Sub Mission: Teaching While Treading Water

The ABCs of Imperialism from Baltimore to Hong Kong

Two hundred North Avenue is the white stone behemoth of bureaucratic machinery where I arrived to be processed into the ranks of the Baltimore City Public School Substitute Teachers. Twenty-four hours later I was standing under the weighty stare of twenty-something 5th graders. I had no teaching experience, no real facility with children, and no idea how to proceed.

A couple of weeks prior I’d gotten the idea that substitute teaching might be a pleasant-enough gateway from the perpetual underemployment I had found myself in since graduation; testing the waters on the full expression of the profession. Teaching was an idea I had toyed with, people had often said things to me like, “Oh, you’d be a good teacher,” but I’d always felt that it would interrupt what I truly wanted — the old line about those who do and those who teach — I wanted to do. Nonetheless, I jumped online, requested an application, filled it out, inventing my “methodology of teaching” with some nonsense about a “philosophy of self-confidence,” and sent it in. A few days later I got a letter from the school system instructing me to show up for an assessment. The day arrived; I put on a fresh shirt and a red-checked tie and went down.

The assessment was in a school a little out of town, an attractive brick building right on the edge of where Baltimore county and city meet. I was surprised at its pleasant quaintness, an old-school schoolhouse so to speak, one that had been tweaked over the years. The interview was straightforward. I sat up straight, watched my mouth. Stressed, oh yes, I’m a graduate of New York University. Truth be told the principal couldn’t have cared less, culinary school, computer repair correspondence courses, whatever. I could speak with reasonable intelligence, was apparently not a four-armed mutant and/or child molester, I had no facial tattoos. I was in.


She seemed a nice, dedicated lady; she beamed with pride as she gave me the post-interview tour. This is our gymnasium, our cafeteria. This wing was added on in 1950, this 1970.

I nodded and smiled, said, “Yes, it is a lovely school.” She asked me questions about what grade I was interested in teaching. I said I was willing to experiment a bit. What subjects I wanted to teach. My math and science are a little weak. The tour continuing, she brought me to a pair of large brightly painted metal doors. “Are we going outside?” I asked.

She said she wanted to show me the middle school. The door opened onto a vast blacktop basketball court cum parking lot, surrounded by a 10-foot chain link fence. “We had a problem with vandals,” she said. Inside the prison-like compound stood 6–8 green painted prefab sheds. “They’re 11 years old. We’ve been trying to get new ones,” she said. “But there’s no money so we make do with what we have,” she continued smiling. A middle school with no lockers, no hallways, no bathrooms, no water fountains, and the ones I saw inside, at this and every other Baltimore City school I have attended since, have signs announcing “DO NOT DRINK.” We may be thirsty, but we make do.


At 6:30AM my alarm went off and I groggily roused myself. I wasn’t particularly nervous or scared; how hard could it be? I showered, put on a rarely worn button-up, grey trousers, and a pair of Italian ankle boots I had picked up in Rome a student would later describe as “Pay-Less.” They obviously weren’t teaching fashion in Baltimore City. I grabbed my 38-page “Substitute Teacher’s Handbook,” and was off.

I passed through the streets, people in business gear, tags hanging from chains and clips, and I was one of them. I was going to work at an obscenely early hour, had an identification tag clipped to my pocket announcing me as a substitute teacher, and was happy. I listened to my Discman, sipped my 7–11 coffee, and laughed. The streets changed out of Mt. Vernon, my neighborhood, across the freeway. I was still new to Baltimore and the geography was unfamiliar. Is that a jail? It looks like a jail. There are cops, and a sign. Yeah, it’s a jail.

“Excuse me, sir, can you direct me to such and such street?” I walked on.

The school looked like most do, a big inarticulate monochromatic building. I found, after a few tries, an unlocked door and entered. In the office there was the requisite administrative nonsense with its “who called yous,” and fumbling of my last name before we finally collectively figured out where I belonged. They didn’t check my badge.

“Third Floor, janitor will take you up.” The hallways relatively empty, my ignorance of peril fully functioning, up the stairs, and with a turn of the key, the door to Rm. 307 swung open.

It was large and ornately decorated; flyers hanging from the ceiling caused me to duck every few feet. I don’t remember ducking later, by the end of the day I think I must have stopped noticing them, blindly walking through the yellow poster board announcing verb and predicate, too tired to swat a fly. Scanning the room, I moved to sit behind the desk as notions of my complete lack of knowledge, training, and experience slowly began to dawn on me. The children would arrive soon and I had absolutely no idea of what to do. I was about to pull out the handbook, page 31, “the Substitutes Day,” when I spotted the plan that had been left for me. I relaxed, thanked God, there was something. I picked it up and started to read a direct minute-to-minute break down of the day’s intended activities. Little blocks of instruction that I was to provide, to educate, to edify these trembling masses.

