By Lisa Davis Orf

When I substitute teach, sixth is the grade-level that throws me completely off-balance (probably because most of my sub days are spent in high school). They’re not the elementary school kids my peers and I were back in the day. No, they’re newly emerged middle school students who laughed with me (yeh, we’ll go with that) because I had to be reminded that K.I.S.S is an acronym for “keep it simple, stupid” and not just a ‘70s rock band. Yet, when a building goes into lockdown, they suddenly become children and I find myself completely surrounded by 25 or so of them clinging to me like a giant belt chattering about all the “what ifs” that mostly reflect my own concerns for their safety.

I had one particular sixth-grader in class — I’ll call him “Shawn” — who had a goal sheet for teachers to evaluate his behavior. I gave him two 1s (the best) and initialed D.J./L.O. (the classroom teacher’s initials followed by mine). Shawn returned to the room during the next passing break and wanted me to make a correction. “I’m not D.J.,” he said, pointing to the sheet. D.J. had been in my room earlier that day, had a differently structured goal sheet, had received all 3s, and had to be escorted out of the room by a principal. I could see why Shawn would want to make that distinction. I assured him that because his teacher’s name was “Dani Jones,” that her initials were D.J., and that his goal sheet was accurate. I even pointed to Shawn’s name printed at the top of the page. Blank stare. Finally, I just told Shawn, “No worries, just show this to your counselor and tell her you had a sub.” Gotta tell ya, this made for the absolute best laugh over lunch with the sixth-grade teachers!

With sixth-graders you can also “step in something soft” (to borrow a colloquialism from my native Pike County, Missouri) so quickly that you’ll find yourself thinking “42” (see note). A health class sub plan called for me to lead a discussion on bullying. I gave the kids a few minutes to work in groups to brainstorm non-violent solutions. I walked around the room to see how they were coming along. One student, “Jake,” had written “kill them with kindness,” then asked if that was okay to use this, explaining that’s what his dad always says. I told him his dad sounds like a smart man. Jake laughed mischievously, telling me, “Yeh, that’s what he calls his duck hunting gun, ‘Kindness.’” My son is a duck hunter. In fact, I could envision my grandsons imparting this exact wisdom on their teachers. So, this turned out to be Jake’s lucky day. “Let’s just go with the word ‘kindness’ ” I replied. Jake was still laughing as he periodically glanced my way while he erased the “kill them with” part. See, they’re children.

But, nothing any sixth-grader has ever achieved in my class beats the upbeat experience “Sadie” shared with me. Sadie arrived to her computer class saying she couldn’t type. She held up her right hand, which was bandaged with gauze and secured with a brace just past her wrist. She used her uninjured hand to pass me a doctor’s excuse.

ME: What happened?

SADIE: Well, last night my brother shut my fingers in the car door. I guess no one knew because it was like five minutes before I could get anyone to get me out. So, there I was in the backseat with my fingers stuck in the front door on my brother’s side. They finally found me. So, my mom decided to drive me to urgent care, but our tire went flat on the way. So, Dad came and tried to fix the tire, but the spare was flat and the tire for his car didn’t fit. So, he took me to urgent care, instead. Urgent care sent me to the emergency room because my fingers were too twisted up for them to fix them, there. (Here, she demonstrated the problem on her good hand.) That took awhile. So, Dad stopped for gas on the way home from the hospital. I ran inside and bought a bottle of water while he was at the pump because I was pretty dry after they fixed my hand. When I came out, Dad was gone — I guess he forgot I was in the store — and I didn’t have a coat because it was in the car. So, I had to walk the rest of the way home in the cold without a coat, but it’s not really a big deal because it’s only three blocks and I walk up the hill to go there when I want to buy something. So, I walked home, and was locked out of the house. I beat on the door with this hand (holding up the uninjured one) and my dad saw it was me so he started unlocking all the locks. We live in a really bad neighborhood, so it takes forever to unlock all the locks on the door. Finally, he let me in. (Sadie finally took a breath and her shoulders dropped.)

This kid had a pragmatic delivery that made this sad set of facts highly entertaining! I was maintaining a pretty straight face that I hoped reflected the actual compassion I felt — although I was struggling to maintain decorum! It was a reality versus art thing, and the art was downright entertaining. I told the class to get in their seats and got the sub plan started. Sadie headed to hers, then boomeranged back to my desk.

SADIE: Oh, and it was my mom and dad’s anniversary, and they were supposed to go out to dinner, but the hospital stuff ran them too late so they had to eat at home with us kids.

My little optimist lingered a moment. I kept waiting for her to add more to the narrative, but she stopped there and returned to her seat. Sadie is one of those children who I hope is actually as resilient as she appears. She makes me grateful to have the privilege of working with wise and caring educators who are looking out for, not only Sadie, but all of their students — and they know whether or not it’s appropriate to laugh.

Lisa Davis Orf is a freelance writer and substitute teacher based in Jefferson City. In her free time she likes to read books, ride her bicycle, and hang out with her grandkids.

Note: The number “42” refers to a quote, “The answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42,” borrowed from “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

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