Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Substitute Turns Mayhem into Melody

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Substitute Turns Mayhem into Melody

Article excerpt

I felt as though I'd been thrown into a lake full of ice water. It was my first day as a substitute teacher. "Sink or swim," I thought as I looked at 36 squirmy second-graders lined up in the hall, waiting to enter a classroom in South-Central Los Angeles.

I had an Emergency General Elementary Teaching Credential issued in 1953 by a school district desperate to fill vacancies. I had graduated from UCLA with a BA in English literature and had taught one day a week at a parent-cooperative nursery school, but nothing had prepared me for this.

The word went around the class in agitated whispers. "She's not our real teacher! Where's Mrs. McCoy? What's she carrying?" (Looking at the strangely shaped case I had in my hand.) "She's a substitute!" Shock and distress registered on their faces as we all filed in. ("Filed" is not exactly the right word here. Shall we say pushed, shoved, jostled, and stumbled?) Once inside and seated at last, after the minor mayhem in the coatroom, called "putting away our things nicely," I introduced myself as "your teacher for today," and wrote my name in standard grammar-school printing on the blackboard. None of the students could pronounce it, and I remained "Teacher" until the end of the day.

I took attendance, wondering desperately how I was going to remember the children's names. There was neither lesson plan nor seating chart, so I was on my own. It was time to open that mysterious case and take out my Autoharp, which I had decided to bring along at the last minute. The primary classes Ihad attended as a child always began the school day with singing. I remembered the pure joy that accompanied those sessions, and how the class always seemed to settle down afterward. Maybe it'd work here.

I sat on a small chair and asked the children to gather around. Holding my Autoharp on my lap, I stroked several chords with my fingers. The lovely sounds flowed out to eager ears. I told them the name of the instrument and demonstrated how I depressed certain keys and ran a finger or a pick over the wires to produce music. They were fascinated.

"When our music teacher comes, she plays the piano," said one child, pointing toward a closed instrument in the corner. "But she only comes 'bout once a month."

"I'm not a music teacher," I said. "But I teach lots of things, and one of them is singing songs. So, how many of you know "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain'?" It seemed that most did. We progressed to "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie," then "My Darling Clementine," and ended with a rousing "Oh! Susanna." No one wanted our singing session to end. Many wanted to take a turn on the Autoharp, which I encouraged.

Arithmetic came next. This had been my least favorite subject when I was in school. Best to get it over early while they're still fresh, I reasoned. Fortunately I had taken a course in elementary math when I was preparing for my credential. …

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