A substitute turns mayhem into melody

I felt as though I'd been thrown into a lake full of ice water. It was my first day as a substitute teacher. "Sink or swim," I thought as I looked at 36 squirmy second-graders lined up in the hall, waiting to enter a classroom in South-Central Los Angeles.

I had an Emergency General Elementary Teaching Credential issued in 1953 by a school district desperate to fill vacancies. I had graduated from UCLA with a BA in English literature and had taught one day a week at a parent-cooperative nursery school, but nothing had prepared me for this.

The word went around the class in agitated whispers. "She's not our real teacher! Where's Mrs. McCoy? What's she carrying?" (Looking at the strangely shaped case I had in my hand.) "She's a substitute!" Shock and distress registered on their faces as we all filed in. ("Filed" is not exactly the right word here. Shall we say pushed, shoved, jostled, and stumbled?) Once inside and seated at last, after the minor mayhem in the coatroom, called "putting away our things nicely," I introduced myself as "your teacher for today," and wrote my name in standard grammar-school printing on the blackboard. None of the students could pronounce it, and I remained "Teacher" until the end of the day.

I took attendance, wondering desperately how I was going to remember the children's names. There was neither lesson plan nor seating chart, so I was on my own. It was time to open that mysterious case and take out my Autoharp, which I had decided to bring along at the last minute. The primary classes Ihad attended as a child always began the school day with singing. I remembered the pure joy that accompanied those sessions, and how the class always seemed to settle down afterward. Maybe it'd work here.

I sat on a small chair and asked the children to gather around. Holding my Autoharp on my lap, I stroked several chords with my fingers. The lovely sounds flowed out to eager ears. I told them the name of the instrument and demonstrated how I depressed certain keys and ran a finger or a pick over the wires to produce music. They were fascinated.

"When our music teacher comes, she plays the piano," said one child, pointing toward a closed instrument in the corner. "But she only comes 'bout once a month."

"I'm not a music teacher," I said. "But I teach lots of things, and one of them is singing songs. So, how many of you know "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain'?" It seemed that most did. We progressed to "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie," then "My Darling Clementine," and ended with a rousing "Oh! Susanna." No one wanted our singing session to end. Many wanted to take a turn on the Autoharp, which I encouraged.

Arithmetic came next. This had been my least favorite subject when I was in school. Best to get it over early while they're still fresh, I reasoned. Fortunately I had taken a course in elementary math when I was preparing for my credential. With some help from printed material I'd brought along, we got through that lesson without coming to grief. I even felt that learning had taken place!

Thus we progressed through the day. After lunch, when the children seemed tired from their activities on the playground, I read to them from Dr. Seuss. Following "If I Ran the Zoo," they had to have "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street." Because I'm a traditionalist in matters of poetry, I also read "The Sugar Plum Tree," by Eugene Field from a book I had with me. They liked it, but thought it had a lot of funny words.

"What means 'agog,'?" asked Eldon, after hearing "That chocolate cat is at once all agog."

"Class, does anyone know what 'agog' means?" I asked.

Emma raised her hand. "Is it some kind of a dog?"

"Good try, but it means 'very excited.' "

Reading came next. The reading setup was a mystery to me until Emma explained about Blue Birds, Red Birds, and Yellow Birds.

"The Blue Birds are real smart," she said, "the Red Birds are pretty smart, and the Yellow Birds are just a little smart. I'm a Blue Bird." Then, in a mock teacher's voice, she announced, "And now we have to get our books and go to our tables."

As the children shuffled noisily into place, a few tried to sneak into a "smarter" table and were soon called out by Emma. I began to wonder if I couldn't turn over the rest of the day's teaching to this little paragon. However, I decided to soldier on.

"Class, I have another idea," I said. "Just for today, let's push our tables and chairs together. Then we'll all take turns reading from Dr. Seuss books." This met with claps of enthusiasm, especially from the Yellow Birds, who evidently disliked their regular book. "We'll take turns reading two sentences," I said, inventing as I went along. "Also, we may help one another when it is needed." Several Blue Birds perked up eagerly, especially Emily, who evidently loved to help less skillful readers.

The reading experiment was a great success. We finished two books. It was surprising how well even the Yellow Birds did when reading a story they enjoyed.

At the end of the school day, we had time for more singing.

One little girl requested "Rock-a-Bye Baby," and Eldon asked for "Yankee Doodle." I taught them "Down in the Valley" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." They wanted to go on singing after the final bell. As we wished each other goodbye, several of them hugged me and said, "Goodbye, Mrs. ... Mrs. ... Autoharp." I began to feel that perhaps I was cut out to be a teacher, after all.

From that time on, when a primary "sub" was needed in that school, I was requested as "Mrs. hm.... Oh, you know, the Autoharp Lady."

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