Enter: Viola Swamp

About a hundred and five years ago, or “2003,” I was a substitute teacher in Chicago Public Schools before I got my permanent placement. I spent five weeks filling spots all around the city - a city I did not know and had never driven in before. This was before Google Maps and almost at the start of the Internet at all. 

MapQuest directions, (which I had to print out at home and take with me,) often sent me to dead end streets in neighborhoods where, if my brand-new Toyota didn’t give me away, my corduroy skirt and button-down blouse surely would. 

“Hi, I’m supposed to sign in, in the office,” I would say. 

“Are you meeting someone?”

“No, I’m teaching eighth grade special ed today.” I was always teaching eighth grade special ed, though I was in no way qualified for this. 

“Oh, I thought you were a student!” Every. Time. 

Granted, I was a couple of months out of college, but I taught K-8, and to this day I truly don’t know how anyone thought I was 13, at most, every day for a month and a half. Especially in the corduroy skirt and button-down blouse. 

As a middle or elementary school student, you have one true aim for a substitute teacher: push them until they break. There is a lot to be said on the topic of how students in low-income areas push back on adults in general to see if they will leave. If they do, it is what the kids have come to expect, and if they don’t, well they passed the test. A test, however, which is never really over. 

In the case of substitutes, it’s no-holds-barred because you only have to push this one around for one school day. It’s like Miss Nelson Is Missing except there is no Viola Swamp to fear, just pure chaos. 

As a middle or elementary school substitute teacher, you walk into a room of grinning kids who are waiting to eat you alive. 

Until this week I was subbing more yoga classes per week than I taught of my own on a schedule. Every room has different music controls, lighting, orientation, props. Every format is only as detailed as its online description. Beyond that, it’s whatever the regular teacher has developed in style, voice, and vibe. People in LA go to class for their teacher. 

So far no one has thrown any chairs at me, none of the desk staff thinks I am a teen, and to my knowledge, no student has called me a “crazy bitch” or threatened to kill me. 

Yoga: 1; Public Schools: 0

But I regularly walk into a room a glaring adults who are greatly disappointed that it is me at the front of the room. Viola Swamp.

That fall of 2003, in between sub appointments, I had at least three interviews a week for my permanent placement. In every interview, the principal asked the same question.

“Do you think you need to love your students in order to teach them?” 

I always said yes because I thought that was the answer they were looking for, but I still don’t know what the correct answer to this was because I didn’t get any of those jobs. By the time I had my interview at my permanent school, I had been yelled at by both students and other teachers, lost an entire classroom of special needs children, unearthed a used latex glove on a teacher’s desk, and felt a general despair about creating lesson plans from nothing but a daily newspaper and one Sharpie marker. 

“I don’t think you need to, but I will.” 

I will because you don’t need to, but it does fucking help if you can find some compassion. 

There’s a teachable moment somewhere now in the yoga community about walking into class having so many expectations for the experience you're about to have. I do get it though. No one takes class hoping it will be nothing they understand or know, and for that I can sit at the front of the room and absorb some glares. 

It is, I admit, pretty wearing, and I am beyond thankful for my regular classes with my familiar faces. I don’t need to love you, but I really do.