“Um, Mrs. Bruno? I don’t think you’re supposed to use PEMDAS for this,” a girl in the third row announced, without raising her hand.
“Oh?” I studied the whiteboard, then at the paper in my hand. There were two sets of parentheses, two minus signs… but a couple of x-es thrown in that I didn’t have any clue what to do with. Part of the reason I had been an early childhood education major in college was precisely so I wouldn’t have to deal with complicated math. But, of course, the administration of the Stonybrook school system didn’t particularly care what I’d studied in college when they called me at 5:30 this morning asking me to come in. Apparently they’d gone far enough down their substitute teacher list that they were pretty desperate to have a warm body filling in while Mr. Newton was home with the flu.
So here I was, teaching polynomials to a bunch of teenagers who looked a lot surlier than I remember being when I was 13. What I would have given to be my friend Stacey McGill, who had been a total math whiz when we’d gone to Stonybrook Middle School, well over two decades ago.
“Do you want me to do it?” she asked in complete deadpan, her eyes showing that she was absolutely done with my incompetence.
“Uh, sure?” I said.
She jumped out of her desk and flounced forward. She reminded me a lot of Stacey, actually: clearly one of the cool kids, with a huddle of friends who’d scooted their desks closer to hers. She didn’t look much like Stacey– she had dark, curly hair and eyes and amber skin, whereas Stacey had blonde hair and blue eyes– but she did wear an oversized hooded sweatshirt over a pair of black biker shorts and hoop earrings the size of half-dollars, much like some Stacey had worn in middle school… Although I’m pretty sure this was throwback nostalgia fashion, and if I’d mentioned my friends dressed similarly to her when we were her age, she’d be utterly mortified.
She took the dry erase marker from me and proceeded to explain, “You multiply everything in the second set of parentheses by the first term in the first set of parentheses.” She wrote a string of numbers and characters on the board. “Then you multiply them by the second term.” More writing. “Then you simplify.” She wrote one final equation on the board, then drew a cloud around it before returning to her desk.
“Uh, great. Thank you…”
“Anastasia,” the girl said.
“Anastasia.” Of course. “Any questions?”
The kids stared blankly at me. One or two glanced longingly at the repurposed shoe organizer that held their phones.
“Great.” I flipped through the papers in front of me, found the next example, with an x and a y. Fan-freaking-tastic.
“Who wants to try this next one?” I said as I wrote the equation on the board.
Anastasia examined her nails, then up at me. “Do you want me to do this one, too?”
“One of the other student should really have a chance to try.” When nobody volunteered, I selected a small blonde boy with pointy features in the back row. “You.”
He sighed, walked up, wrote some characters on the board in what could only be described as chicken scratch, and glared at me. I realized I had no way to tell whether what he had written was right, even if I could decipher it.
I must have stared at the board a moment too long, because I heard a sigh and the creak of a desk frame. When I looked over, Anastasia was proceeding to the front of the room. She held out her hand for the marker, wiped off the previous student’s attempt, and began writing out the solution in her bubbly print.
When she was done, she looked at me, and I pushed the lesson plan over to her.
Only seven-and-a-half periods to go.
* * *
The rest of the day seemed to go uneventfully, once Anastasia taught me (and the rest of the class, I hope) the trick of multiplying polynomials for the Algebra 1 students. The Pre-Algebra kids had a worksheet to help them prepare for a test the following day, and I at least vaguely remembered the math involved from that class.
I spent my free period looking at teaching certification classes online. I’d never been certified because right after college I married my middle-school sweetheart, Logan Bruno, and we decided that we both wanted me to stay home with our future children– my mom died when I was still a baby, and I’d always felt the lack of her presence, even though my dad did the work of both a mother and a father. I worked in a daycare until I got pregnant a few years later with our daughter, Alma, and lived the what now seemed to be blissful life of stay-at-home mother for the next eight years. At that point, I found out Logan was sleeping with his assistant and really wasn’t interested in having kids anymore, either. Sometime during the divorce proceedings, he told me, I’m no longer the person I was when we met.
Well, no shit, Logan. I’m not the same person I was when we were thirteen, either.
So here I was, trying to build a career that could support two children, one with a bevy of health problems, on a basically non-existent resume. To this day, the highlight was still the babysitting business my friends and I had started in– wait for it– middle school.
