Tuesday 7:30 a.m. The phone rings. “Would you be able to cover a lesson in a school?” I start to find an excuse to say “No.” because my nerves were shocked out of their sleep.
“YES!” I snap. I did not give my ego time to talk me out of it. After all, this is what I want to do. I want to work with children. To be the one that helps them to see their potential. And this is my first taster.
I rush to get dressed, and my Daughter stops me.”Mum, you’re going to get terrored. It’s what we do to substitute teachers. Take my advise and let them do what they want but insist they stay in their seats and you might not get a chair thrown at you.”
“I’ll be fine as I am not the substitute, I am the teaching assistant,” I say. She looks at me helplessly as I leave the house. A role reversal of the Mother watching her child start their first day at school.
I sign in at the school and get a folder handed to me. The receptionist speedily runs through what I shall be doing this morning. As words are falling out of her mouth, the words in my head are shouting “NO, NO, NO, NO, and NO.”
But before I could correct her, a young boy is taking me through a maze of corridors full of teenagers to a classroom. There is no sign of another adult or teacher in this classroom.
I am The Substitute.
Ok, Jen, do not look like a victim. If you look like a victim, you get treated as a victim. The paperwork in the folder informs me I am teaching an art class. What the hell am I supposed to do with 30 boys for an art lesson? I am not a teacher.
I know about photography though, well enough to blag this lesson. I think.
Calm, stay calm. Breathe. I am scanning the room like an assassin. I daren’t move, but the movement of my eyes is a replica of the Eagle eye action man from the ’80s.
The air is still, and there is no sound. It can’t be long before they come into the classroom. I have no preparation, and I know I am going to have to fake my way through it. All I need to do is make sure I have control of the situation.
I stand tall with my shoulders back. If I have to run, I have my converse on so I am good with that. Even at 45years-old, I am proud to say I can still run. Maybe not for long, but long enough when my life is on the line.
I hear a click on the door handle, and the hum of voices starts to get louder. The scuffle of shoes wears against the floor. I turn my head towards the door, and a sea of black blazers and trousers blur my vision. Breathe, I got this.
I see their faces change when they see me. The corner of their mouth turns up into a sneering smile, similar to the Joker from Batman. The smile that is telling me- they have changed the lesson from art to the Hunger Games. The glint in their eyes showing me, I am the fresh meat. I am on the menu for today’s lesson.
I have no friends here. I am all alone.
The vision inside my head was going to be similar to a scene from Full Metal Jacket. My speech for gaining control was to be the same as Sergent Hartman, but with some subtle changes.
“I am Ms Ashmore, your Sub teacher. From now on, you will speak only when spoken to, and the first and last words out of your filthy mouths will be “Ms!” Do you maggots understand that?”
I heard 30 boys shouting back “Ms, yes, Ms!” while standing to attention.
“If you ladies survive my class, you will be polite well adjusted human beings. But until then you are pukes! You’re the lowest form of life on Earth. You are nothing but unorganized pieces of amphibian faeces. Because I am hard, you will not like me. But the more you hate me, the more you will learn. I am hard, but I am fair! Here you are all equally worthless! Do you maggots understand that?”
I heard 30 boys shouting back “Ms, yes, Ms!” while standing to attention.
My vision did not take place.
I am assessing the situation as quickly as possible like a silent assassin. With a glance between each other, the children have already telepathically informed each other of today’s Hunger Games. The Substitute teacher being the weakest tribute.
I try to put my stamp on them quickly “Everyone sit down and be quiet!” I bellow. I don’t think they heard me as their voices got louder. If I am honest, I know they bloody well heard me.
Let’s make the obvious clear. Understand, no teenager in that classroom cares one teeny tiny bit about me. The only thing they care about is their social group. What I say and do does not matter in any way at all to them. They could think I was funny, fair, or even be fearful of me, but they will try and take me down.
The collective teenagers are similar to politicians. They have the leaders, the comedians and followers. They all have a role in their group, and they will not let the group down when it comes to fulfilling their part in destroying the sub teacher. I use the word teacher lightly, as it is more like the babysitter.
Who am I to walk into their class and take over? The territory belongs to them.
I get their attention and use the words my Daughter gave me. “I do not care what you do, but you will stay in your seats and have your work out in front of you.” Their voices got louder, banquets of Pringles and sweets were brought out onto their desks for consumption.
I was in the process of delivering another instruction when I felt it. The right side of my face felt like it had a laser burning a hole into it. The feeling when you know someone is staring at you. You are the prey, and they are the hunter. My peripheral vision was on high alert. My mind was racing with how to deal with this.
A boy taller than me, laser beaming me with his eyes. And the sound is repetitive. Bang! Bang! Bang! He is bouncing a small hard ball on his table over and over while he has a fixed stare on me. He is silently daring me to challenge him. If I let don’t get this right, the class will gain the higher ground. I need to control this situation calmly and fast.
I am an unknown entity to the boy with the ball. He is an unknown entity to me. “Put the ball away.” I casually say with no challenging tone or look. He still has his eyes fixed on me. “No.” He calmly replies and he carries on bouncing the ball.
Damn, I have to take this up a level now. I look at him in the eyes, and say “Put the ball away now please.”
“No.” came the reply. I am aware of the Mexican wave happening. One by one the rest of the boys notices what is happening. They adjust themselves to a ringside seat to watch the show.
I know there is not much I can do if he refuses to stop. Maybe I will pray at that point. It is not like when I was at school, and the teacher would demolish you in front of all your peers. The old school teachers had the ability to tear you apart verbally or physically. You best hope your parents didn’t find out because then you got demolished at home.
With the spotlight now on me again I am aware my next set of words could be my last or could put me on the higher ground. The ball is still bouncing on the table, and the boy is still glaring at me.
My reply came out, “I suggest you put that ball away because, if I have to get up and get it from you I will.” And I am good at sport so trust me when I say I will get it from you.” I hold my breath. It is a standoff. Both of us have solid eye contact with each other. About 5 seconds go by, and my mantra in my head is “Do not back down.”
He makes his move. Still, with his eyes locked on mine, and with the ball in hand, he slowly puts the ball in his pocket. Phew! I exhale silently. I could not believe my luck.
I was so relieved that he backed down first. I don’t know what I would have done if he carried on being defiant.
I could not wait for the lesson to be over so I could relax my shoulders. I managed 50 minutes with them and I needed a vodka.
The reason I am writing this is to express to you that you can do anything. I could have easily talked myself out of going to the school. It is a well known rough school. I got thrown in at the deep end. I was nervous and scared.
Afterwards, I felt exhilarated. To be able to say “I did it!” I did not run away or give in when I knew I was out of my depth. Mel Robbins mindset reset has really worked for me. I am still in the process of the program and loving it.
So many people said to me afterwards, “I would not have been able to do what you just did.” Even one of the real teachers said that to me. But from this experience, I have been offered a lot of work.
The best feeling was having my teenagers high five me and say “Yes J-dog.” (That’s the nickname they have for me.) My 15year-old Daughter and my 14year-old son were proud of me. They told all their friends about it.
Would I do it again? Hell no!
I don’t want to be a babysitter. I want to be more than that. That experience led me to a full-time position working at a school that houses teenagers, that can’t function in mainstream schools.
What a challenge for me! Who knows where this will lead?
Get up and do something today that scares you. I was petrified, but I did it. It makes for a great conversation.
Don’t back down on yourself. Because you might not be here next year.