Current Occupation: Writer, Activities Assistant, Owner, “Putting the Funk in Junk”- Antiques, vintage, painted furniture.
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty Member
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ work has appeared most recently in Gyroscope Review, The Ryder Magazine, The Voices Project, and Workzine. She is the author of Dinner with Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery and editor of One in Four – a collection of student narratives about mental illness. Wells is currently editing a poetry collection written by residents in a residential facility serving the geriatric population. She loves music and is a huge, life-long fan of both Prince and Queen.
I am new to the pool of substitute teachers for Little Buds Daycare. This morning there is an urgent need for help in a three-year-old classroom, leaving me little time to get ready. I gulp down some coffee a handful of granola.
It is a blustery, wet day in early November. When I arrive, Allison, the program director,
ushers me into her office for sign-in instructions. She is exuberant and treats me with more enthusiasm than I deserve. “Oh, thank you for helping us out. You’re a real life saver,” she quips.
No time is wasted getting me to class. I struggle to keep up with her glides down the hall past doors covered in autumnal-themed crafts. “Constance will be happy to see you,” she says over her shoulder. We pass several more doors in the maze of the building, including one bearing signage that warns, Shhh! Infants may be napping.
“You’ll be in the Orchid Room. It’s a small group.” Preschools are cheerful, I think to myself. Besides, even if it isn’t fun, it’s only for three and a half hours.
Inside the Orchid room are six little kids sitting at an L-shaped table mashing Play-Doh. Alison introduces me to Constance and the children. “This is Bill, next to him, Jennifer. Then there’s Eliza, Kaitlyn, Sophie and Vladimir, who we call Vlady.” I smile with interest that is not reciprocated. Vlady, a small boy with rosy cheeks dons a checkered shirt and cobalt-blue corduroys. He is putting purple Play-Doh in his mouth. Their teacher intervenes, saying, “Not in our mouth.”
Alison exits and Constance looks tired, so I offer the child a paper towel. He spits into it. The paper towel is thin; it’s definitely not Bounty. I feel dampness from the pool of spit and chunks of Play-Doh. Vlady shakes his dishwater blonde bowl cut, then flashes a crooked smile. Okay, so this is not going to be as much fun as I’d thought.
Soon it’s time for clean up. Constance leads us in a round of the catchy “Clean Up” song, then abandons me so she can prepare the craft materials. Getting them to relinquish the colorful dough is a battle of wills. Kaitlyn not only won’t put her green pile of makeshift worms away, she grabs Sophie’s yellow glob from her hands. I attempt firm bribing, telling them how great the craft will be. It doesn’t register at all, so I upsell, saying, the fruits of their labors will go on their classroom door for everyone to see. Suddenly Eliza’s red Play-Doh is put away in its jar with the matching red lid. My attention turns to Vlady, who is placing dough balls in his pocket.
“Vlady, it’s time to put the Play-Doh away. Not in our pockets,” I tell him. Unfortunately, in this moment Eliza extracts her Play-Doh from its can, a rebellion undoubtedly triggered by Vlady’s lack of cooperation. Thankfully the rest of the children have put their dough away. With a bit more coercion, and Constance rushing over to reinforce to Vlady and Eliza what needs to happen by saying, “This is not okay” like forty times, they finally give up the goods.
The craft consists of a piece of construction paper for each child and handfuls of tissue paper squares. I follow Constance’s lead, squirting Elmer’s Glue on the children’s papers. Each child is different when it comes to glue. Bill, a wiry blonde boy with Caribbean-blue eyes, wants lots of glue and begins rubbing his fingers in it. Jennifer asks for glue disbursements in small dots instead of streaks. Kaitlyn doesn’t have a preference; she just fingers her ponytail and stares with a glazed look in her dark eyes. I hope she’s not having a bowel movement.