The first kids started to trickle in and I was only halfway through my reading of the lesson plan. I frantically picked up the seating chart and tried to get some names: it says to do that in the handbook, personalize the experience. I stood at the door and greeted the students as they entered. “Hello. Good Morning,” I said. They looked at me like I was an ogre, some weird thing descended upon their world, girls shrieked and ran out of class (I’m not kidding). This was a fine start. Establish my authority.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Mr. Wennermark.”

“Huh?”

“Mr. Wennermark,” goddamn unwieldy thing, “fine, you can call me Mr. Erik.”

“Where’s Ms. X?”

“She’s not here. I’ll be your teacher today.”

“Huh.”

The first few hours were a haze. My feet hurt, my ears hurt, my legs hurt, my eyes hurt, I am prone to sweat, but this was ridiculous. Did I mention how hot it was? It was hot. No AC, two dinky K-Mart oscillating fans on either end of the room that the students constantly fiddled with, adjusting here, oscillating there.

“Sit down.”

“Mr. Erk,” my name had been further abbreviated, “it’s hot!”

No shit.

“I don’t think touching the fan is going to make it any cooler.”

I quickly discovered such rationalizations ineffective.

“Mr. Erk, it’s hot!”

I tried relation.

“Yes,” I said, “why yes it is. I am a bit warm myself. We are the same, you and I.”

Didn’t work either, but my thoughts began to grow further disconnected and absurd. I managed to begin the vocabulary lesson somehow, some grating shriek seemed to be effective initially, less so as they grew more aware and accustomed to my utter lack of any sensible method or plan to what I was doing, any training for such eventualities as the young woman running around class with the paper towel covering her face.

“What is wrong with you?” She pulled back to the paper towel to reveal a huge bubble of snot dripping from her nostril. Okay! A problem I could manage!

“Wipe your nose.”

“Gross!”

“As opposed to what?”

“Huh.”

I’m not sure why they couldn’t find the words in the dictionary. In retrospect I imagine they were just playing with me; I imagine I would have done the same thing in their position. I was trying to remember if I had mercilessly challenged subs in my school days. I can’t really recall though I’m sure I did. I patiently explained the position of “q” in the alphabet in relation to, say, “p.” I made the best of it. The kids wrapped up their vocab and I experienced a small victory, one block of time was conquered to the past. Which one was that? Ah, 8:30–8:55.

By 11:00 I had lost all sense of direction and purpose, my life had dwindled to a complete inability to control a group of ten year olds. It seemed to encompass all my many failures: women, money, employment, fame, became one with this. I cajoled, I bargained, I begged. “Look, guys, please, just be relatively quiet,” so no one in the hallway can hear this mockery I am, “and I’ll just let you draw till lunch ok? Please. Help me out here.” One particularly bright girl in the class looked at me with unabashed disdain.

“This is what you think of me,” her eyes seemed to say. “This is the value you place on my life.”

I would be negligent and possibly deluded if I were not to mention race at some point in my recounting. I recently read a piece about Brown vs. The Board of Education and one statistic that surprised me was the difference, ratio wise, in respect to segregation in public schools now as to when Martin Luther King was killed is an infinitesimal one. I am reasonably certain that the entire population of the school where I experienced my first day was African American. It is my opinion that this fact is completely irrelevant to the quality of education possible, yet it does strike me as a problem; it is a disservice to the students to spend the vast majority of their time in such an insulated environment. I spent a goodly portion of my school age years in foreign countries, in “International” schools, where I experienced almost every race, ethnic group, and nationality possible, though admittedly all economically upper class. I can’t quantify this experience precisely other than to say different is different than same, but I am sure it was a good one. I do think though, in the context of these schools at least, the more pressing issue is class. Racial desegregation, while a natural goal, is more or less irrelevant in the context of the rampant segregation of economic class that appeared, and likely still appears, to be taking place in Baltimore City schools. Regardless of color, these kids were poor, and that is why they were getting a lousy education. And it was self-perpetuating: chicken, meet egg. Were a 100% black school to magically appear in an affluent neighborhood, I imagine the resources and results would be quite different.

