What follows is a story I drafted in early 2022, in the thick of the Teacher Shortage (by which I mean the predictable consequence of decades of disparaging and belittling an entire profession, which reached unprecedented heights during the pandemic). I still quite like the story, but I suspect the context–legislation that allowed a host of classroom-adjacent staff, like office professionals, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, to substitute teach in my home state–has been largely lost. I think there’s something to be said about what comes of viewing K-12 teachers, some of the loveliest, most dedicated, most generous critters on the planet, as functions rather than people, and this is my way of saying it. So here we go.
At some point after the morning bell, in the middle of her third ice-breaker of the week, Sonya looked out over the rows of masked, bright-eyed faces with names she would never remember and realized she couldn’t take it anymore.
When the last student in the last row had offered a fun fact about himself, all those faces turned to her expectantly. By then Sonya was looking past them, staring at a faraway point somewhere beyond the coat closet, the broken clock, the bone-white cinderblock wall.
“Are you feeling okay, Ms. Bottoms?” a red-haired girl in the front row asked, her hand tentatively raised.
She blinked, turned to the girl, and smiled. “I’m doing just fine—better than ever, really! Thank you for asking.” Sonya chewed her lip and scanned the room, sizing up those thirty waiting faces. “Today feels like a very special day,” she finally said. “How would you like to spend it? Talk it through and let me know.”
The class was stunned, but only for a moment. When they understood that she was serious, a lively debate erupted among them. Sonya excused herself and slipped into the hall to see if she could get away with what she had in mind.
As soon as she closed the door behind her a strange silence settled in. The whole upstairs wing was essentially empty, with the students from all four of Wheaton Elementary’s fifth- and sixth-grade classes consolidated into her home room for a run through the daily rotation.
Wheaton served both Folsom Falls and a ring of rural areas, so the shift to online classes had involved a series of staggering steps, setbacks, and on-the-fly adjustments. The Folsom Falls students with good internet connections were at home, taking classes from the teachers at Plainview Elementary. The rest of the older students were here with her, collected in the January dark and brought in to face whatever skeleton crew Wheaton could scrape together for the day.
In the Social Studies classroom across the hall she found Dante Winn, a lanky, well-dressed Black man who was thumbing through a book and fleshing out a lesson plan, waiting for his turn with the kids at the 9:20 bell. He greeted her from his desk but held up a warning hand, the lenses of his glasses clouding as his breath escaped his mask. “Chances are good that I’ve caught it; made the mistake of going to a funeral last Friday,” he said with a sigh. “No symptoms so far, but we’re a half-dozen teachers down. I had to come in.”
Sonya nodded and smiled sympathetically. “I was at Oak Grove on Monday, over with the first- and second-graders here on Tuesday. It’s the same thing everywhere. The cupboard of available subs is running pretty low.” She took a step backward and looked down the hall. “Speaking of which, I’ve got an idea for the day,” she added, “but I need to see who else is holding down the fort. I’ll be right back.”
Sonya walked down the hall and waved her arm back and forth inside the Arts and Music classroom, turning on the motion-sensor lights. The room was empty, save for the mess left from the day before. Markers, colored pencils, and construction paper were scattered all over the widely-spaced tables. It looked like the kids had started making paper lanterns, but the work had been abandoned halfway through.
The lights were already on in the last classroom in the wing, the all-purpose Math and Science lab. Sonya peered around the corner, started, and grinned at a familiar face. “Hey, Jerry!” she said with a wave.
The occupant of the lab, sorting a tall stack of worksheets into shorter piles, tugged at his collar and sat up straight behind his desk. “That’s Mr. Rawlings to you, young lady,” he said with a wink. “At least for today.”
Sonya laughed and curtsied. “I’m ever so sorry!” She stepped inside the classroom and stood at the corner of the chalkboard, a healthy ten paces away. “They roped you in for a tour of duty?”
Jerry nodded, slipping off his reading glasses and untangling the arms from the elastic straps of his mask. “It was either me or Judy from the cafeteria,” he replied, “and I’m not just going to stand by and see these kids cheated out of their pizza.”
Sonya walked to the window and saw Jerry’s bus dominating the far side of the faculty parking lot. There were about a dozen cars in the lot, all told. “They had Naomi from the principal’s office with me over in east wing on Tuesday, picking up a third-grade class, but today she’s got to field yesterday’s backlog of calls from parents.”
Jerry shook his head. “I knew they ‘d written up that bill that’d let any warm body stand in as a sub, but I never thought the schools would actually use it.” He slumped in his chair, looking incredibly tired. “It’s a damned shame we can’t do right by these kids.”