Eliza doesn’t specify either, but after the craft glue is applied, she looks down with disgust, then rolls her eyes in case I did not notice her disappointment. Obviously, she had something different in mind. Is passive-aggressive behavior from a three-year-old over glue allotment really what I need this morning when I’m not properly caffeinated? Sophie wants to squeeze her own glue. I lose points with her too, because this isn’t allowed. Vlady whines. He doesn’t want any Elmer’s at all. “Noo, Glueee,” he intones several times. Then as if I can’t hear, Vladimir slams his hands down over his red construction paper.
“That’s ok, Vlady. You don’t have to have any,” Constance croons. She looks at me stating, “Sometimes you have to pick your battles.” Her tone sounds a bit frosty.
The kids finish their crafts in all of about three minutes, but craft time is supposed to last twenty, so I make rounds with more glue and additional tissue paper squares. I vaguely remember making a tree using this medium in Kindergarten, and do not love the abstract art these children are creating today.
When I get to Vlady, to disperse squares without glue, I find him under the table sans shoes and socks. Constance notices the predicament.
“Don’t you want to finish your project?” I ask, crouching down to reason with him at eye-level. Vlady scissor-kicks one of his shoes further under the table. I surmise this boy has some issues Alison, the chipper director, neglected to inform me about. It’s clear too, why she was so happy to see me earlier.
Constance to the rescue. “I’m going to count to three, Vlady, then I’ll help you get back in your chair. One, two.”
Vlady climbs into his seat at the last possible second. His feet are still shoe-less; however, I’m afraid if I tell him to get his footwear, Constance will just remind me to choose my battles wisely.
Lunch follows crafts. Eliza is the lunch helper this week, so it is her job to walk with a teacher down to the refrigerator in the copy room and bring back lunches. I am designated to go with her. The Orchids’ lunches are located on the bottom shelf. I know this because it is clearly marked with a white sticker, but Eliza starts handing me the Petunias’ lunches from the top shelf. I’m pretty sure since it is Thursday, she has already done this for four days in a row, so she should remember protocol. Plus, since it is November and there are only six children in the classroom, I’m going to guess this is not her first rodeo anyways. She knows full well the Orchids’ lunches are on the lower shelf. I point out the mistake and she starts arguing with me. Everyone’s lunch totes are labeled, so I tell her if she does not get the correct lunches an Iris might take her Dora the Explorer lunch bag and she’ll never see it again.
Things progress quickly after that.
Eliza and I return to class. She places the lunches on a counter adjacent to the L-shaped table without further instruction. Constance tells me to distribute their items one at a time, starting with “a protein.” There are walnuts with raisons for Bill, A tube of Go-Gurt for Jennifer, hummus and sliced peppers for Eliza, string cheese for Kaitlyn, chicken nuggets for Sophie, and some kind of green pasta with chunks of tomato and cheese in it for Vlady.
When I set Vlady’s pasta in front of him, he ignores it. He’s more interested in what is stuck in his left nostril. I look away before he produces anything of substance. That’s when Eliza sneezes and a trail of thick yellow snot shoots from her nose, landing precariously close to her mouth. I look desperately at Constance who is trying to get Sophie interested in her chicken nuggets. The lead teacher points to the Kleenex on the shelf. I toss two at Eliza, but she does not take the hint. I make big eyes at her while nodding my head toward the tissue. So much for the effectiveness of nonverbal communication. Wiping the ropey mucous from her lips and chin and getting it all to stay in the tissue is a feat. In addition to dark yellow, I am horrified to also see green and orange snot. Orange? Really? I begin to dry heave. Does orange mean there’s blood? Constance stares. I do my best to channel the yakking noises into coughs. I could never be a nurse and working with little kids is not my forte either, but I need the money.
Eliza looks at me with red-rimmed eyelids. There are dark circles under them too. Apparently those healthy snacks are not paying off. I throw away the Kleenex, wash my hands, and hope I have not contracted anything.
