Monday, November 2, 2009

Other People’s Spaces

In David Sedaris’s excellent and hilarious essay, Nuit of the Living Dead, he sees his house through a stranger’s eyes – the random objects strewn around seemed proof that he was a deviant, a psychopath, a general menace to society. And then, of course, there was the mouse he was drowning in a bucket on the front porch.

Well, these days I’m the outsider, sneaking peeks at other’s spaces. It’s the nature of being a substitute teacher. I pick up the key from the office, lose my way once or twice around campus, and eventually open the door to a stranger’s private space. Well, not private, of course – but every classroom reflects the personality of its teacher. I can tell something about the teacher by the way the room is organized, the handwriting on the white board, the posters on the wall. I can’t help but study personal photos tacked to the wall. Is this him? Is this her? Young? Old? Married? Single? Kids? Pets?

Today I was in a classroom where every inch of the walls was covered in inspirational posters, the kind of inspirational posters that were popular in the 1980s. Cuddly kittens offering to be a friend. INSPIRE, one said. ACHIEVE! ordered another. Lots of hot air balloons, gorillas, the ever-present middle-school mantra: “What is right is not always popular; what is popular is not always right.” Last week, in Spanish I and II, the teacher instructed me to turn off the candle warmer before leaving. Candle warmer? Why didn’t I think of that when I was teaching? It’s a perfect, gentle way to mask the odor in those post-P.E. bodies. In my first (and maybe last, depending on my poverty level) experience teaching second grade, the class was a ship, the students divided into “pirates” and “mateys.” To bring the class to order, a tiny red-headed boy informed me, I should call out, “All hands on deck!” When I tried this, the response was thunderous: “Aye, aye, Cap’n!” (Later, I told a boy with a tummy ache, “Pirates don’t cry, buddy.” I was pretty pleased with myself, but this only made him sob harder.)

When I was teaching, in cozy little F5 on the corner of the quad, my room was a study in organized chaos. I simply couldn’t contain the papers. They were everywhere, on every surface. Collected papers, graded papers, papers to be filed, papers to be passed back. Yearbook ladders, yearbook proofs, random yearbook papers I was afraid to throw away. Block days in creative writing generally involved hand-written prompts on tiny scraps of paper which collected on the overhead cart, the bookshelves, the chalk trays. Sometimes I could hardly see the monitor for the Post-It notes I was always writing myself, the million little things that, if ignored, would upset the delicate balance of this tiny universe. When I had a substitute, I swept the stacks into the recycle bin, stashed the odds and ends (odds, mostly) in desk drawers, and left a bright, cheery note full of hopeful predictions about the day.

But I wasn’t really trying to hide my disorganized personality – I was thinking more of the comfort of the person who would be sitting in my circa-1970s office chair and trying on my life for size. The substitute would leave me a note about the day and that was it – we never crossed paths; he or she was essentially invisible to me. As I am now – Invisible Woman, curious about the stranger I’ll never meet, deciphering those clues on the wall distinct as any fingerprint.

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