The stock nasal whiny making-fun-of-white-people voice started almost immediately, which was annoying but harmless; it got knocked off by a couple stern looks, but the comment made when I asked a student to stop doing… something… it all melted together, got me. It was her interrogation, “Whadda I look like, your slave?” that set me back.

What? It was so malicious! There was bile in my throat. I was obviously disturbed. Had she triggered some collective guilt in me? How was that possible? I got pissed off. Who do I look like girl, George Washington?

I swallowed and answered measuredly, “No, you are not, but I am your teacher,” today at least, “and I expect you to obey.”

I was called into the principal’s office at lunchtime. I was sure it was to unmask me as the fraud I was. To send me on my way, packing my bags on the useless endeavor I had undertaken. Without my polished apple, to walk out head bowed. And part of me was happy; the thought of going back into the classroom with these kids was terrifying. What could possibly change over lunch? I was not to suddenly morph into a person with an MA in education, a person with any knowledge whatsoever of how to handle the situation I was in.

I dutifully reported to the office and was waved into the backroom. Walking the long hallway I thought I was sure to be greeted by sneering reprimands, testimonies to my ineptitude. Instead, I received a warm handshake and sincere expressions of gratitude.

“Not a lot of people are willing to work with these kids. You’re obviously a good person to help us out down here,” the principal said.

“These kids, they are good kids, they just don’t have the social framework to support them. We really appreciate the help.” I readily admitted that I didn’t think I was having much success, in fact that I was completely ineffective, and I received vehement protestations to the contrary. It seemed that anyone who was even willing was welcome, just walking through the door was a step. Little did she know that I had had no idea what I was getting into, my morning had been a disaster, and I had no intention of coming back. All I had been thinking about was a way out, and now there was this other expectation, of goodness. It was a joke. It seemed that my failure fell short of other more massive failures. Society had let us all down, at least my ignorance was innocent, at least I was earnest in my stupidity.

After lunch things improved slightly. The principal apparently took pity on me after our talk, and sent a qualified teacher to help me out. With two of us, and with me deferring to her on any measure requiring meaningful authority, we got a little done. The kids stayed seated, for the most part, and the shrieking abated. I was able to spend some time with students individually, run them through math problems personally, checking there multiplication, making sure they had the process right. If there was any redemption it was here. I experienced some enjoyment, I was mostly miserable, my feet were killing me, the kids thought I was a bastard (one told me so), but I was trying.

I spoke to a few other teachers during the day, mostly communicating my utter confusion with a glum half smile. They were understanding. “It’s hard,” I said.

“I’ve been here X amount of time and it’s still hard,” came the reply.

Everyone looked tired and it was hot. The final bell rang and the students left, one asking me as she did, “You didn’t like this class very much, huh?” She looked at me kindly with soft eyes.

“No, it’s not that,” I tried to explain, “it was a hard day for me… and I don’t think I did a very good job.” She gave me a smile and walked out the door.

With the classroom empty I sat at the desk and penned a letter to the teacher I had subbed for, drafting it multiple times, desperately trying to explain how I felt, to communicate how empty I was, how fragile the experience had made me. It was all so hopeless, so damn existential! I tore them all up and just wrote down what I had covered and what I hadn’t. I told her that in my opinion their “behavior” wasn’t great but that I didn’t feel up to laying blame, we were all in it together. I picked up a few bits of trash, closed the classroom, and walked down the stairs and out into the parking lot. A young teacher saw me and introduced herself.

“So how did it go?” she asked.

“You know,” I said.

“Yeah,” she replied, “well, I hope you come back. We really need good people here.” I nodded and walked away. “See you around.”

The next day, there was a message on my answering machine. “Hello Mr. Erk, this is Ms. X from X school. We were wondering if you are available to take a first grade class for two days next week. Please call and let us know as soon as possible. Thank you.”

I haven’t called back.


I wrote the majority of the preceding roughly a decade ago. Stuck it in a file and forgot about it. Despite no child being left behind by the common core, I doubt much has changed in Baltimore City. Talking to friends and what I read from home seems to confirm that assumption — I’ve seen The Wire.

I’m in Hong Kong now with a Master’s degree and about six years of teaching under my belt. While I’d like to think I’ve learned a bit in that time, I’d still be a little wary of going back in that classroom; I imagine I could survive, certainly better than I did that day, but doing a such a difficult job for such a low-wage (and little respect) holds much less appeal at this stage in my life.

