The Other Side of the Desk


I had last week one of the most interesting experiences of my career as a substitute teacher — I taught, for the first time, in a classroom in which I had once been a student.

I’ve subbed a couple of times this year at my old high school, but the building I attended was torn down several years back and a new building built. So while it is my high school, it’s not where I went to high school, if that makes sense.

Back in college, I subbed very briefly one semester, and did get to teach once in my high school building, albeit not in a room in which I had ever been in class. It was, however, quite interesting having lunch that day in the teachers’ lounge, across from one of my old teachers.

Last week, I taught at Huntsville Middle School, the only school I attended in Huntsville which is still standing. And not just at Huntsville Middle, but in the science lab room in which I had classes all three years I attended.

I taught from behind Mrs. Riley’s desk.

Well, technically, it’s not Mrs. Riley’s desk anymore. She had long since left the school, and the room and desk now belonged to another teacher. But it was the same desk, and many of the other same trappings were still present in the room.

It was weird. Weird being back in the room after nearly a quarter century, and weird being on the other side of the desk. It affected the way I taught, informed by my experiences in the room.

There were weird bits of synchronicity — a kid was wearing a Pink Floyd shirt, reminding me that the first time I’d heard of the band was in that very room. It brought back to mind old friends, a few of whom I shared with where I was.

I took the opportunity to walk through the building, allowing a variety of other memories to wash over me — the gym, where Jason and I planned my failed run for Student Council (next to the locker room where I learned of the Challenger disaster); the keyboarding room, where I can still recall my indignation of Ann Marie being wrongfully accused by the teacher for something; the counselor’s office where Elaine and I bonded over the SOICC computer system.

I was made a little nervous at first by the fact that the assistant principal kept peeking into my classroom, until I remembered that his office would have been just next door; he had to walk by my room to go anywhere on that side of the school. I remembered Mr. Purcell, who had the office when I was a student there, and how intimidating it had been. Then I had the weird moment later in the day of talking to the current assistant principal and discovering that he and I had actually overlapped as student there — my first year at Huntsville Middle was his last, and that he also remembered when the office he now occupied had belonged to Mr. Purcell. I can’t imagine but that that wouldn’t be weirder.

I was very proud that it was a good day, that the students at my middle school alma mater were among the best I’ve taught.

One of my favorite moments of the day came in the last period, when I talked to the kids about the fact that I had been a student in that room many years ago. I mentioned the name of the teacher whose room it had been, and for some of the students, it clicked. It turns out that when she left Huntsville Middle, Mrs. Riley had moved down to the elementary school I had attended, where she had taught some of the students in her classroom.

In that room, a quarter century difference between us, it was cool to discover we had something in common.

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