Substitute teaching in the Chicago schools can be hazardous to your health; when you walk into a classroom you can almost see the kids’ eyes light up, as if to say “Oh goody, a sub! We get to raise hell today.” And raise hell they usually do, because they know there’s really nothing you can do to stop them — you don’t give them their grades, you don’t know their parents, heaven knows that much as you might like to sometimes you can’t slap ’em upside the head, and you can hardly send them to the office because the last thing the principal wants is to got stuck with the problem; you’re left with various tactical maneuvers such as bribery, cajolery, and beating on your desk with a large book while shouting at the top of your lungs for quiet.

Subs know all that, and they know that some schools are worse than others; they do their best to avoid the real snake pits, and they learn to pick up subtle clues as to what kind of school they’re heading for when the morning call comes.

I should have been more wary the morning the sub center asked if I wanted to go to Courtenay School for the day; because it was outside my assigned district, I had the option to refuse, but I looked it up and it wasn’t far away. I needed the work, so I thought “What the hell” and said “Sure, I’ll go.” “You will?” the woman at the sub center said, and her voice should have set my alarm bells ringing; I could almost hear her turning to her coworkers and saying “Hey girls, I’ve got a nut case here says he’ll go to Courtenay.”

Walking from the bus, I took a look at the school: it was small, very small, and it didn’t look like a school at all, but maybe a six-flat built in the 50s. The sign over the door said “Courtenay Special Education Facility” and my alarm bells finally rang — this was not a run-of-the-mill school, but something special. It turned out to be very special.

Some kids were milling around in the halls as I signed in at the office, and when I saw them I knew: Courtenay was a special-education center, and the kids were those with serious problems. Some were crying, some walked funny; one little girl was oblivious to the snot running from her nose. I was not at all sure I could handle this; for I’ve had eighth grades that were junior auxiliaries for the local street gang, I’ve had a kindergarten that their regular teacher slyly described as “frisky” and a fifth grade that, 15 minutes before dismissal time, started pounding their desks and chanting in unison “We wanna go home, we wanna go home,” and I’ve had BD (behavior disorder) kids, a euphemism for violent and unpredictable, but all those kids were what we think of as “normal” in appearance. These little guys weren’t.

I picked them up in the lunchroom, where they looked at me curiously, took them, in fairly good order, up to my classroom on the third floor, sat them down, and looked them over.

There was Judy (I’ve changed all the names), a deathly pale white girl with what I took to be an Appalachian angularity to her features; I thought she might have a West Virginia accent, but I never found out because Judy couldn’t talk. She sat at her desk and stared at me out of big, dark-shadowed eyes. She followed the action all day and never said a word.

There was San, a cute and sassy little girl born in Hong Kong, who talked haltingly but intelligibly, and her friend May, who was born in Cambodia and had a back twisted up so she needed help going up and down stairs.

There was Robert, who seemed to hunch himself into a ball and sit at his desk ignoring everything, and Ramon, who must have been three years older and 50 pounds heavier than the girls; he offered to help me figure out where the proper books and papers were and told me who went where when — an important thing to know because kids periodically came and went for therapy and special classes in speech or body movement or whatever. Ramon’s buddy Felipe, for instance, was gone most of the morning swimming — I was glad because the two seemed an explosive combination.

There were others: Lucy, with huge thick glasses that still didn’t allow her to see the blackboard and who seemed bored most of the time; and Ricky, a slim, handsome black kid older than the others and seemingly out of place there; and a little Hispanic girl who came in and promptly went to sleep. Most of them seemed eight or nine years old.

And then there was Kathy. Kathy was bulky and red-faced, and her lower lip drooped. She looked terrified, and when I walked toward her front-row desk her hands started trembling uncontrollably, her pencil falling to the floor. Then she started crying; she tried to muffle the sobs but failed and sat looking at me out of teary eyes — the picture of abject fear. “She does that all the time,” Ramon said to me. “She’ll stop pretty soon.” I said “It’s OK, Kathy, no one’s going to hurt you,” and walked to the other side of the room. She subsided. I sighed with relief: now all I had to do was figure out what to have them do.

Normally, the regular teacher’s lesson plan book tells a sub pretty much what ground to cover — or try to cover. In this case, the schedule was necessarily vague; obviously, I wasn’t going to be spending a lot of time on long division or pop quizzes in science. The plan had different activities for levels one, two, and three, and with help from Ramon and Ricky, two of the level ones, I figured out who was on what ability level. While they intently traced letters on the mimeo sheets I gave to everyone, Ramon briefed me on who could talk and who had trouble hearing; none of them could read much with the exception of Ricky, and I busied myself finding a book with some work advanced enough to suit him. In a “normal” class, it occurred to me, a kid like Ricky, placed among younger and less able kids, would mean nothing but problems; Ricky was quiet and soft-spoken and polite. I could have hugged him.