Lunch proves to be a drawn out process of the children poking at their food. It’s like I’m a waitress serving multi-course meals only I will not get any tips. I try enticing them with more items from their lunches—granola bars, cut up strawberries, Craizens and additional Go-Gurt. Who knew it came in ninety-five flavors?
Next up, nap time. Perhaps I can check my phone or, better yet, get a little shut-eye myself. Constance tells me to take Vlady down the hall for a walk while she gets the rest on the potty. I cast a puzzled look.
“He has trouble transitioning to nap time, sometimes.”
On the one hand, I feel like I’ve gotten away with something by not having to help with the toileting, but what does “trouble transitioning to nap” actually mean? Vlady reaches for me, curling his digits including his picking finger into my palm. Tiny nails bite my skin.
I tell him we should find the hermit crabs I noticed earlier, but he has something else in mind. The boy releases his clutch, tearing down the hallway yelling, “Wheeh!” I cannot catch him. When he gets to the end of the hall, Vladimir leers, then folds his hands behind his back as he waits. I draw nearer. He begins to rock back and forth on his heels. I’m in arm’s length of him when he darts past me. There are signs posted about every six feet with turtles on them reminding running is not allowed. Luckily no one is around to witness the scene. I sprint because we are about to pass by the napping infants’ room.
Finally, I sidle up next to Vlady who is near the hermit crabs. I ask if we can count steps back to the classroom. This strategy is brilliant. I’m proud for thinking quickly on my feet. I’ve got the hang of this preschool subbing thing now. Vlady stares. A bead of sweat forms between my eyes.
“You know, like, one, one step back to class,” I encourage. Vlady furrows his brows. “Two, two steps back to class, just like Count Dracula on Sesame Street does.”
Vladimir shouts “Noo-oh!” striking the terrarium for emphasis.
“But it’s time to go back to the room, Vlady.” I hear the pathetic whine in my voice and hope he doesn’t notice I’m cracking. The fate of the hermit crabs is worrisome. They will get knocked out of their shells if he doesn’t stop hitting the glass.
“I have an idea, let’s hop back.” I demonstrate with a little jump. The glint in Vladimir’s eyes brightens. I know this can go either way. Thankfully, Vlady takes the bait. We hop back to class. Of course he hops ahead, but we are as close to simpatico as we have been since these ‘getting our pre-nap energy out’ shenanigans began.
“Good timing,” says Constance, who is finishing setting up the cots. There’s lullaby music playing, and the teacher has pinned pillow cases over the one window that brings in outside light, but the children look more wired than tired. When everyone is positioned on their cots, Constance briefs me on who likes a back rub and who doesn’t. Back rubs? I never got any back rubs in preschool. Is this the new norm? How about when they wake up, they can get facials too.
Constance leads Vlady to his cot located behind a bookcase away from the other children. “He hasn’t napped in weeks,” she explains from behind the makeshift wall. “I figure we can trade off helping him rest.” Helping him rest? Geez, the language they use around here.
Within two minutes of their teacher being out of view, the children take advantage of the situation. Bill pops up. Sophie kicks off her blanket. Eliza tosses her pillow off her cot, and Kaitlyn completely goes rogue and stands up. The next half hour is spent re-tucking them all in. At one point, Constance has to emerge from behind the shelf and threaten to take pillows and blankets away. I follow her cue, saying, “If you don’t lie down I’ll have to take your blanket, Eliza.” She looks at me defiantly and barks a deep cough.
The sickly girl puts one leg back on her cot. I’ll take it.
Just as the class grows less restless, and it looks like I will soon be taking a little siesta of my own, Jennifer jolts up stating she has to go to pee. I assist her with the toileting and am unhappy to see nothing is produced but a toot. She hasn’t given me any trouble before, but now I feel not only have I been played, she’s possibly been waiting for this moment all day. For the first time in the pale light of naptime, I notice how ashen her skin is against her long, dark-brown bob. With the right dress she could double as one of the twins from The Shining.
