Matthew Duffus, 12/22/2014

Current Occupation: Adjunct Instructor of English
Former Occupation: Apartment Manager
Contact Information: Matthew Duffus's work has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including New Ohio Review, Cimarron Review, and Barrelhouse Online. He lives in rural North Carolina.

 

#

 

Mr. Do-Better

 

 

    The school’s bookkeeper hadn’t finished introducing me before I began to wonder if I’d made a mistake. Out of breath from rushing all morning, I stood before a group of fourteen third graders deemed too disruptive for mainstreaming with their peers on my first day as a substitute teacher. My hands were shaking, and I could feel the first trickle of sweat dampen my undershirt from the fluorescent lights beating down on me.

 

When I’d signed up to substitute teach, I’d had visions of the subs I remembered from high school who took roll, wrote long lists of assignments on the board, and spent the rest of the day paging through magazines. They were more interesting than our regular teachers, if only because they were different, as an exotic kingfisher is different from an ordinary robin. I fantasized about being the cool, eccentric sub who read Ulysses while his students filled out worksheets and completed problem sets. I never imagined I’d be the nervous, fish-out-of-water type faced with a crowd of suspicious prepubescent troublemakers studying me for weaknesses or flaws.

    “It’s a man,” someone whispered before the door had clicked shut behind the departing bookkeeper.

    A tall girl with fairy-tale-blond hair and a mess of freckles accosted me beside the teacher’s desk in the back of the room. “Do you paddle?” she said.

    I gave her my best Dirty Harry squint and said, “Only when I have to.”

    It was the twenty-first century. Surely even schools in Mississippi had given up paddling.

    Not so. The girl, Bonnie, led me to a filing cabinet across the room, where an old fraternity paddle hung from a hook. It had been covered in gray duct tape, with Mr. Do-Better written on one side in black marker and a picture of a crying face below it. Before I had a chance to take this in, Bonnie tugged on my arm again.

    “It’s my birthday,” she said.

    “Happy birthday.” I tried to sound excited without losing the dictatorial tone I was cultivating.

    “The class got to sing when it’s your birthday.”

    “We’ll do that later, okay?”

    She went back to her chair, frowning, convinced that I would forget about this, which I did. My guilt would be short-lived; several weeks later I learned that she told this to every new sub.

    I turned to the other thirteen faces in the room, all of them focused on me. I’d had no orientation before being thrown into the fray, and as I stood before them, I had no idea what to do. According to the schedule on the chalkboard, they were in the middle of Language Arts, but I couldn’t imagine how that differed from Reading, which occurred right after lunch. I hadn’t spent any time among children since I’d worked in a church nursery as a teenager. I didn’t know how to talk to these kids. I didn’t know what they were supposed to be working on. And I didn’t know where to find the lesson plan I’d been assured was somewhere in the room.

    Finally, one of the students broke the silence. “You ain’t a teacher,” Justin said. The students’ names were taped to their desks, so at least I didn’t have to worry about memorizing them on the fly. “You’re a man. Why aren’t you at your job?”

    “This is my job.”

    “How old are you?” Ricky said.

    “Twenty-six.”

    “Whoa. You’re older than my mom.”

    The desks were arranged in two rectangles, four desks on a side, all facing in so that they could talk to each other about the specimen before them.

    “Does your kid go to school here?” Jerry said.

    “I don’t have any kids.”

    “Why not?” Justin said.

    “Mr. Doo-fus, you need to get you some Ro-gone.” Ricky rubbed his hand through the copious amount of spiky hair on his head.

    Somehow, I turned their attention away from my balding presence and got them focused on the subject-verb agreement worksheet they’d been completing when I’d arrived. Within minutes, however, while I was helping Starr and Jerry, a voice rose from the other side of the room.

“And then Stone Cold stomped on his head like this,” Ricky said, hopping out of his chair, camouflaged legs pumping up and down on his invisible opponent

    “Sit down,” I said.

    Ricky looked up at me, brow creased, cheeks puffed out, his best impression of a wrestler ready to rumble. “Who’s gonna make me,” he growled.

“Ricky, sit.”

    The class whispered at this challenge to my already-tentative authority. The longer Ricky remained out of his seat, glaring at me, the louder the whispering grew.

    “Ricky,” I repeated, “sit your butt on the chair.”

    He did so, shocked, and someone whispered, “He said butt.”

    Sitting up straighter, Starr leaned across her desk and said, “Miss Samsel says bottom.”

    “Can we say butt, too?” Justin said.

    “Yeah, can we?”

    “Mr. Doo-fus said butt.”

    I’d already given up correcting their pronunciation of my name and addressed my breach of decorum instead. “No one is going to say that word any more. If Miss Samsel says bottom, that’s what we’ll say.” All of a sudden, the thirty minutes we’d spent on classroom management when I’d begun teaching Freshman Comp in graduate school seemed useless.

