A few years ago, my wife challenged me, she said “If you really want to be a teacher then take the CBEST and be a teacher.” I know she didn’t expect me to take her up on it, but I took a look at when and where the test was being given. To my surprise the test was being given the next day in Palm Desert, only about 10 miles from my home in La Quinta. I quickly registered for the test, paid the testing fee, showed up early the next morning, and completed the three-hour exam in just over one hour. After getting the final results, I was told that I was fully qualified to be a substitute teacher.
At that time, I made the decision that I would go ahead and apply to the district that my wife was working for. Thinking that if she was sick or didn’t feel good on a given day I could sit in for her and there would be little if any break in the curriculum. However, what I found out was that there was a much greater need for substitutes who are willing to travel and be what was called a “on-site rover.” Now a rover isn’t assigned to any particular class, or to any particular grade level. A rover shows up in the morning at a site and gets his/her assignment once they walk through the door. Being a rover is a true test of your flexibility and willingness to adapt to any given situation. There were days when I would bounce between sixth grade, third grade, fourth grade, and then back to sixth grade. If I was at a high school I may be in a math class for a couple of periods, then a science class for period or two, then I might be cooling my heels in the teachers’ lounge for the rest of the day. It was exciting and frustrating all the same time.
But, there was one particular day that stood out in my mind is both the happiest, and the saddest day of my tenure as a substitute teacher. That day was December 18, 2015. I had been called in by the local school district to be a rover at a K-6 site for three days, right before the Winter recess (we used to call it Christmas break). Teachers were having conferences with parents and I was needed to cover the classrooms as the teachers cycled through their conferencing responsibilities. On my first day I was in first-grade classroom, a second-grade classroom, and fourth grade classroom. On day two, I was in third-grade, and fifth-grade. But on day three, I was scheduled to be in a 6th-grade classroom in the morning, and in a kindergarten class in the afternoon. Being in a 6th grade classroom didn’t bother me at all, however I have to admit, I was completely terrified of kindergartners.
Now, here’s where the story gets to be a little off track. Professional teachers are supposed to provide substitutes with their lesson plans for the day. This way the substitute can continue to follow the teacher’s plan and the students will not slow down or otherwise be detained by the fact that their regular teacher is not in the classroom. Most of the professional teachers that I worked for were perfect. I had lesson plans at my fingertips, I understood what was needed to be done, and I did my very best to make sure that the class moved forward. But on this particular day, and in this kindergarten class, it was obvious that the teacher and all of the students were ready, VERY READY for Christmas break. As the regular teacher was leaving the classroom, she didn’t even bother to introduce herself and when I asked about what I should be doing for the rest the afternoon she pointed at her aides and said, “just asked them, they know what to do.” I asked if she had a lesson plan for the afternoon and she said, “no not really, I usually just read to them, let them take a nap, and then maybe do some art.” So, what, am I, as a good substitute to do? I did exactly as I was told. I grabbed one of the books from the bookshelf, gathered all the children for story time, and did my very best impersonation of Mr. Rogers. After that, it was nap time so the children all laid down and pretended to be trying to sleep. After about 30 minutes, I knew this wasn’t going to work. I needed a new plan.
As I looked around the classroom, I realized that all of the students had made brown bag puppets of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So, with about an hour left in my tenure as a kindergarten teacher, I gathered all the children back at the front of the room. I pointed to all the bag puppets on the wall and asked, “Do you know all of Santa’s Reindeer?” The children replied “RUDOLPH!” I said “Rudolph was just ONE of Santa’s reindeer; do you know the other eight? “WHAT? There are more reindeer?” “Yes, would you like to know their names?” Almost in unison, every single child in that room screamed YES! It was as if I was about to reveal some magical super-secret that had been kept from them since birth…. So, I wrote the names on the whiteboard, and began to do my best Burl Ives impression…
“You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen, but do you recall, the most famous Reindeer of all?” So, for the next hour, we sang, and sang, and sang, the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer song. We were having so much fun that we didn’t even notice the teacher come back into the room. But when we did, at least 6 of the children ran to her and said, “Did you know there are 8 other reindeer?” I didn’t here her response as I was being bombarded with request of “Again, again, again.”
The teacher finally came to the front of the room and asked for the children to say goodbye to me, and thank you as I got ready to leave. I politely moved to the back of the room and gathered my belongings, but as I looked up, I saw three little girls standing in front of me. One of the girls, looked up at me and said, “Can we have a hug?” I looked at all three of them, and realized that, at that moment, all each of them wanted was just a bit of humanity, just a bit of compassion, and just a bit of love from a strong adult male. What I should have done, is break District rules and given all those girls a big hub, unfortunately what I did was spout the District line that I couldn’t and offered them a “fist bump” instead. I was instantly angry at myself for being so weak.
As I got up, and got ready to head out the door, I felt a tug on my shirt. One of the girls wasn’t quite ready to give up. She looked up at me, with these incredible eyes and said, “Mr. Kevin, are you Santa Clause?” I didn’t say anything, but I put my finger up to my lips and whispered, Shhhhhh, gave her a wink and exited the room.
I went to my car, and for the next 30 minutes just cried my eyes out. Our children are so desperate for basic human contact, a simple hug or a pat on the shoulder. They desperately need to believe in someone bigger than themselves. And yes, these same children still want to believe that Santa Clause and that dreams can come true.