“I’ve got a little notion about that, if you’re willing to hear it,” Sonya said.
She led Jerry over to the Social Studies room and introduced him to Dante. It took all of three minutes to convince them to hand the kids over to her for the day—a farewell gift for her last day of substitute teaching.
Jerry nodded his assent. “If any of the kids want to rattle the test tubes they can come on over to the lab,” Jerry said, “but if we manage to send them home healthy and a little less feral, I’ll be a happy camper.”
“I could use the extra planning time,” Dante admitted from the far side of his desk, smiling and stretching. “And I seriously doubt anyone in the front office will have a chance to make the rounds today.”
Sonya grinned. “If they do, and if anyone complains, just send them to me.”
Sonya slipped back into her classroom, and her return went largely unnoticed. The debate about how to spend the day was apparently still raging, and the students in the frontmost rows had pivoted in their seats to challenge a cluster of kids in the back corner.
“And what have we decided?” Sonya asked cheerily.
The kids looked at one another, and at last a tallish boy in the center of the classroom piped up. “Most of us want a free reading period—just reading, no pop quizzes or comprehension tests or anything like that,” he said. He twisted to the right and pointed a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the corner-dwellers. “But they don’t want to read today.”
A brunette in the very corner of the room, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her face half-covered by a homemade gingham mask, glared at the back of the boy’s head and then looked to Sonya. “You did say it was a very special day,” she said, catching Sonya’s tone exactly. “So we were wondering if we could work together and write a story of our own.” The kids just around her all nodded in unison.
Sonya stepped around her desk and sat on the edge, smoothing her skirt to her knees. “A little disagreement is healthy, so long as we’re civil when we settle our differences,” she said. “Today, however, I think we can agree to disagree. And I think we can get away with doing both.”
The eyes of both the readers and the writers widened, and they whispered excitedly to their neighbors. “And,” Sonya continued, holding up a finger before the readers all bolted for the bookcase, “you’ll have all day to work on whichever project you prefer. We’re not doing a rotation today.”
“No Common Core stuff today?” the tallish boy asked, incredulous. “None at all?”
“Nope—no quizzes, no discussion, no Common Core bubble sheets. Just free reading and writing. Is that okay with everyone?” Sonya spread her hands, and thirty fifth- and sixth-graders nodded in unison.
Sonya rounded back behind her desk. “Writers,” she said, addressing the back corner, “why don’t you step down the hall to the Arts and Music room—no, we’d better make it the Math and Science lab. That way you can talk while you work on your story. Let Mr. Rawlings know that I sent you, and let him know what you’re up to, okay? If you have any questions as you go, just come back to me if he can’t field them.”
The writers looked at one another, then gathered up their things and filed out the door. A boy with curly blond hair from the front row joined them.
Sonya let the readers make their selections from the bookcase, sending them over to the side of the room in pairs, starting from the back of the alphabet. When everyone was more or less settled in, she powered on the computer, pulled the keyboard out from its sliding drawer, and started typing.
In twenty minutes Sonya had drafted a letter to the email list most of the substitutes for the district used, and she took another ten minutes to revise it, making her points brief and compelling. She nodded to herself. When she was finished the letter set precisely the tone she wanted: it came up short of calling for a sick-out, a walkout, or something like a strike, but those possibilities were heavily implied as unavoidable steps if the district kept stretching its supply of teachers and subs so thin.
The boy with curly blond hair slipped into the classroom and sidled up to her desk just as she clicked Send. “Ms. Bottoms?” he said shyly, resting his hand on the side of her desk and looking at his fingers. “What’s the difference between no one and nobody? We don’t know which one to use.”
Sonya smiled. “Have you tried them both out in a sentence? Which one sounds better?”
The boy’s brow furrowed, and he pushed the stapler so it was parallel to the edge of the desk. “I can’t really tell the difference. ‘No one can hear you holler’ doesn’t sound much different than ‘Nobody can hear you holler’. Not to me, anyway.”
Sonya nodded and touched his hand reassuringly. “I think that’s exactly right—as far as I know there’s no real difference between them. No one is a little more formal, but nobody sounds just fine to me, especially with a verb like holler.”
The boy’s face brightened. “Thank you!” he chirped, and he hastened from the room. As soon as he was gone she squirted a glob of sanitizer into her palm and massaged it into her fingers.
Sonya looked out at the readers and sighed. They were all utterly engrossed, lost in Oz or Narnia, caught up the adventures of Pippi Longstocking or Klaus and Violet Beauregard. They were all eager to learn, hungry for words and the world, but on any other day, with any other sub, they would be taking practice tests to prepare for the real tests that would decide how much funding Wheaton would ultimately get from the state. It was a stupid, pernicious system.
