Recently, I have been substitute teaching in public schools, and just as I was leaving an assignment today one of the administrators turned to me and asked, “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Immediately, I was struck by her question and by the look in her eyes. On the one hand, she looked at me with the expectation that I would say no (which is not all that unusual for substitute teachers). On the other, I could see her hoping that I would say yes. Upon my answer: “Yes, I will be back tomorrow,” she seemed pleasantly relieved.
As I walked out the school doors, the question stayed with me: “Are you coming back tomorrow?” Of course, I knew it was about the need to fill a teacher’s absence. I also knew that she was familiar with the challenges facing substitute teachers. Today’s young people are quite troubled, and they are difficult to understand. There have been times that my patience was short (or not long enough); but, then there have been days, like today, where I wanted to be there for the students, regardless of their outrageous behaviors.
Today, while we were playing outside, as a sort of reward for making it through a tough day, I saw the students’ eyes light up as I announced that I would be with them for the next two days. In their facial and bodily expressions, I saw that same pleasant relief that I saw in the administrator’s eyes in response to hearing that I would be back. Some young students are not used to seeing the same substitute for more than two days in a row. Many substitute teachers are there just for the day, and they have the option to accept or reject an assignment. And sometimes that is a rejection or the refusal to deal with the students’ behaviors. However, in that moment, when I said that I would be back, I could sense a subtle kind of trust in the eyes of several youngsters. And I thought, yes, there is something about continuity and dependability that makes us all feel good. When someone assures us, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” it conveys a sense of safety and companionship; which are feelings that we can all appreciate.
I’ve been thinking a lot about safety and companionship these days and what it means to travel through life with willing and mindful partners. Being in the role of a teacher, I often look into the eyes of children who have seen more abandonment and loneliness that most of us would care to know about. Sometimes, after a trying day as a substitute teacher, my own life experiences seem very small compared to what I imagine theirs to be. Every now and then, when I see a young student fighting or crying, I know there are things happening that are beyond their control and behind the scenes that cause their acting out and defiance. As an adult I have a lot more control over my environment and my outlook on life. Today there was one young boy in particular who was fighting and being disruptive the entire time. Finally, when the day was almost done, I stood next to him, called his name, took a deep breath and said, “I know you can do better.” Just in that moment, he looked at me out of the side of his left eye with pleasant relief, and it was the same expression the administrator gave me on my way out. Remembering that, walking out of the building to my car, I felt good about the day and about that school and about that young boy. And, I said to myself that I would write this piece, because sometimes a simple, “Yes, I will be back (to be here for you),” is enough to give us some relief.
© 2015 annalise fonza, Ph.D.