As soon as she returns to her cot, Bill says he’s gotta go “baad.” He clutches himself. When I hesitate, he leaps into the air doing a near 360. It turns out he is being truthful and goes number one and number two. Eliza says she has to go poop. Of course she does. When Eliza and I get to the pot, I see Bill forgot to flush, and can’t help but dry heave again, as the yellow and brown contents swirl down when I press the handle. And so it goes until everyone has been to the toilet and put back down for naps.
Before I’ve even had a chance to look at my phone to see what is happening in the real world, Constance tells me it’s my turn to monitor Vlady. Okee dokey, Connie. At least I can sit down. Vladimir holds a small, red sports car and sits cross-legged on his blue cot. When I attempt to get him more interested in his pillow than the toy, he runs the wheels across my face. When the toy car arrives at my nose, the child slows down, then squishes it in hard.
“That is not okay,” I whisper.
Vladimir hones in on my carotid, rolling the car across my neck. I sigh, but don’t say anything. His car continues its trek. It irritates me when he takes special interest in my ears, but I allow the road trip to continue.
Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
Many miles later, Vlady eases himself into resting position. This lasts for like three seconds before he becomes distracted by the only child he can see from his cot: Sophie. Sophie is in the process of losing her pillow as a consequence. She’s crying. Vladimir looks at her, smiles, and laughs a wicked little laugh. Then the Russian inches himself up and rests his head in his hands so he can watch her suffering with more ease.
I cannot help but psychoanalyze this young boy. He is wearing a nicely pressed button up shirt. The blues coordinate with his corduroys. His hair is clean and well-kept even if it is fashioned into a bowl cut. His behavioral issues do not appear to be his parents’ fault. Someone took the time to make him a homemade lunch, the only one I saw today. He also had some sort of super healthy soup. It was dark green and twiggy. There was nothing indicating he consumed a lot of sugar or red dye. Even if his challenging behaviors did stem from nutritional deficiencies, they are being addressed. I consider his parents might be newly employed at the university and he is struggling with the adjustment of leaving the homeland. They probably even have a name for this, something like “juvenile adjustment disorder.” Maybe he misses his babushka. But Vladimir doesn’t have an accent of any sort, so I dismiss this theory.
Vlady kicks his blanket off.
Even if he was misses his babushka, I doubt she misses him.
Regardless of the reasons, this child is suffering. I am not an expert on three-year-olds, but as my tour of duty draws to a close, I recognize this. I get Vlady to lay completely back down by rubbing his back, pressing firmly with varying circle patterns. He won’t fall asleep, but his eyes begin to droop. I slow down some, but don’t stop. The child appears pensive, and strokes his blanket before pushing the corner up his nose. My arm is getting tired. This is the longest morning of my life. I stop with the back rub and cocoon him gently into his blanket. Luckily, at this point, my relief walks in. It’s time to go home.
Whatever ends up on the corner of that blanket is not my responsibility.
Retreating down the hall toward the main office where I will sign-out, passing doors littered with smiling, glittery pumpkins and Indian corn paraphernalia, this feels like my victory lap. I stilled the tiny tyrant within little Vlady, if only for a few moments. He successfully transitioned to nap. If a song was playing in the background, yes, it would be by the Bee Gees.
Is it possible I am leaving with something better than the promise of a paycheck? After only three hours, I came to like the boy I was hired to assist Constance with, even if it wasn’t a head-over-heels kind of liking. Something about Vlady was not quite right. I wanted to help him. Maybe for a few minutes during naptime, I did.
At home, after vigorous hand washing, I crawl under my clean, white, down comforter. This has been the type of day that can only be recalibrated by going back to bed. The comforting tap of rain against the window lulls me into sleep. In what seems like less than ten minutes, I wake to the hissing buzz of texts coming from my cell phone. I rise up, just enough to grab it from my dresser, irritated for forgetting to turn the device off. The text is from Alison. She’s asking me to sub again tomorrow. I make an excuse with regrets.
It’s scary how easy it is to lie via technology, especially in the haze of awoken slumber.