I started substitute teaching in September of last year, around the same time I was going through the ups and downs of my own sudden relationship. It was no “great romance” as I had desperately wanted it to be, but I was so infatuated with the guy I allowed the trajectory of our own relationship to run its inevitably to-be-ended course. But I digress, because I’m not sharing about my own short-lived relationship, but another’s.
If I have to be completely honest, substituting was a whirlwind of different schools, faculty, and students, and actually discouraged me from my once upon time dream of teaching. I wanted consistency, and as soon as I realized my only form of income was about to disappear with the last autumn leaves as the impending winter break approached, I frantically contacted a past recruiter I had been in contact with prior to my college graduation. Immediately a law firm hired me – it was a soothing office that involved midday wintry walks to the post office and checking out the mailman there. In addition to my departure from the “sub” life, I also sought additional forms of income via old high school and college textbooks that were collecting dust in the shelves of my parent’s basement that I had become intimately acquainted with…as I moved back in with my parents. Insert face palm here.
As the calmer days of sunrise newspaper reading and greeting of attorneys as they entered the office trotted on by, the chief of the volunteer fire department I volunteered at (yes, as a “firewoman”) texted me informing me that his school (he was a teacher under the fire gear) was hiring for a Special Education Teaching Assistant.
Now, I had substituted for Special Education before. It’s not exactly a stimulating job. Conversations do not center on worldly issues or deep thinking but rather brush the surface of motor and cognitive skills, which, once again speaking frankly, jaded me. These are foundation skills nonetheless, those of which are a reward for some to witness and cultivate within their flock.
I was already struggling with my life decisions. I was wondering if I wanted to continue living in Northern Virginia (being a native I’ve never lived past fifty miles of my home more than five months) for fear that I’d wake up forty and regretting that I never left my hometown. I was wondering if I even wanted to teach anymore – have responsibility over a classroom and their progress individually, as a group, and embedded in the grand scheme of progress nationally. I knew if I dropped my one nightly class, I’d be free to leave my hometown. No boyfriend, no townhouse or condo contract, no school, no job – no reason not to leave.
Straddling the line between a laid back office assistant gig at a law firm and a special education assistant occupation that would bolster my experience in a field I was not even sure I wanted to pursue anymore, I knew I could leave both behind and forfeit the Master’s Degree I had just begun investing in. Yet…something was holding me back. There is still so much in the DMV area I had yet to experience. Furthermore, the volunteer Fire Chief had really pulled for the school to hire me. I couldn’t turn that down.
Whilst I continued to interview for other higher paying positions, I did take the job. Besides, I could still make my fun in NoVa by working some night bar job or sticking with school and meeting people there right? I also had recently joined a writing organization and the university’s radio station, so might as well stick it out for another few months.
And then last Friday happened. Cupid struck me with his arrow, as I beheld a sight as beautiful as the Shenandoah Valley at sunset.
It was Nora and Will, huddled over their math sheets, deep in work.
I suppose I should go over some introductions first right?
So my first day at this Elementary School, as a Special Education Teacher’s Assistant, my job is to oscillate between two classrooms – a pre-K and a first grade classroom. I exceedingly preferred the first grade classroom as they were much more diverse and I could actually go into content with them. It was an inclusion classroom – which meant about a third of the twenty odd students we had displayed some form of cognitive or physical disability.
Nora clinically has stunted and slightly abnormal growth with her oddly bent legs. She has big brown eyes and long eyelashes, light mocha skin and thick brown locks that have me pegging her as either Indian or Middle Eastern. Will is a handsome and intelligent little man who was tall and had a strong voice for his young age. I noticed he had taken to watching over Nora. Since I was joining the school mid year, I did not know how this relationship came to be, but he always stays behind to help her up the steps or walk in line and pairs with her often to help her with class work. As I witnessed him assisting her with math, I recalled a scene from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; where the rich and beautiful Catherine was tutoring the stable boy, bit by bit relinquishing the pride (and prejudice ha-ha, no pun intended) she previously held so tight. While the romantic in me said it was young love, the optimist in me imagined a firm friendship for years to come, the realist in me whispered memories of my own middle school experience when my own short stature had children teasing me on my height.
And yet, as a substitute teacher in the past having been in multiple environments, and in an era where children with disabilities are increasingly being admitted into general education classrooms – I’ve noticed this new generation of children are extraordinarily compassionate relative to my own classroom experience. The optimist in me overruled the pessimist’s objection and the decision was made: Nora was bright and strong and she would prevail in the face of any obstacles that would face her, and Will would not so quickly desert her in aims of a higher social status.
Perhaps in the older years of middle school such a path would follow as boys will be boys and girls will be girls and they tend to alienate from each other before the “crushes” ensue. In this case, Will may make his own friends and Nora will make hers…but my hope is that they will never forget the duet they shared one day, in math class, while their special education teacher’s assistant observed.