It was 1990 in Pennsylvania, certainly not the 1950’s and certainly not the deep South. My soon-to-be-ex had been transferred to a suburb outside Philadelphia, and I took a leave from my teaching job in California to follow him, except he was traveling most of the time so I was pretty much alone.
At the time — before internet, if one could even remember those olden times — California could just as easily have been a foreign country floating somewhere in the Pacific. I felt completely cut off, except for AT&T phone lines.
Desperate, I signed up for substitute teaching positions, but, alas, there were no jobs to be had, until one dreary, rainy day when a call finally came. I must have driven a good hour to a high school in a small, rural community.
The principal came out to greet me which was a bit unexpected, but then, I wasn’t familiar with rural Pennsylvania norms. He was tall and probably in his early 40’s. He asked about my experience and said that the schedule was pretty standard, except for the period around lunch. It was a split period, with half before lunch and half after. And, he warned me, it was a very difficult reading class.
Not to worry. I’ve taught reading to high school students. I’m sure it will be fine.
You are from California, right?
He visibly grimaced.
The first two classes were a breeze, primarily college bound students. I was used to suburban California schools, with classes filled with young black, brown and white faces; these classes were filled with pale white faces and blonde hair. Brunch bell rang and the principal was waiting for me as I locked the door.
How did it go?
It went well. The kids are wonderful and the lesson plans were extremely clear. You’re very fortunate to have such great kids and teachers.
He nodded, then hedged. Ah, I have a concern.
Well, lunch will be in a another period and a half.
Yes, thank you.
And, I know you’re from California.
And, hmmmm, well, California teachers are pretty liberal.
I had no idea where this was heading, but my intuition told me it wasn’t good.
Not everyone is a liberal.
Well, ah, that’s good. I understand. But, we have heard ah, we know that you California teachers, hmmm, use the lunch break, hummmm, for hot tubs and drinking white wine.
His un-asked question hung in the air.
I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking. My only excuse was that I was in high school teacher mode, where quick, snappy somewhat wise-assed comebacks are a staple in surviving teenagers and, so I immediately responded.
Oh no, that’s only in Marin County, not all of California.
With that, I no doubt sealed the doom of any teacher from Marin County California from ever getting a teaching job in Pennsylvania and for that I want to offer my deepest, sincerest apologies.
The principal looked visibly relieved.
Well, then good luck with the upcoming reading class. It’s mainly gang members.
The reading class had all of twelve students. Only six, all black, made the first half of the class before lunch. I’ve taught gang kids, and believe me, these students were young kids and no more gang members than my own two children who were students at UC Berkeley.
I looked at the lesson plan which was a quick drill ‘n kill assignment. For an hour class, it seemed very skimpy.
How long will it take you to get through this? Kids can be notoriously honest.
About 10 minutes.
Great. Can you do it and then we’ll do something more interesting?
We had gotten well into Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool when the lunch bell rang. The kids all wanted to stay and keep on going.
No. I need to eat. So do you. See you in thirty.
The principal was standing outside the room
Was that the lesson plan?
No. They finished the assignment, so I’m filling the hour with poetry.
After lunch, the rest of the class showed up as well, so I had full contingent of twelve kids. Evidently word had spread that I was okay. And, to answer your question, yes, all black students.
We finished Brooks and continued with Harlem, by Langston Hughes. When the class period ended, the kids exited, excited and still debating the poem.
Remedial Reading and gang members, my foot.
It was the only time I was asked to sub in Pennsylvania.