    I looked at the clock. I’d been in the room twenty minutes. Only two hours and forty-five minutes until lunch.

*

    In the office that afternoon, while the class was at Music, I avoided the three teachers sitting on the couch by the vending machine and focused on the decrepit photocopier across the room. Finally, after the third time the copier jammed, one of the teachers said, “The top-feeder doesn’t work. Do the sheets one at a time, on the glass.”

    “Thanks,” I said. “I’m not used to copiers that are older than I am.”

    With my back turned, I heard one of them sniff. “You’re in for Miss Samsel, right?”

    I wasn’t sure which of them had spoken, so I introduced myself to the group.

    An older woman with large, round eyeglasses two decades out of style and a frown that must have taken years to perfect, said, “Awful lot of ruckus in there this morning.” A few weeks later she would tell me that she’d been teaching for forty-two years, then turn her back on me when I didn’t show enough humility in response. “Guess teaching isn’t as easy as you thought it would be,” she said.

    “It’s my first day here,” I said, trying to be agreeable without conceding to her.

*

    The classrooms were arranged in clusters, one for each grade, with a byzantine network of hallways that took me a month to figure out. On that first day, I got so lost that I made two circuits and still had no idea how to get back to my room. My head throbbed from stress and lack of natural light—none of the classrooms had windows. I was confused enough that if I’d come across the door to the parking lot, I would have rushed to my car without looking back. But I couldn’t even find the way out. Finally, I stumbled upon a first-grade class lining up for recess.

    An overall-clad student teacher came over to me and said, “Are you lost?”

    “God, yes. I think I’ve been past this room twice now.”

    “Three times, actually.” She smiled, the first pleasant expression I’d seen all day. “Whose classroom are you looking for?”

    My brain shut down. What was her name? I knew it started with an S. “Miss S-m-l,” I slurred, hoping she’d make something recognizable out of it.

    “Miss Samsel?” She turned to her supervising teacher, who offered a complicated set of directions. Without waiting for questions, the older woman led the perfectly-behaved six-year-olds to the playground.

    The student teacher nudged my shoulder with her own and said, “Between the two of us, I’m sure we can find it.”

    We walked down the hallway, past the fourth grade’s illustrated Harry Potter stories and the second grade’s construction paper menagerie and took a left turn I hadn’t noticed before.

    “One of my sorority sisters had you for English,” she said. “She used to go on about how much she liked your class.”

    I was thankful she didn’t continue by asking what I was doing there, mainly because I wasn’t sure myself. I’d finished my master’s degree the previous spring, then taught as an adjunct in the fall. In October, I found out that nothing was available for the next semester, so I applied for every file clerk, receptionist, and groundskeeping position on campus, without getting so much as an interview in return. With only a hundred dollars in savings, fear of impending destitution set one of my eyelids permanently twitching. By the end of Christmas break, I’d broken my lease, moved in with my girlfriend, and applied for substitute teaching.

    We arrived in front of Miss Samsel’s room to find the students already back from Music. Even with the door closed, I could hear yelling. Not kid yelling but adult. Harsh, irate yelling. Experienced yelling.

    The student teacher looked at me, ashen, and said, “Think I’ll…” She left me without completing her sentence.

    I walked in right as the adult voice said, “Where is your teacher?”

    “There he is,” Justin said. He was almost as tall as me, and his arm seemed to stretch halfway across the room as he pointed.

    The woman wheeled around, cheeks red. “This boy,” she said, nodding at Jerry, whose shoulders she’d clamped down on with both hands, “came into my classroom and said there was a fight in here.”

“I was making copies.” As I said this, I realized I’d left all their worksheets in the photocopier tray, in the office.

    The woman released Jerry, who fled to his seat, then turned to the rest of the class. “Y’all need to settle down and listen to—what’s your name?”

    “Mr. Duffus.”

    “Y’all need to listen to Mr. Doo-fus.”

*

    After the kids left for the day, I began writing a summary of the day’s events for Miss Samsel, as my subs had always claimed they did when I was in school. The morning started out okay. But then I sent Nick to the office, and he never came back. In the afternoon, Justin and Ricky refused to do their work. I think Jerry got in a fight, but he wouldn’t tell me who with…

    I stopped and looked around the room. The walls held portraits of all of the presidents, Washington through the second Bush, and the students’ varied attempts at replicating Picasso’s Blue Period. How had Miss Samsel convinced Dee to draw a blue guitar when I couldn’t get him to sit in his chair for five minutes at a time?