I make my living in Asia, teaching and tutoring the progeny of the global 1%, polishing their test scores that they may go to American universities the kids in Baltimore could only dream about, if they even considered it worth dreaming or had the knowledge to do so. It costs about 130 USD to sit down with me for an hour to go over a chapter in The Great Gatsby, translate Keats to 15-year old speak, elucidate the formula for a high-scoring essay on the TOEFL college-entrance exam. (I’ll give you a freebie: the secret is to pretend you’re American: loud, opinionated, and overconfident.) Some kids come in for three or four hours at a time to work on one school project of little overall import. Ten or fifteen hours or more for the big exams: just another couple thousand dollars between the haves and have-nots. In my previous teaching stops in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, I’d work with some kids on scholarship, teach volunteer language classes, but the reality is only the wealthy can pay my desired wages. Chalk up one more ethical complication in a profession fraught with them.

It’s not difficult to look upon my work in Asia as a sort of cultural conquest. While no doubt incredibly useful to my student’s future, the continuation of their elite status, English-language teaching in non-English language countries is a thoroughly colonial enterprise. While always clear to me, particularly in my university entrance prep work, the oddness of the vocation was crystalized teaching George Orwell’s The Hanging to a large group of well-to-do Sri Lankan teenagers. A white-faced me pooling sweat in the equatorial heat standing before rows of attentive brown-skinned teens.

“Sir, what is a Dravidian?” came the question in reference to a description of one of the Indian jailers.

“Uh, basically you,” I replied.

Heads down, note taken: Dravidian — me. Yes my child, let me come from America to teach you about yourself in my language.

I carried on through the description of the wispy Hindu prisoner with “vague liquid eyes” being marched to the gallows, his hopeless heathen prayers, the galumphing inconvenient dog. “Can anyone identify the thesis statement?” A few hands respectfully raised.

Perhaps even more so than Orwell was I discomfited by Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, as its presence on the syllabus was thought to somehow provide a counterpoint to the white man’s opinion, but with the insult of obliquely comparing upper class Sri Lankans to sub-Saharan yam farmers.

Yes, I seemed to say from my high podium, let me tell you students how the instruction of literature dictates you should properly interact with a history of bloody conquest that leads us to where we are today, speaking English in a classroom of an office building in downtown Colombo. You are the Ibo, and I… am the archetype of British imperialist? Don’t be silly. This is educational! I do this for you! As Kipling said, it is a burden in patience I abide. Thank you too for the everyday elucidation of your charming foibles and folly. It will give me wonderful material for my memoir; after much consideration I have decided upon the title: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Rm. 301.

Nor is this feeling limited to my time outside the U.S. In a summer school American literature class during my graduate years at the University of Alabama, when time came for Frederick Douglass’s slave narrative or even Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I felt a bit of the same: let this Yankee — while I’m from south of the Mason-Dixon line, I’m certainly a Yankee to an Alabamian — tell you hicks how backwards you really are. And like Sri Lankans informing me with a roll of their eyes that they’ve never seen a fucking yam in their life and going back to Candy Crush, my students in Alabama were similarly unconvinced by my earnestness and rectitude, or simply didn’t care, so far separate was their life from Mr. Douglass’s.

Which perhaps brings me back to Baltimore, one of the first steps on my road to becoming a teacher. In retrospect, it seems that my first formal teaching experience salted the earth of my delusions about the role — Dead Poets Society desktop exhortations of a highly elite group of homogenous students— and prepared me for realities of dealing with dozens of unique personalities each day with different wants, needs, and goals within a wide variety of social, economic, and cultural contexts.

In the intervening years I’ve come to enjoy the hell out of the job most days and not be so buffeted by the difficult winds in between. Writing a recommendation letter (unpaid) for a fine student and seeing her get into the school of her dreams, following another student’s exploits on social media and seeing him blossom into an interesting and engaging man. Having a student drop by just to say hi, and tell me her future plans. Introducing a student to a cool book and having him actually enjoy it.

That is how I have become a teacher and why, despite my peers far more monetarily and socially valued positions, I stick with it. As I’ve said many times in preventative defense of my profession, I get paid to read poetry and fiction and talk about it, how bad could it be? Better than Excel spreadsheets, at least. (I gather that’s something people do.) I’ve travelled the world teaching and am still finding the time for my own work — I’ve learned, with a little time-management, you can do and teach. As luck (and my pocketbook) would have it, the more mercenary elements of the profession have become just as rewarding as the airy-fairy ones: getting a kid into college vs. engendering a lifelong love of the written word. In fact, I hesitate to do too much engendering. Poetry, kid? What, you want to be a teacher? My advice: Get a business degree.