For those of you who don't know me, I'm one of the many teachers that got laid off this past school year. I decided to start substitute teaching this fall in order to earn some cash and to keep up with what's going on with the schools around me. One thing I love about teaching is that every day is different; you never know what to expect from the kids. Most of my friends would describe me as a 31 year-old woman with the sense of humor of a 15 year-old boy. As a teacher this can be dangerous ground because it requires a LOT of self-control to not laugh at dirty jokes and inappropriate comments. I can't tell you how many times I've heard things that I think are hilarious, but I have to fake a stern expression and reprimand some kid.
I usually do a pretty good job at keeping myself in check. I may have a potty mouth at home, but at work I flip a switch and my vocabulary changes to that of a professional. My most recent brush with this appropriate/inappropriate balancing act is one that have to share.
I was subbing for a very good friend of mine who teaches Freshman, English/Language Arts. Due to her last minute illness there were no plans, so a fellow English teacher came to me (two minutes before the bell) and told me to read this short story called: A Perfect Day For Bananafish, by J.D. Salinger. She had photocopied it for me and everything. Now I'm a huge fan of Catcher In The Rye, but I haven't read a lot of Salinger's other works (Bananafish included).
Having NO time to read the story before the class started, I (like any good teacher) decided to wing it. After all, a fellow English teacher photocopied the story and told me to read it. It had to be okay, right? Wrong! The woman who gave me the story teaches upperclassmen and I don't know if she hadn't read the story recently, or just took for granted some of the content, either way the story was a bit much for a group of 14 year-olds.
Naively, I started reading the story out loud. It takes place in the late 1940's and typical of Salinger, the characters reek of wealth and superiority. Things were fine for the first couple of pages, until I saw it. Do you know how you can be reading out loud but your eyes are ahead of your voice? That happened to me. As I was saying the words, I saw the word 'pussy' up ahead. I started freaking out internally. In the milliseconds before I had to say the dreaded word I thought, "Shit! I don't know these kids. I didn't know this word was in here! I didn't prepare them for it and how am I supposed to explain it to them?!? Who says the word pussy to a bunch of Freshmen? I'm so going to screw this up."
I couldn't do anything about it, so I made a noise that said, "Woah didn't see that coming," and read on. I was hoping that I wouldn't have to say it again, maybe I could just ignore the word like I'd never said it out loud in the first place. Yeah, that was wishful thinking because Salinger decided to throw it in a couple more times for good measure! So there I am reading this short story, not knowing where it's going, or how I'm going to explain that in this case the P-bomb didn't mean vagina, to a group of fourteen year-olds that I've never met. Embarrassing much? Lucky for me the kids were awesome and didn't make any rude comments. In fact I think they were more embarrassed than me because I didn't even hear any snickering.
If you're wondering how I handled it, I went on to explain that some of the language used back then had different meanings than it does today. In this case, a mother was calling her daughter by the nickname "pussycat" and in this context the word does not mean the same dirty thing it does today. Phew!
To make matters worse, the main character shoots himself in the head in the last sentence. Again, this is something I would have liked to warn the students about, but instead I was completely blindsided. When I finished, one kid looked at me and said, "I don't like this story". My response was, "yeah, I didn't pick it."