after college graduation, I found myself living in Connecticut with my parents and commuting into New York City twice a week to be an unpaid intern at a publishing house. Commuting. Unpaid. Publishing. These are words that, when used in the same sentence, do well to demonstrate my inability to make rational and forward-thinking decisions. I was collecting unemployment (a whopping $150/week), and I had no other source of income. Times were lean. Well, as lean as they could be for a 21 year old living rent free in an affluent area of Connecticut.
I casually started brainstorming ways to pull in some extra cash, mostly to fund my chai latte addiction. Again - I was not gifted with the power of foresight. My focus was constantly on my next chai, my next fix. Still is.
Around the same time, my childhood friend Donnelly was also living in our hometown, looking for some post-grad funds. Although she was probably putting them into a 401K, rather than funneling them into Starbucks. Throughout our 15 year friendship, she has always been the more reasonable one. She eats better, she dresses better, she goes to bed earlier, she drinks less. She does yoga. She went to Harvard. She’s the fanciest woman I know. If it weren’t for our mutual love of poop humor, I would wonder why she continued to hang out with me.
She had just returned from a nine-month internship in The Hague prosecuting war criminals, and shortly after deciding she’d rather be a middle school teacher than go to law school, she had worked out a plan in which she’d live at home for a year or so, save money, and substitute teach in the meantime. Grad school would follow, then a teaching license, then molding young minds. I had recently bought one of those shampoo organizers that hangs off of the showerhead.
Substitute teaching turned out to be a pretty great gig. She was paid $100 a day, and she was done by 3:00 at the latest. When Donnelly told me that the only qualifications necessary to sub were to complete a quick online course, to attend a day-long orientation, and to have obtained an undergraduate degree, I asked where I could sign up. “You don’t sign up, Kristin.” Imagine that she’s solving a rubix cube as she says this. “You apply.”
“I know, Donnelly.”
A few days later, after meeting with a woman named Ann who coordinated all the substitute teachers in the Greenwich public school system, I was off and running. I completed the online course while watching Clueless three times in a row. Insisting that one hold an undergraduate degree as a prerequisite for this course was, I think, excessive.
Online certificate in hand, I endured seven hours of grueling orientation. Then I had to deposit my fingerprints at the local police station. Only then was I officially prepared to substitute teach. It worked like this: one could theoretically check the online database every day and browse the listed sub jobs for the next day. I tried doing this a few times, but there were rarely listings. The other way, the harder way, was to wait for a phone call to come between the hours of 5am and 7am on the day the sub was needed. This ended up happening every morning. My phone would wake me from my deep slumber and a computer would tell me the details of the job and then ask me if I would accept. “No, robot,” I’d mumble, “I’d rather sleep, because humans need sleep to function. You wouldn’t understand.” But then I’d remember my beloved chai and reluctantly hit the “ok fine” button.
Best case scenario was high school subbing. The kids were dicks, but every single high school job involved me taking attendance and hitting play on a DVD player. One day I spent the entire day watching Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit - which is, incidentally, one of my favorite movies. I was paid $100 to watch Sister Act 2 three and a half times. I thought I had found my calling.
I didn’t truly understand what the worst case scenario was until I experienced it one spring morning. I got my usual call sometime shortly after 5am. Kindergarten, Cos Cob Elementary, 7:00-3:00. Sure.
Morning traffic had made me tardy, and I rushed into the classroom after checking in with the front desk to find sixteen 5-year-olds rolling around the room on all ends of the emotional spectrum. Two kids were fighting over a pair of shoes. One kid was eating sand. Three were calmly reading books on little bean poofs. At least four were crying about something. One was conducting an invisible orchestra.
In a far corner, an extremely pregnant woman sat on a chair that was entirely too small for her. She looked tired. I was relieved to see an adult in the room. I had subbed for preschool before (never kindergarten), and while it was always tiring, I was never alone with the kids. There was always another teacher in the room, and she was always in charge. I just did as I was told.
“So what do you need me to do?” I asked the enormous woman. She looked at me blankly, handed me a small packet, and in that moment, her expression conveyed what words could not.
She said a few words about the layout of the classroom, and took her leave. Confused, I looked at the packet. It was a handwritten set of instructions with “For Substitute” written at the top. It then dawned on me that I was intended to be the sole leader of this hyperactive bunch. And I was terrified.
I would be lying if I said that I hadn’t considered bailing right then and there. I thought about the consequences of that decision, and ultimately decided to tough it out. This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
I glanced over the curriculum for the day. We were already running late. To get their attention, I said the first thing that came to mind.
My first, second, and third mistake. Addressing them as “Guys,” giving them permission to call me by my first name, and mistaking the classroom for a busy medieval market square and myself as a medieval court official about to announce that the king is raising taxes.
Every tiny eyeball was on me at this point. They exchanged knowing glances. At an age where cognitive development grows exponentially, they had just recently acquired the ability to reason, and therefore the ability to deceive. But they were still young enough to fool people into thinking that they don’t know any better. At this point in the day, I was one of those fools. This would change.
1.) Morning Song/Announcements
“Do you guys know where I can find the morning song? Do you use, like, an iPod? Should I Spotify it?” They all blinked at me. I looked down at the curriculum packet for more details. “It’s called... ‘Good Morning,’ and in parentheses, ‘Sunshine.”
Sunshine must have been a buzzword, because as soon as I said it, the kids started running in every conceivable direction. A large mat was unrolled, a boombox appeared, a kid handed me a magic wand, and as they found their place on the mat, they all started chirping “Track three! Track three, Kristin!” The disc started spinning and I skipped to track three. Everyone sang in perfect unison along with the woman on the CD. They were so efficient. A flawless machine. They helped me through morning announcements, and I began to feel more at ease. To trust them. That was my fourth mistake.
