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Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Orphanage

A few weeks ago, my kids were joking about goons from the psych hospital dragging someone off to a padded cell. This reminded me of something.

When we lived in Kansas City, MO—in the same unforgettable 6-month period in which I stole a cat from our brain-damaged squatter neighbors and I was mistaken for a streetwalker—I was  a substitute teacher for four different school districts around Kansas City.

The only people who substitute teach are a) recent education graduates trying to get jobs, b) moms who need a little work or are kindly helping out their kids school, usually at the request of the principal; and  c) the freaks, weirdos and losers who will work for like, $30 a day, and can’t find other employment.  The first two groups target the nice schools--they avoid  neighborhoods where they wouldn’t feel comfortable, say,  parking their car. So for the assignments in the rough parts of town, that left, group C), and me, Miss Pollyanna Happy Pants, skipping into schools with bars on the windows and police officers stationed in the cafeteria, eager to figure out which learning styles the children had!

In retrospect, I should have just worked at Barnes and Noble, and had a relaxing six months shelving books and sipping lattes.  Anyway. My son’s comment about the men in white coats reminded me of my three days at The Orphanage. Until I got this assignment, I had no idea there were still orphanages. I found the facility tucked away in the woods all the way on the outskirts of the city. When I walked in and introduced myself, the ladies at the desk positively fawned over me. I think one of them actually hugged me. They led me into the teacher’s room and showed me they had baked me a cake. It said, “Welcome substitute!”

 This couldn’t be good.

“We’ve never had a substitute show up before!” the lady at the front desk explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Heh.”  I had accepted the job for three days. I was wondering if I could cancel it before lunch.

But, I took some cake and was led to my classroom. It was a beautiful building—modern, clean, and bright. (It  actually reminded me of my cousin’s classroom in their excellent private Quaker school in Philadelphia.) It was by far the nicest classroom I had been in thus far in Kansas City.

A sweet, older lady who was a classroom aide gave me a rundown on the kids. There were only twelve of them, all in elementary school. As the kids filed in, the aide whispered  to me: this girl was here because both parents were in jail. This boy’s family was homeless. And this little boy here, with the big blue eyes and spiky blond hair, had been found alone in an abandoned building, in a room full of animal feces. I remember his face to this day.

It turned out to be the easiest substitute job I ever had. I stayed all three days. Every day they made me cake. The kids were quiet and well behaved. The food in the cafeteria was really good, and I noticed the facility had a pool outside, covered up until summer. I noticed at one point that several kids did not have shoes on--their living quarters were attached to the school--and asked the aide why.

“So they don’t run away,” she said , as if I was an idiot. (Which, in this situation, I was. For a fact, I knew less about harsh reality than anyone else in the entire building—brand new teaching degree or not!)  I looked outside at the woods and thought about how long I had driven to get here. I thought of a twelve year old kid walking along that road. I couldn’t imagine past that.

At the end of the third day, the kids started to act up a teeny bit. I was nice to them, and obviously, had just stumbled off Rich White Lady Stupid Planet. I was not in the least alarmed when one of the kids talked back to me—in another school, I had seen kids throwing chairs at each other with the principal present!—so a little lip from these kids did not alarm me. My aide, on the other hand, was really alarmed.

“You got to press the button,” she said. “He can’t act like that.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, “No big deal. The day is almost over.”

The kid, hearing me defend him, threw a pencil across the room. The aide stood up.

Press the button,” she said urgently. Mostly out respect for this lady who had been so kind to me for three days (not the typical substitute experience, I must say!),  I pressed the big gray button on the wall behind my desk.

In less than ten seconds, two enormous men in white coats entered the room, looked to the aide, who pointed at the offender, gently lifted the kid off his feet, deftly removed his shoes, and took him away. He didn’t seem overly concerned—definitely not frightened—he had obviously been down this road before.

“But—“  I was so shocked I could not even speak before they had quietly closed the door behind them.

The aide shook her head and went back to her crossword. The other kids went back to their spelling.  I hissed to the aide, “But where did they take him?”

“Oh, he’ll be in detention and talk to the counselor until he can calm down,” the aide said. “Don’t you worry. He’ll be fine.”

When I finished telling my own kids this story, fifteen years later,  they too, were utterly speechless. I don’t know what shocked them more: that I actually did things before I had them, or that there were still orphanages, where kids were taken away by men in white coats if they talked back.

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