Needless to say, I was feeling pretty pathetic these days.
Then sixth period happened. It actually seemed like it was going to be my best class of the day. The kids were engaged, asking questions, but not questions so hard that I couldn’t answer them. And there were some familiar faces– the Pike twins, the sons of Vanessa Pike, a girl I babysat for back when I went to SMS. The twins had red hair like their aunt Mallory, Vanessa’s older sister and one of my friends from those days. There was actually a set of triplets between Mallory and Vanessa, so when the twins, Walt and Robbie, were born, everybody started teasing the Pikes about what they put in the water.
Anyway, I felt pleased with myself that I actually knew two of the students’ names. And when Walt, the more sensitive of the two, lay his head on his desk, whimpering, I felt proud when he asked me to go into the hall to talk. Maybe I hadn’t lost my touch with kids.
“What’s up, Walt?”
His face crumpled and he started crying. “Th– there’s this girl…”
“Yeah?” I used the lowest, gentlest voice I could manage.
“I really like her…”
“Okay. That’s not bad. What’s wrong?”
“Well…” He snuffled, took a deep breath. Swallowed. Mumbled something.
“I’m sorry. What was that?” I reached out and touched his arm.
I leaned closer. “Sorry, my hearing’s not that great.”
Just as he started to say something along the lines of, “I wanted to ask her to the dance, but…” a voice yelled out from the classroom, “MRS. BRUNO!”
“Give me one sec, Walt. Do you want to go to the bathroom to compose yourself?” His face had relaxed, though, and he shook his head. Weird, I thought, but maybe teenage boys were better at pulling themselves out of an emotional nose dive than girls were.
“MRS. BRUNO!” The voice was much shriller now. I ducked inside, just to see Robert Pike scurrying back to his seat.
My heart jumped in my chest. I scanned the classroom, but nothing seemed awry. “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Go check your stuff,” a girl in the front row offered.
I made my way back to the teacher’s desk, my heart beating rapidly. My phone lay outside of my bag, where it had been carefully tucked away prior to my leaving the classroom. Everything else– my travel mug, the purse itself, my planner, pen– seemed to be exactly where I left it.
The students watched me in eery silence. “It’s okay, guys. My phone has thumbprint ID. But I appreciate you looking out for me.”
“No, Mrs. Bruno…” the same student said. The boy beside her kicked the leg of her desk.
I reached for my phone. When I tried to pick it up, though, it didn’t budge. I pulled harder.
“Robbie super glued your phone to your desk,” the girl finally explained. At this point, half the class burst into laughter. Walt stood in the doorway, doubled over.
I’m actually amazed that I didn’t start crying right then and there. Perhaps it was the sheer exhaustion of the day. I had no energy to really feel the mortification of this moment. I managed to say, “Walt, Robert, go to the office.”
The boys slinked off, giggling. After I called the office to explain the situation, the girl in the front row said again, “Mrs. Bruno?”
“That wasn’t all they glued down.”
I returned to the desk. Sure enough, my pen, planner, coffee mug– yes, even my purse, were stuck fast. A few kids laughed as they watched me fruitlessly tug at my belongings.
The class laughed. I blinked back tears, but the objects in front of me continued to blur. Oh, God. No, I couldn’t burst into tears now. I would never be invited back to teach, and I needed to be able to teach. I took a deep breath and regained my composure.
“Anyone who laughs is going to the office, too,” I snapped. Not the sweet personality I generally tried to exude, but at least it worked. “Do your assignment.”
Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t, but they did remain silent for the rest of the period. A maintenance worker came around with solvent, although I lost my phone’s Otterbox, the back few pages of my planner, and the bottom of my purse was ruined beyond repair, so I had to transfer everything to a paper sack to carry home.
When the boys returned to class, they marched to the desk and gave lackluster apologies, staring at their feet. Frankly, I was surprised they came back at all, that they hadn’t been suspended– not that I wanted Vanessa have to deal with that– but apparently middle school had changed a lot since I was a kid. I tried to think up a speech to make them understand the severity of the situation, but all I could come up with was, “Just because I’m not your normal teacher doesn’t mean I don’t deserve respect.”
Walt shrugged. “I mean, we were going to do it to Mr. Newton if he’d been here.”
