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Subbing

July 1, 2022 am31 9:46 am

It was 1996. I was finishing the last bit of my degree. After a checkered college career I was earning a BA in Geology. And I didn’t know what to do next. My current job, a “research cartographer” at Hagstrom was interesting and fun and there were good people, but the pay? Couldn’t stay.

My uncle was still in Brooklyn. “What are you going to do?” “I don’t know.” “Why don’t you teach?” “I don’t want to teach.” “What other prospects do you have? You might as well try.”

My degree was done January 1997. I told Terri, my supervisor at Hagstrom that I was leaving. She asked for a letter. I wrote a full heading, and closing – but the text was “I resign effective February 1.” Not quite “The Bronx / No thonks” but pretty short.

I finished my licensing to become a PPT (don’t remember the details, but they were all at Court Street, mostly in the big waiting room to the left as we walked in, and the exciting stuff was in the dark cubicles behind the “information/don’t pass this point” desk), and then…

I wrote to schools, about a dozen I recall, inquiring about mid year openings, or openings for next year. Some academic comprehensive high schools near me. Also one in Manhattan. And some alternative schools. I liked the “idea” of alternative schools, without knowing a thing about them. And some schools with specialties that were not math.

I had an interesting conversation with an AP or the principal at a portfolio school in Manhattan – but that conversation went nowhere. I visited MLK in Manhattan and spent some time with the math AP, talking, observing classes. He showed me an orderly boring class. And he showed me a chaotic class, but where the chaos was kids running around doing math. It was a test. I passed. But there was no opening. I got an interview at Lehman HS. Long story short, math AP seemed to like me, Leder looked at me for about 90 seconds and walked out.

And I got a job at Sylvan Learning Center. Tutoring was something like teaching, right? Well, it turns out, just sort of. But for about-to-be-a-teacher me it felt like the right direction. I was employee of the month one month, and I used that mug until it cracked a few years later.

And I guess when I wrote to schools about jobs I also offered to sub. But I need to step back, just a second. To be able to sub, I needed to be nominated. No problem – that uncle? He had a friend who had been a Bronx alternative school principal, and whose husband was an AP at an alternative school in Manhattan. He was actually sitting in the first building I worked in for the Department of Transportation. And he signed my nomination. So when I contacted schools about jobs, I also must have told them I could sub. And the system always needs subs. The schools needed subs. The calls started.

The first call came from DeWitt Clinton HS. Walking distance. I don’t remember much more than being intimidated by the massive building and throngs of students. I got sent to the math department, where I got a piece of paper with a list of classes, and not much else. Was the woman’s name Mary? I don’t remember. But my first class! It was a computer science class, and they didn’t want a sub with the computers, so I was to meet the students in front of the locked classroom in the “Tower” and escort them to the balcony of the auditorium. There were only ten students there. A boy approached, offered to guide me to the balcony. The hallway was so crowded! But we reached the balcony, and I looked around – the other nine students, I’d lost them! “What happened?” “They left. And me too, I’m going now, mister.” If that scene is the blur, the rest of the day is a blur of a blur. I don’t remember leaving.

The next call was from Christopher Columbus. Actually, that’s walking distance, too, but I hadn’t figured that out yet. Columbus was huge compared to the high school where I had been a student, but much smaller than Clinton. At Columbus they saw I was interested in Science or Math, and pretty exclusively put me in those classes. For a few weeks I would wait each morning – call from Columbus, or a call from Clinton. One snowy day I had an assignment at Columbus and three more schools called.

And then all my assignments started to be at Columbus. The sub coordinator, Tony Brito, started calling me very early. I had made my way up to #2 on the list. Why? Not sure. Young, presentable, showed up? The woman from Clinton called another morning, and I explained that Columbus was calling early…

By the way, going from unemployed to a job with lousy pay, to over $100/day for subbing? I was liking that part, a lot. I started to catch up on my bills.

Most days at Columbus I had math or science classes, but when there wasn’t one of those to cover, they would use me somewhere. But I wasn’t the #1 sub. There was no doubt who the #1 was – a retired cop named Werdann. I can still see his face. Tall, or at least much taller than me. Family of officers. A PS/MS around the corner from me is named after his brother, George, who was killed in the line of duty. One day down at Foley Square there was some odd activity, and I stopped to ask a court office what was going on. I noticed the name below his badge. Werdann. Another brother it turned out.

Most of my work consisted of giving out worksheets, taking attendance, and trying to use my physical presence as a deterrent to mayhem. But the building? There was a “tone” that made things tough. Kids lied about their names, cut when a sub showed. The hallways had lots of kids wandering, at lots of times. But there were also classes with math or science things that I could help with, or at least talk about. A few kids started saying hi – or remembered me from previous coverages. That made me feel good.