2.) Drawing Time
We were done with morning things in about twenty minutes, and the next item on the agenda was Drawing Time. Throughout the room were four little tables, and each table was designated a color. Four kids could fit at each table, and I soon learned that each child had a permanent color assignment. They found their places at their designated tables. I put a cup of markers in the center of each table, and gave them each a few pieces of blank white paper. “Ok guys, you can draw now.” I couldn’t stop calling them “Guys.” Again, they looked at me vacantly. I hadn’t run a valid function. Their eyes were one collective error prompt.
“What do we draw?”
“I don’t know, whatever you want.” This worked. They started scribbling ferociously. I walked around the tables as they did so, asking what they were drawing. Because that seemed like something a kindergarten teacher would do. “I’m drawing my dog! Simon!” said one, proudly. “Good idea!” I shot back, with as much sincerity as I could muster. “This is my sister. She’s playing on her iPhone.” said another. “Sounds about right,” I reasoned. “I made you a crown!” said a doe-eyed little girl named Sarah. She had found some scissors and a stapler, and she offered me a paper cylinder that she had colored yellow.
“Oh my God this is awesome.” And I meant it. “You guys are awesome.” Then a boy named Russell shoved his drawing into my face.
“Ok, enough drawing. What’s next.”
3.) Snack Time
Kids either brought their own snacks from home, or I would hand out some goldfish and graham crackers. They all sat at their usual tables, but as I was handing out the snacks, I noticed that there was a lot of movement. Kids were switching tables, swapping food, and socializing.
“Are you guys allowed to do this?” Sixth mistake. I don’t know how I could have possibly made myself seem like less of an authority figure. They all started beeping and booping. “Yes. Definitely. Definitely allowed.” My eyes narrowed. Something wasn’t right. “Ms. Cole lets us do this all the time. Definitely.” They sensed that I wasn’t buying it. Entropy ensued.
The chaos continued until music time. I had been looking forward to this time all day - not because I was hoping to have a Jack Black in School of Rock revelation about the musical talents of these kids, but because it was going to be my only alone time. I was told to drop the kids off in the music room, and for those 45 minutes, I would be free.
Getting the kids to form a single file line was difficult. I knew that they were capable of completing this simple task, of following directions. They had gone rogue.
When we finally arrived at the music room, I deposited them onto the mat and all but booked it out the door. “WAIT!” said someone, frantically, “YOU HAVE TO STAY.” The music teacher beckoned me closer, and, understandably, I recoiled. “WHY?!” “Because you have to.”
So I listened to sixteen 5-year-olds toot and boop into various devices for 45 minutes.
I was exhausted. The day wasn’t even halfway over.
Lunch was similar to music time. I cowered in a corner. Recess was the first time that I came into contact with adult humans that I could converse with. As the kids popped and waddled all over the playground, the teachers sat and watched from a distant picnic table. I introduced myself, desperate for adult interaction. Four hours of kindergarten had broken me.
“Hello! My name is Ms. Rossi. Kristin. I meant to say Kristin. Hello. How are you people doing today. I am well, thank you.” The only response I got was a comment on how young I looked. It was true - I was often mistaken for a student when I subbed high school. You might be able to imagine how detrimental this was to the classroom hierarchy. The teachers at the picnic table acknowledged my existence, and then returned to their conversation.
Again I found myself alone. I watched as Russell tore the shoe off of Sarah’s foot and threw it in a puddle.
5.) Making Change
When I had finally managed to herd the kids back inside, I quickly skimmed the next item on the agenda according to my packet. It was called “Making Change.” I was to locate three tupperware containers - one filled with pennies, one filled with nickels, and one filled with dimes. I was then instructed to give each kid 5 pennies, 5 nickels, and 5 dimes. Then I had to explain the concept of “making change.” How many pennies in a nickel? I’d ask. I’d like change for this dime, please, in nickels. When you think about it, this is straight up math. It was math, but the lesson was about currency. I started wondering how much an average 5-year-old knows about the concept of currency. This was my seventh and final mistake.
"Do you know what money is, Jacob?"
They understood that one exchanges bills and coins for goods and services, but the math part was hard for them. Or maybe they were just bored with my impromptu teaching methods. Either way, I’m certain that a good number of them pocketed most of the coins I gave them, to be later spent on candy, or whatever. Russell, perhaps the cleverest of the group, decided to skip the middleman and put the dime directly into his digestive system.
6.) Reading Practice/Free Time
During this time block, a little girl named Jenny peed herself. On purpose. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Never in my life had I looked forward to the end of something as aggressively as I did the end of this day. And I saw The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, ok? In theatres.
Three o’clock finally rolled around. I had given up on structured activities. Instead, I let them do their own thing, and sat in a chair at the center of the room to act as a mediator. An impartial judge to settle disputes. There were a surprising number of disputes.
One by one, parents and nannies arrived and dragged their demon seed away. One girl’s mom was very late, and I ended up hanging out with her while she waited. We did the same twelve-piece puzzle six times. “I have three boyfriends,” she said, proudly. “I don’t believe you,” I shot back.
Kindergarten teachers are saints. They’re brave. What I endured, they deal with on a daily basis. However - when you’re a teacher, you build a relationship with your students. They start to trust you, to trust the routine. Much like a child won’t mouth off to her mother the way she might with a babysitter. So really, what I was doing was babysitting. Except instead of keeping an eye on a couple of kids while watching Toddlers and Tiaras for five hours, I was expected to educate sixteen terrors. It’s like they were all born without souls and wanted to claim mine as their own.