Considering that today was April Fool’s Day, my first day of substitute teaching in the city could have been bad. Like lube on the doorknob, plastic wrap on the toilet, and “Kick me, I’m a substitute” sign bad. But it wasn’t. Thankfully, April Fool’s didn’t seem to be a prime holiday for these kids. Or perhaps the metal detectors and daily backpack searches discourage such debauchery.
Anyway, as a white girl from the Connecticut suburbs, I was under no delusions that I would blend in here, but that was okay. I am a well-adjusted, diverse culture-loving modern woman, I thought. I don’t just tolerate our differences – I appreciate them. I am even pretty handy when it comes to pronouncing unique names.
I retained this confidence until about halfway through my first period attendance sheet. TYJZAE. Damn. I knew I couldn’t win, so I laid my cards on the table:
“I’m know I’m gonna say this one wrong… Ty-giz-ay?”
The soft ‘j’ almost has a purrrrrr to it, like Zha Zha (which I would have no chance of pronouncing if it hadn’t been all over TV at some point.) I made it through the rest of the attendance before losing half of the girls to the hallway to “help” another student who “couldn’t open her locker.” Most of them came back.
My second period class was assigned the same algebra worksheet as my first, and yet they soon embroiled themselves in a discussion of whether or not having sex with Oprah Winfrey would result in their own fame. The ringleader of this powwow insisted that it would, on the grounds that if Oprah were to have sex with him, she would tell everyone.
Soon after this discussion died down, a petite girl and a taller boy left the classroom together in what appeared to be an amicable manner, though I could have sworn I heard the boy say he was going to kill the girl. The other students assured me I had nothing to worry about. One minute later, the petite girl walked back into the classroom, slid her six-inch hoop earrings back into her earlobes, sat down, and contined working. The boy followed, hanging his head, and said, “I lost.”
Later, when one of my students came back to the classroom to look for her lost duffel bag, she said to me,
“Watch your stuff – kids are theives.”
At my high school, your wallet was safe in your open backpack in an unguarded classroom. Hell, kids even left their drugs safely in their backpacks.
It was not until a little while later (in the bathroom, where most grand realizations occur) that I realized how out of my element I was. This happened in the bathroom because right as I was on the verge of leaving my private little sanctuary, a cacophony, first of yelling, then of shoe-slapping and locker-slamming, threw me away from the door. My initial reaction was to wait for the mayhem to subside. My initial reaction was to cower.
I came to the understanding today that I am not nearly as comfortable being in the minority as I had thought I would be. I know that I am tolerant and kind, and that I embrace people for who they are, but I found out today that this does not always translate to a feeling of ease amidst the unfamiliar.