Opposite these portraits, on the wall closest to the door, was a bulletin board containing what had become the bane of my existence, Miss Samsel’s complex punitive system. She had covered the board with fourteen small envelopes, each with one of the student’s names on it. An old ice cream bucket held small strips of construction paper that corresponded to the various offenses—red for talking out of turn, purple for leaving one’s seat, etc. The slips were faded, though, and some of the colors looked the same to me. This confusion was exacerbated by my fear of what would happen if I turned my back on the class for too long while tending to the bulletin board.

    “I wasn’t out of my seat, Mr. Doo-fus,” Ricky had whined at one point that afternoon.

    “That’s for not doing your work.”

    “Nuh-huh. That’s purple—”

    “—yeah, purple—”

    “—Purple, Mr. Doo-fus.”

    The class had transformed into a Greek chorus, narrating another of my failures. I searched for a black slip amid the bouquet in my fist, while their refrain echoed against the cinderblock walls.

    “Fine,” I rasped, my voice hoarse from more yelling than I was accustomed to. “I’ll write names on the board and let Miss Samsel decide what to do tomorrow.”

    “You can’t do that—”

    “—the colors—”

    “—in the envelopes!”

    “Quiet!” In my college classes, when the students grew too loud, I simply stood before them, silent and frowning, and waited for them to calm down. If that didn’t work, I resorted to sarcasm. This group of eight-year-olds, however, had reduced me to the behavior of a soccer hooligan. Earlier in the day, I’d lifted Dee off the ground, my hands gripping his armpits, when he’d left his seat for the third time in a ten-minute span. “I’m the teacher today,” I said, more for my own benefit than for theirs, “and this is what we’re going to do. You only have thirty more minutes, so get to work!”

    Over the next half hour, almost everyone’s name ended up on the board. None of them seemed upset about being in trouble, but they were all offended by my unscientific system.

    “Give me a green, Mr. Doo-fus,” Justin said.

    “Yeah,” Bonnie added. “Green’s for bothering your neighbor.”

    Sitting at Miss Samsel’s desk after school, surrounded by framed photographs of her smiling family and neatly stacked piles of books and hand-outs, I decided to tear up the note I’d started. The names on the board would get the point across.

*

    Outside, the January air revived me, the cold breeze soothing my flushed face. The sun blinded me after seven hours indoors. School buses lined two sides of the building, light reflecting off their yellow hulls. On my way to the parking lot, I dodged through the crowds of students running toward their buses, their backpacks bouncing up and down behind them. Halfway across the main drive, I heard someone call my name.

    To my left, the upper half of Jerry’s body hung out a bus window, his hand waving frantically. “Hey, Mr. Doo-fus,” he called again, cheeks plumped as he smiled at me. “See you tomorrow!”

    Tomorrow. The school’s bookkeeper had asked me back for the rest of the week, all with this class. Starr had told me that Miss Samsel was pregnant, and I prayed she wouldn’t end up on bed rest, leaving me trapped with these kids in her windowless room until the end of the year.

I never made it to the high school, my preferred destination. Over the next three months, I spent almost every day at the elementary school, first as a sub and later as a teacher’s aide in a special ed. classroom. During that time, my girlfriend and I were evicted from her apartment because my cat violated her lease, I caught every flu or cold that buzzed through the school’s halls, and I totaled my car coming home one Thursday in a thunderstorm. But no matter the weather or how bad the day had been, I could count on seeing Jerry hanging out of his bus window, calling my name. As the days and weeks accrued, more faces joined his, from every grade. At the university, students rarely acknowledged me outside of class. Here, they charged up to me in the hallway for hugs and high-fives, risked their teachers’ scoldings to call out to me if I passed their open doors. I was the only male teacher at the school, and by the time a rumor began that I’d been hired permanently for the following year, part of me actually wished it was true. My co-workers’ jaded attitudes, the subsistence-level wages, the constant discipline problems, none of it could dampen the thrill I felt when a student raced up to me to tell me about her day.

But it wouldn’t last. I would be headed back to graduate school in the fall. I wanted to be a writer, not another underpaid cautionary tale bogged down by teaching multiplication tables and the parts of speech. Who’d ever heard of an elementary school teacher writing the Great American Novel? Until then, however, I made sure to wave to every last kid before heading off for the day. I may not have taught them much about math or reading or art, but this was the least I could do.

 

2 comments on “Matthew Duffus, 12/22/2014
  1. Jan Priddy says:

    I subbed for a lot of years while my children were small and I was adding subject endorsements. I covered every subject and every grade in my small rural district. Elementary was the most exhausting. I was, for a time, known affectionately as the Dragon Lady. (And it was affectionate.) I thought I might write a novel—I wrote four novels and completed an MFA—while I was teaching. I am still teaching.

  2. Matt Theado says:

    I can imagine this school perfectly, with its byzantine hallways. Tomorrow’s Christmas, as I read this, and the last two sentences of this lovely (and hilarious!) essay will be echoing in my mind. Wonderful writing! Beautiful spirit!

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