Substitute teaching is tricky work, especially when it comes to young children. Whenever the regular teacher leaves, tranquility vanishes with her. And when she’s gone 5975185-2xs
for a long time, the kids feel deeply uneasy about an altered routine. Nobody else can do school like their “real” teacher. Certainly, no one else can remember all the little mandated nuances to her routine–the non-negotiable gospel of elementary school. Everything has a song or a rhyme or a sequence of claps to go along with it. For me, it’s a rolodex of confusion.

And yet, from time to time, when I’m focusing on writing or on my family, I like taking a break from regular teaching and spending a year or so being a substitute teacher. Call me crazy, but I like the diversity of running a classroom that’s not mine and teaching material I’ll never have to see again.

I’ve spent this week in the first grade. Let me say, it’s been a shock to my system. The phonics, the math, the seat work, the lining up and marching through hallways. The tattling and touching and requests to go to the office for paper cut injuries. I’m trying to settle in for a long-term gig, while these little children are trying to adapt to yet another new teacher who doesn’t know what’s going on but who pretends that she does. We’re all trying to connect and drowning in the details of first grade protocol.

I learned this week about the elusive Desk Fairy. If these children were older, I’d think they were working me (and maybe a few are playing on my sympathies). But I believe in their innocence, because their little faces look up at me wistfully, without a trace of hope that a fake teacher could summon the Desk Fairy from her hiding place.

“We used to have a Desk Fairy,” they say sadly. “If we left our desks really clean at the end of the day, the next morning, we would find lollipops inside. She gives them for being neat.”

“At least, she used to.” Their faces are long and without color.

“The Desk Fairy hasn’t come for a long time!” Someone’s voice wails a bit.

“The Desk Fairy hasn’t come since Teacher left.” The words come from the mouth of a serious, cardigan-sweatered child who thinks deeply and uses expressions like “Oh, my goodness” and “That’s very interesting,” even though he’s only six years old.

I suggest to them to clean their desks really well in case the Desk Fairy returns to the neighborhood. The children clean with gusto, washing their desk tops with overly-wet paper towels from the bathroom (that’s another story). They check under each other’s desks for errant pencils. They even pick up paper scraps from card-making earlier in the day. They work together like well-oiled machinery. The room almost sparkles.

I locate a bag of lollypops in the top filing cabinet drawer.

Thursday morning dawns with shouts of glee.

“She came!”

“The Desk Fairy came!”

“Candy! Candy! Candy!”

They leap around the room and greet every arriving first grader with the news.

The serious boy comes up to me, judging my face with the critical expertise of a child acquainted with important fairy personnel, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. “Did you do this?” he inquires, detective-like, with narrowed brown eyes. “Are you the Desk Fairy?”

“Do I look like a fairy?” I ask him.

His eyebrows pull together. His practiced eye looks me over. “No.” He dismisses the idea with a shake of his wavy brown head. “You’re just a teacher.”

I smile. I have simultaneously achieved success in two arenas–I am bequeathed as a “real” teacher by a child who misses the original, and I have simultaneously pulled off becoming a fairy.

The first grade settles into a day of expectance and familiarity. They wait for my instructions and raise their hands when they have questions. No one runs to my desk to whisper what should be happening next or whose turn it is to lead the class in some uniform recitation.

They are confident that I have finally learned how to run their classroom. If the Desk Fairy thinks I’m capable, perhaps I am.

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