I started substitute teaching in October of 2021 because my bank account was dwindling to nothing, but mainly because I wanted to see if I should pull the trigger on going all-in on the teacher thing.
You see, it takes a special type of patience to work with kids of specific age groups.
In elementary, kids are just developing a personality and like just about anybody. They’re eager to do things and excited to learn about themselves and the world around them. They’re learning about friendship and that other people exist outside themselves, with the addition of basic math and science.
By middle school, they’re starting to come into their own. They have ideas now and want to throw their voices around with more direction than in elementary. They’re asking more critical questions and challenging the status quo so hard you’re questioning your own life choices for becoming a teacher.
In high school, they’re now a full-fledged person and to treat them as anything less than that is the quickest way to end up on the shit list. So you’re balancing your job against their microcosmos, figuring out how to guide their big characters so they’ll pass the class but still grow into successful adults.
Don’t even get me started on the parents. This isn’t my first time teaching kids. I’ve dealt with parents here and there. It’s part of the job, and they come in all flavors like Bertie Botts every flavor bean; sometimes you get the vomit one.
While I generally understood all the above, there’s something that the substitute orientation didn’t warn me about, unlocking unpleasant memories.
Some people have fond memories of school. I don’t. I was violently reminded of that fact on my very first day on the job.
I, in all my brilliance, decided that I would sub for an English teacher. Shouldn’t have been anything too hard. The teacher said everything would be in Google Classroom. Great! I did a TikTok about my first day. You can watch it and learn about the absolute mayhem that it was.
What I did not talk about on TikTok was how a student was pulled out of the class because he had Dyslexia and how I was absolutely rocked by it.
I listened as he told his friends that he would be moved to a different English class and not return.
I remember having that talk with counselors when I was his age. About how English was too hard, how words slipped through the wrinkles of my brain like water through a strainer. I remember the unpleasant reality that I was different because I could not comprehend my primary language.
As I watched the student leave the class, I was struck with the bizarre sensation of watching an afterimage of kid-me trailing behind the boy. I could once again hear the giggling of my classmates every time I misread a word. The whispered remarks as they discuss what words I got wrong or the groans because it was my turn to read again. Three lines in a textbook became an eternity for everyone as I struggled through reading.
As the student passed me, I wanted to tell him that life wasn’t over, that no matter what anyone told him, he’d be able to accomplish whatever he set his mind to. Instead, I was quiet, having flashbacks to my time in school while also panicking because the teacher’s Google Classroom wasn’t completely set up and I was gonna need to improvise on the spot. The problem was I couldn’t teach the class anything because I didn’t actually know anything about English or Language Arts for that matter.
When I recounted the experience to my parents during a call and later on a friend, they asked me about what I learned in MY English lessons. It amounted to this:
There are these symbols,
That have sounds that are attached to them,
These symbols are arranged together to make words,
Those words are then placed on a line to make a sentence,
In these sentences, there are some times commas to break up the lines,
To end a sentence, we use periods or sometimes question marks. It depends on the meaning.
That is the extent of the English I was taught. I was not taught the different parts of an essay, let alone the different parts of a story, while in the public school system. On the other hand, when it came to college, teachers expected you to have at least a basic understanding of grammar rules, and if you didn’t have them, you were expected to learn them fast.
It shocks people that I have a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. I self-taught pretty much everything with general guidance from teachers because they had little to no patience to teach me. I take too long to learn. My dyslexia means I take not just twice but three times as long to learn anything that has to do with language or grammar. Case in point, in 2013, I finally understood how to use commas.
That has been my life with Dyslexia. It’s a wonder that I love writing as much as I do. Not the rules of grammar, not essay writing, or even the different forms of storytelling, but the very act of putting words down. Taking thought and giving it form through the basic structure by which I was taught.
So when I think back to the boy, I wonder if he will be taught the same thing. Will the teacher be patient? Or will they say the things they said to my parents? Will they tell him that he’ll never make it through college?
I wonder if his friends will make fun of him, not realizing how much it really bothers him to struggle with something they find easy.
I wonder if he’ll feel embarrassed for failing to spell the simple words or frustrated because the essay isn’t coming out the way he wanted.
I wonder if the teachers will tell him he isn’t trying hard enough, even though he spent three hours looking up how to spell one word until he was in tears.
I wonder if he’ll develop the same hatred for the phrases, “It’s easy,” and “that’s simple,” as I have. It’s not. It will never be. Stop saying it.
With every fiber of my being, I hope that there is a cheerleader in his corner — someone who will fight for him. I had my parents in the beginning fight for every bit of my education and never let me settle. Later in life and still, even now, I fight for myself, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of the few people who really truly believed in me.
As for me, I will continue to do things as I have, in the way that I was first taught.
There are these symbols,
Which have sounds that are attached,
Those symbols can be arranged to make things called words,
You can then take those words and put them on a line to create meaning,
That meaning can be shared through different mediums to reach people,
And that is what Dyslexia taught me to love about writing.