Sunday, February 21, 2010




1 : to inflict punishment on (as by whipping)
2 : to censure severely : castigate

The appearance of a substitute teacher—an alien and often scattered being sitting in the place of the familiar—usually meant an easy day. Substitutes would generally implement review sessions, group work, quiet reading time, etc. They wouldn't actually attempt to teach or usurp the authority of those they were temporarily replacing. They would just physically fill their spot, either in front of the blackboard or slumped in the chair behind their desk.

The exception to this standard was Miss Todd who filled in two days for my fifth grade teacher Mrs. Dineen. Unlike Dineen who was tender, motherly, soft-mannered and attractive, Todd was an old witch with liver spots and a scowl that dragged her face down to her withered breasts. She wore the same outfit both days—a gray shirt buttoned up to her sagging chin, a long black cardigan, and a floor length gray skirt. This was in great contrast to Dineen who often wore...colors.

She immediately did the unthinkable and actually tried to teach. Unlike the other substitutes who often had little to no teaching experience, Todd was most likely retired and had already ruined many, many miserable young lives in her professional past. She had that hardened demeanor of someone forced to oversee unruly children for eternity.

Our class reacted immediately with almost unanimous insubordination. It was 20 fifth graders against one Todd; there was no way she would survive. When Todd realized she had no chance, she began CHASTISING students by sending them to the corner to stare at the wall for ten minutes at a time. This was unheard of at Racebrook Elementary School. Sometimes children were told to stand outside the room for a few minutes, or sent to the principal's office, but never this archaic punishment of standing in the corner.

On day two things got worse. The fact that Todd wore the same outfit two days in a row drove us wild. It was like she was giving us free reign for insult and ridicule, provoking us so she could instill her primitive forms of punishment. At least one child seemed to be in the corner at all times. Maybe all the other substitutes were sick. Maybe she was last on the list, a note accompanying her file that read, CALL ONLY IF ABSOLUTELY DESPERATE.

During a history lesson, I made a joke about something to Jen Martino and we snickered. Todd swung around from the blackboard and glared at us. She made some comment about her lesson not being a joke, and sent each of us to a separate corner. Even though this had already been going on for two days, I was still shocked. Jen Martino started to cry in her corner, tears streaming down her red cheeks. My eyes began to well up, too, but crying in school meant days of humiliation, and I used every muscle in my body to withstand the emotional reaction. I felt dirty in some weird way. I had gotten in trouble before, but it was always legitimate, always when I knew I had done something wrong and was ready to face a fair punishment. This was just embarrassing and unfair, and I instantly felt a contempt toward Todd that I never before experienced.

Later in that day, during some group work, I approached Todd while she was writing something on the blackboard to ask to use the bathroom. After she answered and turned back around, I whipped out a black marker and made a streak on the back of her skirt. The fabric was so dense—I knew she wouldn't notice. For the rest of the day, I stared at that mark with justice, feeling I had balanced the scales.

We told Mrs. Dineen the horror story when she returned from her illness. She sat on a stool in front of the room, her long stockinged legs crossed over each other, red high-heel pumps linked into the bottom rungs, listening with concern and shaking her head in disapproval.

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