Steph’s note: I realize this account isn’t exactly a “Travel Opps” and it’s not about one of my exchange teaching blunders in Australia, but as some of you have read, I have so many mishaps while teaching that I thought I’d post this story. In a sense, making an appearance in the world of middle schoolers or traveling to “tweendom,” definitely qualifies as a misadventure — especially when you are a substitute.
Buena Vista, Colorado, USA; May 2013
Shouting above the sixth grade buzz in the McGinnis Middle School art room, I tried to get my overactive tween audience’s attention. “Okay, guys, I want to see more texture with your planets.” However, what I really wanted was another adjective to throw around since I was working “texture” hard.
A former English teacher, I was out of my element as an art substitute. I knew what looked pretty or aesthetically pleasing, but how do you explain that to eleven and twelve-year-olds? More texture.
Checking their work, I wandered from table to table in the open room, which had a funky, urban warehouse feel. The art teacher had graffitied the cement walls with robots, faces, and letters in vibrant purples, blues, yellows and greens. The faint smell of spray paint clung to various surfaces. On a clothesline, hooked from one wall to the other, black and white photos hung from clothespins. Dangling from the ceiling, Chinese lanterns and oversized neon cocktail umbrellas provided a nice break from the fluorescent lights.
“Are you an art teacher?” asked Chad. In a skull and crossbones skater hoodie, mohawk and pierced ears, he looked out of place among the boys of Colorado ranchers wearing Carharts and cowboy boots. He also didn’t blend in with kids of outdoor sports enthusiasts who wore North Face fleece and Chaco sandals.
“I teach the art of language,” Did I really just say that? To me, “Language Arts” always came off as an overdone title for “English.”
Chad didn’t question me, but his expression said, “Whatever, you’re a sub.” He continued shading his black and white planet that looked like an orbiting Oreo cookie.
“Mrs. G!” Not seeing anyone at first, I looked down. Most sixth graders, especially boys, are still so small. It was Emma. Wearing a Flashdance/Madonna 1984 ensemble with a cut up neon green sweatshirt, lacy black tank underneath and loads of bracelets up her arms, she represented, precisely, early 80s fashion.
“I’m done.” Bulldozing my personal space, she shoved her solar system in front of me. I moved back. A rush job, the drawing looked like a partially erased chalkboard with scribbles, smudges and faint outlines of a galaxy far, far away. So far that I couldn’t see it.
“Nice haze effect. But let’s add more texture.” I said as Emma raised an eyebrow, which sloped like her off-the-shoulder look.
“How about a planet made of cheese?” I suggested.
“Planets aren’t made out of cheese,” she said.
“Well, true. But this is an imaginary solar system.”
“I could draw rocks?” Emma’s eyebrow arched again.
“Yep. Planets have rocks.”
“Some just have gases,” Emma added.
“Excellent. Draw gases.”
“How do you draw gases?”
“Swirls. Lots of swirls,” I responded rotating my hand with a pencil.
As I turned around, a cloud of second hand Axe deodorant spray made contact with any exposed mucous membrane. Dousing oneself in Axe was hygiene for many middle schoolers. With his scent, wide eyes and disheveled hair, Ashton stood before me with a sketch of a textured hand.
“Awesome, Ashton!” I actually meant it.
“Look. The middle finger,” he pushed the paper closer. The finger was covered in fur like Bigfoot’s middle digit.
“The middle finger is a bad word,” he whispered. “Don’t tell anybody, but it means ‘F-word you!’ His eyes opened even wider.
“Okay. It’s our secret,” I said and went back to the teacher’s desk to re-check the lesson plan.
“Crap,” I muttered. “I forgot about attendance.”
“You said crap.” Mackenzie, a girl with a mushroom bob haircut, busted me. Putting her sparkle marker down, she crossed her arms over her chest. Apparently, the entire front table had heard me.
“Crap? I can’t say crap?” I asked, thinking, remember, this is middle school.
“You are saying it, Mrs. G” said Kyron, a befreckled, slight kid. “But it’s not a big deal,” he added.
“Kyron, we can’t say that word,” reminded Mackenzie.
“It’s not a swear word,” Kyron pointed out.
“My mom doesn’t let me say it,” chimed in Emma. “She doesn’t let me say the F-word either.”
“Duh!” said Kyron.
“Not the swear word,” Emma rolled her eyes. “The word for ‘toot.’”
“Fart?” asked Kyron. “Your mom needs to chillax.”
“Okay, guys, guys — Sorry for saying the “C” word.” A small, conservative mountain community, Buena Vista has a population that is 92 percent white and more than half of the total population attends a Christian church regularly. WASP country.
In front of BV students, you’re better off accidentally saying “shit,” “damn” or “hell” rather than “Jesus Christ.” I had uttered each word at least once while teaching at the high school. Dropping “JC” easily elicits the most horrified reactions.
“We won’t tell,” Mrs. G,” said Chad.
“I appreciate that, Chad. Okay. I’m coming around, and what am I looking for?”
“Texture!” the kids yelled.