I love children, or at least I thought I did until I started substitute teaching a few months ago. I may reevaluate my opinion. I used to teach middle school before I had children, and I loved it! I had a federal grant to teach in a low income area in San Jose, California. It was a challenging job, but I thought it was wonderful. I adored most of the kids, and I was more than their teacher. In fact, many days I wasn’t a “teacher” at all. I felt more like a social worker, mother, police officer, counselor, and therapist all wrapped into one.
So, after 19 years away from the classroom, I thought I would give it another try. I started substituting at local middle schools. It was a horrible! I am not a stranger to adolescent behavior. But, I was shocked that these kids from middle and upper middle class white and mostly Mormon families were so unbelievably disrespectful. Somewhere along the way, their parents had skipped the lessons on how to behave towards their fellow students and their teachers. For me, it was another display of the hypocrisy in this state. The very judgmental community I live in needs to take a look in the mirror.
I am now substituting at the elementary level and it is a bit better. However, every day I am reminded in some manner that I am still an outsider in this community. Every day, whether I am in a kindergarten class or a sixth grade class, a student will ask,
“Are you a BYU fan or a Utah fan?”
Of course, that is kid code for “Are you Mormon or not?” My answer is always the same.
“I am from California, so I am not a fan of either, but I love the San Francisco Forty Niners.”
They all get very excited as Steve Young played for the 49ers and I am "in" without really answering their question. This answer gives me an instant connection with the majority of the class and being an outsider connects me with the others in the classroom. Who knew that defining myself in this manner would be so important to children.
So, many things have happened over the last few months that are both funny and strange. When I start the day in a new classroom, I try to get to know the students quickly and ask them to share something about themselves, they think I will remember. Well, kids do say the darndest
things, so here goes:
“My name is Brigham, and I get my brains from Jesus.”
“My name is Dallin and I am named after a prophet.”
“My name is Joseph and I am a future missionary.”
Get the picture – religion is important to these kids and it is an accepted part of the public schools. Now I have nothing against religion being important to anyone, I just find it unusual that it is talked about in school so openly.
I was in a kindergarten classroom last week and two boys were literally grilling another boy about his religion. One little boy meanly questions,
“Do you go the church with this? (the boy makes the sign of the cross with his fingers)
“Why aren’t you Mormon?”
Another five year old chimes in,
“I am Mormon!!”
I put a stop to this little conversation as the poor little boy who worshipped elsewhere was about to burst into tears. I have heard stories like this so many times from people I know, but had never truly witnessed it. I am saddened that such young children are taught to tease and fear kids who are different. I hope that regular classroom teachers put a stop to this as I did, but I am truly not confident!
I bring my coffee with me every morning and one morning another teacher stopped me and said
“Yeah, another coffee drinker.”
Then she gave me a warning. She said that once she had a parent stop her in the hall and ask
“Are you allowed to bring coffee into an elementary campus?”
Really – are you kidding me? One morning as I was taking a sip of my “morning joe” two third grade girls asked if I was drinking hot cocoa. I simply answered “No”. The one student whispered to the other “It is coffee.” Both girls put their hands over their mouths and started giggling as their teacher was being “naughty”. Again, drinking coffee, is not OK, but being rude to adults and teasing others who are different is accepted. CRAZY!!!
Another day I was in the library with a fifth grade class and the librarian read them a story about Jackie Robinson. The story revealed a lot about racism at the time and would have made a great lesson for fifth graders. I was thrilled and looked forward to what the librarian would teach after the story. All she said was, “So that is a great tale about the history of baseball.” What – that is it??? I wanted so badly to discuss the dangers of racism today – even against our current President, but I knew that would be looked down upon in lily white Draper Utah. I used to love teaching, especially about history and how we can learn so much from our past. I really wanted to be back in San Jose, California, teaching kids who knew first hand the ugliness of bigotry and discrimination. I felt like a failure that day!
So, I still love children, but I feel sad that we may be raising young people here who will never learn that it is OK to be different. Fear may keep them from the knowledge that other cultures, religions and places can make their lives better and more full. It is great to love who you are and to honor your faith. But faith should not lead to anger at those who don’t believe as you do. It is my hope that young people will learn that it takes more than just abstaining from coffee, alcohol, and premarital sex. Whatever your faith or lack thereof, it should be about how we treat our fellow human beings. We should not ever get so caught up in “the rules” that we forget how to behave towards one another. I only hope that this community and its teachers learn from the words of another great teacher,
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”