If their regular teachers had been there, the three classrooms on the third floor would have done some switching around at various points in the day, so that all the kids on level one in a given subject would be in one room, those on level two in a second, and the level threes in the third. The flu, however, had put two of the three regular teachers out, and the third teacher decided that to avoid too much confusion we would each keep our same basic group all day. Which meant that when I began some elementary letter recognition exercises with most of the kids, Ricky, who was the only level one in the room at that point, had to pretty much fend for himself. I found him a story he could read with some questions to answer, and he sat quietly in the back of the room at a table. While the other kids watched me and blurted out the answers when they had them, I didn’t hear a peep from Ricky. This, I thought, amazed, would never happen in a “normal” classroom, nor would most of what was going on. The chemistry of most classrooms is such that the kids, particularly when they have a sub at their mercy, compete to see who can best prevent anyone from learning anything; if some weirdo insists that she (it’s usually a she) wants to learn something, the others pick on her. Learning is not difficult for most of them, and they spurn it. My kids, and by mid-morning I was already thinking of them as my kids, went at it gravely, intently, assiduously; they had to focus all their attention on the letter they were trying to form or the picture they were trying to color, and they had none left over for high jinks. They knew perfectly well that learning was harder for them than for other kids, and they valued it that much more for its being hard. And they looked out for each other. Whenever Kathy started shaking and burst into tears for no apparent reason, Ramon and May, who sat near her, told her soothingly, “It’s all right, Kathy, you don’t have to cry,” and touched her on the shoulder. No one mocked her, no one teased her — this was just something that Kathy did sometimes, she couldn’t help it and it was all right. I noticed that by the end of the morning, when I made a little joke, Kathy smiled — timidly, but she smiled.

I got a 20-minute break at lunch, and though I’d grown used to my kids I was still glad I didn’t have to eat lunch with a roomful of children with various physical and mental disabilities; the tasteless old joke about the kid with the ice cream cone plastered to his forehead came to mind. I went into the teachers’ lounge for a cigarette; two women, apparently bus drivers, were laughing and talking. They were half-fancifully discussing the prospect of quitting their jobs and going on welfare.

“But you gotta have a kid,” one said. “They won’t let you on the welfare if you ain’t got an ankle biter.”

“Where am I gonna get a kid?” the other scoffed. “I sure as hell don’t want no kid of my own, messin’ up the place. Maybe I could borrow one.”

“Go down to the projects, girl. You look around in the trash cans. You’ll find you a baby. People put ’em in the trash — perfectly good babies. But your caseworker gonna wonder how you got this little rug rat crawlin’ around and she never noticed you was pregnant.” They both laughed boisterously and went back to drawing on their cigarettes. Then the younger one looked up and said musingly, “At the projects, huh? Perfectly good babies.”

We began the afternoon by playing alphabet bingo, a game the kids enjoyed; it’s designed to help them recognize letters more easily. Kathy was thrilled when she got a bingo, filling her whole card, while Ramon moaned that he still had five black spaces. In the second game, Kathy was on the verge of winning again when a speech therapy teacher came in and she had to leave. She started crying again, great racking uncontrollable sobs. The other kids gathered around — they told her it was all right, she won the game. Ricky, normally a grave child, took Kathy’s hand and smiled at her. The speech teacher and I watched; the kids did a better job with each other than we could hope to do.

Near the end of the afternoon all the boys were taken out for music; I was supposed to “teach” music to the girls, and the lone regular teacher on the floor handed me a stack of mimeographed copies of the words to “I Am Woman.” Lucy had been pretty quiet behind her enormous thick glasses, but when I asked if anyone knew the words to the song, she jabbed her hand into the air: “I do! I do!” I was glad of that; I can’t sing a lick, and I was not about to try under those circumstances, but we could at least learn the words. We started in, a few words at a time, me reading in a singsong, the girls — those who were able — reciting them back. We found a rhythm — I read “I am invincible,” they fed it back, and we all came down hard together, stomping our feet on “I am woman.” These girls may not be future physicists at the University of Chicago, but they knew what the song is about, and there was a palpable sense of pride, especially in Lucy, who was leading the responses, her glasses bouncing on her nose as her head bobbed excitedly, and red-eyed Kathy, who started off mumbling through trembling lips but ended up belting out the words and almost shouting “I am woman” as she stamped her feet.

The boys, alas, returned; with only 15 minutes to go to closing time I decided to play another game of alphabet bingo rather than introduce something new. Kathy got almost no letters this time, and her lower lip began trembling again. San leaned over and patted her shoulder, and Kathy broke into unbearable crying. I told everyone to get their coats, and I bent down beside the red-faced girl. “It’s all right, Kathy, there’s no reason for you to cry, it’s time to go home now.” I patted her hand; she turned her chubby hand over, grasped mine, then suddenly leaned down and kissed it, sloppily. Then she lurched out of her seat and walked to the coatroom.

That happened one day last winter. This year I have a “real” job, and I don’t much miss subbing; I can live quite happily without the third-grader who spit on and punched everyone smaller than him, and tried to punch me in the balls when I restrained him; I can live without the bored and lazy eighth-graders who threw things at me if I didn’t stare at them continuously; I can even live without the Head Start kids and the clay animals we made — I might miss that if there had been fewer than 30 of them at a time. But some days I think about alphabet bingo and “I Am Woman” and it seems that maybe I miss those kids, and the only drawback to teaching them is that they steal your damn heart with one lousy little smile.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.