It took Sonya half an hour just to address her next letter. She intended to mail it directly to the school district’s superintendent, but she wanted to copy in everyone she thought might weigh in on the side of the teachers and substitutes: sympathetic principals, the presidents of the school boards for Folsom Falls and Oak Grove, and even the leaders of a few parents’ groups. When she was satisfied with the list she spotted another student just outside the classroom door, a bespectacled Black boy in a blue cardigan.
Sonya waved him inside, and he began without preamble. “Ms. Bottoms, is it duct tape or duck tape?” he asked in a whisper. “And is scissors supposed to be a singular word?”
Sonya smiled. “The answer to your first question is actually a fun little story. The tape we all use was originally called duck tape because it was originally made from a material called duck cloth, but not many people knew that, so the spelling changed. You can use either one really, or you can use gaffer tape, too. Readers will know what you’re talking about.”
“Could you spell that for me?” he asked, and Sonya did.
“And to answer your second question, scissors is one of those weird nouns that only comes in a plural form, like glasses—and I mean like reading glasses, not drinking glasses—or pants. So if you’re wondering about verb agreement, it would be ‘the scissors are’. Does that cover it?”
The boy nodded, smiled, and darted for the door. “Thank you!” he cried over his shoulder, and the readers looked up from their books and glared at him.
The bell rang a short while later, and Sonya glanced at the classroom clock automatically before remembering it was broken. It was 10:15, and she was stuck.
The overture to the letter had been easy. It involved a bit of inflated praise, characterizing her readers as well-meaning people who had been dealt an incredibly bad hand, even though she felt most of them were bean-counters and penny-pinchers who viewed the kids as little more than costs in a column on a spreadsheet. Deciding how she could really reach them, however—how she could make the plight of demoralized teachers and their overworked stand-ins vivid—eluded her.
A petite girl with a patterned mask and matching hairband materialized beside her desk. She was a little flushed and fidgety, shifting from foot to foot as she waited for Sonya to acknowledge her.
“And what can I do for you?” Sonya asked, turning from the monitor.
The girl started, stopped, and began again, struggling to phrase her question. “Is it cut or cutted? If it happened in the past, I mean. And would you say a number of cuts or an amount of cuts? I think we should just go ahead and change the verb, but Laurie says that only cut will really do.”
“It sounds like it should be cutted, doesn’t it?” Sonya began, and the girl nodded. “Cut is one of our irregular verbs in English, though. We have cut, cuts, and cutting, but no cutted.”
“I still think we should use snip,” the girl said. “I just like the way it sounds.”
“Me too!” Sonya said, smiling through her mask. “And when I need to decide if I should use number or amount, I try to think in terms of how many or how much. If I think “how many cuts,” then I use number, if it’s “how much cuts,” then I use amount. Which one sounds better to you?”
The girl nodded again. “‘How many cuts’, definitely.”
“Then number it is,” Sonya said.
“Thank you, Ms. Bottoms!” the girl said, and she turned on her heel and bounced out the door.
Sonya watched her go, looked out over the readers, and returned to the screen. She pursed her lips and started typing.
She would pull no punches. She would tell the people who had been entrusted with ministering to the needs of these kids that they were failing, that they had failed. Kids need guidance, supervision, commitment, and consistency, and what passed for education in the district was erratic, haphazard, and contingent. If they expected the schools to serve their purpose—to turn out young adults who were ready for the world—they would need to invest in something better than the patchwork, piecemeal scheme they had settled on.
When she was done Sonya nodded. It wasn’t a perfect letter, but she couldn’t think of any way to make the plight of students, teachers, and substitutes more vivid.
“Ms. Bottoms?” a girl’s voice called, and the brunette with the ponytail and the gingham mask curled around the corner of the door, holding onto the jamb.
Sonya turned to the girl. She saw an irregular diagonal slash of dark red that crossed the gingham, descending from the brim of the girl’s mask to her chin. When she slid her hand down the jamb the girl left a red smear, redder than fruit punch, redder than fingerpaint. Sonya’s mouth went dry.
“If you have a name that ends in an S, do you make the possessive with an apostrophe S or just an apostrophe?” the girl asked. “Like, would it be ‘Mr. Rawlings’ head’, ending with the apostrophe, or ‘Mr. Rawlings’s head’ with a second S at the end?”
The girl tilted her own head and waited for an answer.
Sonya swallowed hard and clicked Send.