I used to be a substitute teacher, mostly working in Spearfish. I only substituted one day in Wyoming. It was all I could handle.
On a particularly windy day, I was asked to substitute teach for a first grade class in the afternoon. The school was located on a hilltop where it felt like the jet stream was strafing the school grounds. I leaned into the gale as I made my way to the front door. Inside, I leaned against the wall to catch the breath that the wind had taken away and smooth my cyclone-styled hair. The school secretary took me to my assigned first-grade classroom. She motioned toward the desk. “Look through there for lesson plans.” She was gone before I could ask a question, like what was the teacher’s name and how many students were in the class.
It was a regular first-grade room, with one door leading to the hallway and another leading out to the playground. I found the lesson plan book and quickly scanned the activities. Since first graders don’t have text books, there were a dozen or so stacks of printed workbook pages all neatly lined by in front of the teacher’s desk. Piles of graded and ungraded papers sat on a table beside her desk. Confident that I could find the appropriate worksheets listed in the lesson plans, I was ready to face the class.
When the students came in from the hallway, they were immediately alarmed because their teacher was gone and a stranger stood in her place. Cries of anguish and concern echoed through the room as they crowded around me asking about the teacher. I asked them to sit and be quiet and I would tell them all I knew. “Your teacher had to attend to family business and is gone for the afternoon,” I said, giving them an it’s-going-to-be-okay smile. They must not have read my body language correctly because they started protesting again. Was she sick? Was she leaving? Was someone dying? No, no, I told them. She would be back tomorrow.
They finally calmed down when I said that their teacher (I wished I’d known her name) expected them to do their work, and she’d be disappointed if it wasn’t done when she got back tomorrow. The first graders seemed anxious to please their teachers (where does that attitude go as they get older?), and we got on track with the lessons. I relaxed a little as I passed out the loose workbook pages indicated by the lesson plans, and the students quickly got on task.
Then the fire alarm sounded.
I’ve never seen a room empty that fast. Those first-grade kids hit the playground door and exited the building before I had time to realize what was happening. The fierce Wyoming wind held the door open as it came into the room and ransacked the place like a gang of thieves. Stunned, I stood in the middle of a shaken snow globe, with papers flying all around me.
“Wait,” I yelled to the empty room. “Wait for me!” Off I ran after them. The wind was so strong that it pushed me along faster than I wanted to go.
“It’s a false alarm,” a teacher yelled as I blew past her door. “Go back to your room.”
I nodded my head when I flew by, but wanted to yell, “Yeah, lady, but first, I should probably retrieve the class.”
I saw the students ahead, stacked up against the back fence of the playground like tumbleweeds. They wouldn’t leave that fence until I joined them there, the biggest tumbleweed of all.
“There’s no fire!” I yelled into the roaring air. “We need to go back.” Slowly we made our way upwind, leaning low into the hurricane-force wind. When I opened the classroom door to enter, the Wyoming wind went inside with the children, much to their delight. They laughed and danced in the swirling papers until I managed to pull the door shut. Papers floated down around the children yelling with glee.
Papers several sheets thick, graded and ungraded, scattered and thoroughly mixed, covered their desks and the floor. How was I ever going to get the room back in order with only an hour left before school was out?
First-graders love games so I made it a game: pick up the papers and find out where they go. Math papers over here. Reading papers over there. Coloring papers over here. Once we had that sorted, we broke into groups and worked on matching the papers. The students loved the game. In fact, they loved it so much one little girl grabbed my leg and wouldn’t let go. “I love you, Mrs. Kjar,” she kept repeating as she looked up at me. I peeled her off me several times, but she kept coming back.
When the final bell rang, the room was in some semblance of order as I bid the students good-bye. I left the teacher a note on why things were not where they had been when she left and hoped she understood. They never called me to substitute there again. I’m not sure I would have gone back if they had.
I often think about that day and wonder if those students remember when they stood in a paper blizzard while their hapless substitute stood by wondering what to do. I hope they remember that with teamwork, we put everything back together.