One day the APO called the math coordinator – there was a math teacher out on suspension – the coordinator had not thought of me, but the APO had – and they arranged for me to cover his program. A Sequential I (or Course 1) class (NY State’s integrated course with mostly algebra, at the time) for kids close to being on grade level. Another Course 1, – a late in the day class. Most of those kids were taking it for the second or third time. Actually, most never came to class. I remember some of those faces, and the afternoon light in the room. Maybe it was 437 or 439? The students who came kept coming – it actually was a chill room, where it felt like we didn’t get much done, but what we got done was actual progress. Who knows. I remember looking at the sheets that showed up in my mail box – some of those kids were born in the late 70s…

At that time Columbus (and probably most of the Bronx) was starting some freshmen in Course 1, but was starting others in “Presequential” – essentially pre-algebra. The book had gold and white stripes. And the schools were deciding that starting in Presequential put kids at a disadvantage. My last two classes were also Course 1s, for freshmen who might have been on the Course 1/Presequential bubble. They met, between them, three periods a day, 7 or 8 periods a week each. These rooms were wild, out of control.

Think about it. Taking students who struggled with math, trying to advance them – noble, right? But Columbus was running multiple massive sorting operations. And the strongest teachers in the department, and the most challenging classes – they never got near each other. Things got sorted out. Separated. If you know what I mean. So not a great situation? Add to that that they had already had subs for a while. Just imagine. These classes took up 60% of my day, and 90% of my energy. And stress.

These were freshmen, who had not learned that Columbus (wink wink) did not do anything about cutting. So they were there. Most days. I mean there was high absenteeism. But there was relatively high attendance. I did try to teach. I did try to follow some sort of curriculum that had been handed to me. But I had no experience. I did not have classroom presence. Sometimes I raised my voice, which was effectively an admission of failure for that day. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Three girls in particular, they saw how easy it was to push my buttons, and made it their mission. They drove me nuts. Let’s start with them trading names, so I never knew who was who. They were loud, they interrupted, they tried to rev the other kids up. One day I made a cutting comment, not with raised voice, that was very effective. Except, that’s not what a teacher should do. I was an adult, and I think I hurt one of them. That was terrible. Years later I met that student again. She was an adult. I apologized, but she laughed it off, “crazy class.” I met another one of the three – but the story is embarrassing (for her), so not telling. And never encountered the third again.

This haunts me, though. I want to remember things I did, and there’s lots that is interesting or creative or kind or fun, but I can’t forget. I certainly wasn’t the nicest, not all the time, but actually mean? This time. And there was one more time, years later. I do know how to find that student. But I don’t know what to say. Those are the two that stay with me.

I kept covering “my” program for weeks and weeks. Once the coordinator called me in – I had to keep a better eye on the room. It was 448 he was talking about. There were piles of red Course 1 softcovers in the courtyard – he thought students in my class had gingerly slipped them out the window. I don’t know – I didn’t see it – but I didn’t see much. It was probably my class. But mostly things went okay. I tried to teach math, and I wasn’t very good, but I wasn’t horrible.

And then the teacher came back. He marched into the room where I was preparing to take attendance and said “this is my class” and motioned for me to leave. And I did. Gerri told me later that she wanted to let me finish the class, so she could tell me. But that’s not what happened. She did tell me to come back every morning, no need for a call. And I did.

I kept coming to Columbus, every day, for the rest of the spring. I worked through Regents. I met department members. I approached the Chapter Leader, signed a card, and joined COPE. He was surprised, but pleased, and it made an impression. (My uncle, himself a three-term chapter leader, complained that Chapter Leaders have to hunt down members who haven’t joined, so I should make their life easy and just sign up.) When it was time for chapter elections, I helped the election guy, Larry Pendergast, with some of the mechanics. He was one of the younger history teachers – all in their uniforms of white shirts, tie, and slacks. I’ve run into him since, many times, as he rose through the ranks. AP. Principal. Some other stuff. He was in my school this spring for something, and I was so delighted to see him. People don’t rise through the ranks that way anymore, not many, not enough. In my mind he’s still a teacher, still one of us…

The year drew to a close. The Principal, Gerry Garfin, told me he did not have a math opening at that point, but there was a good chance for the fall. “Thank you!” But, he suggested, he could land me a job at a middle school, and that school would release me if Columbus had an opening. “No, not a middle school.” Even the idea of middle school terrified me.

And so I was off for the summer. No summer pay. No job (at some point in the spring I had quit Sylvan). But a strange 40 or 50 or 60 or so days of “teaching” experience, and a foot in the door of a local high school.

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