* * *
By that point, the end of the day could not come fast enough. Although I don’t entirely know why I was excited for it, because when I did finish, the vice principal pulled me aside to apologize profusely for the Pike twins’ behavior… then sighed and said, “But we need to be sure that our substitute teachers can maintain a certain level of decorum in the classroom.”
“I’m so sorry,” I stammered. “It really was just a one-time incident.”
“Of course. Nobody blames you,” he replied, but he looked at me long and hard, as though to say, No, actually, we do. My cheeks burned under his stare, but finally he sent me away with a curt, “Thank you for your help today, Mrs. Bruno.”
I dashed to my car– I was now twenty minutes late for volunteering at the after school program at Stonybrook Elementary, where nobody ever mutinied, but, arguably, it was just multiple hours of recess, art class, and science experiments– not terribly controversial.
The thought of my future plagued me the entire afternoon, into the drive home with my eldest, Alma. I needed the money and the flexibility that came with substitute teaching, but I didn’t know if I could keep doing this. It wasn’t like I’d immediately get a teaching position the moment I finished my certification. I’d probably be stuck subbing for… what? Another year? Three years? Ten? And it didn’t exactly pay beaucoup bucks. Even with child support and alimony, it wouldn’t cut it long term.
The moment we arrived home, Alma flung herself across two kitchen chairs, hand against her forehead as though she were about to faint. “I’m starving. When’s dinner?” At nine, she’d already developed a penchant for the dramatic.
“I just got in the door,” I said, trying not to betray the annoyance I felt. I focused on breathing in deeply through my nose, then slowly letting it out like I was blowing through a straw— a tactic from my therapist when I started feeling overwhelmed. I couldn’t really tell if it worked, but it at least kept me from yelling, or worse, crying. The kids didn’t deserve that.
I went to the fridge, only to be reminded that, oh right, I was supposed to stop by the grocery store on my way home from work. I had not, and now our utter lack of options stared back at me in the glowing yellow light: half dozen eggs, a limited edition creme brûlée fat-free yogurt, some limes, and… three types of mustard.
Really, Mary Ann, three?
I opened the carton of eggs to discover that, no, in fact, there were four eggs, someone (read: Alma) had just put the empty shells back into their nooks rather than throwing them away.
The cupboard wasn’t any better: some oil, miscellaneous spices, brown rice spaghetti. Not even a can of tomatoes.
“What time is it?” I asked. I looked at the clock. 6:03. My friend Jessi would bring Oliver, my six-year-old, home from dance class in a little over ten minutes. No time to duck back out before they got here. And we couldn’t just order a pizza or swing by McDonald’s because of Oliver’s mysterious GI issues. I could bring both the kids with me to the store—
“Moooooooooooooooooooom…” Alma stretched the word out to twelve syllables.
God, my head hurt.
Of course, nine-year-olds don’t care much about existential crises. Alma gave a loud groan to emphasize my neglect.
My phone rang. I recognized the number as Oliver’s GI doctor—we had an appointment the following afternoon because, despite eliminating both gluten and dairy from his diet, he still had bi-weekly bouts of diarrhea.
I answered, expecting the normal automated request to confirm by pressing one, cancel by pressing two, but was instead was greeted with, “Mrs. Bruno? This is Hillary at Dr. Wang’s office.”
“Hi, Hillary. What’s up?”
“Well, Dr. Wang has a family emergency, and he can’t come into the office tomorrow. We wanted to see if you could reschedule to a couple of weeks from now?”
“A couple weeks?”
“Yes,” she paused. “The 27th?”
“Well, Oliver has been having some pretty significant symptoms.” I felt my voice rising in pitch, but couldn’t control it. “Is there anyone else we could see before then?”
“I’m sorry, everyone’s booked up until then. I have 1:15 on the 27th. Would that work?”
“I guess?” Realizing as I said it that was two days after the 25th, when I started my eight-week stint of maternity coverage for a second-grade teacher at Stonybrook Elementary… during which I would not be available for any appointments at 1:15 in the afternoon on a schooldays.
The doorbell rang. I motioned for Alma to answer it, and she flopped off the chairs and skittered off.
“Great! I’ve put you in,” Hillary said. See you then, and thank you for your understanding.”
“No problem,” I lied. I threw my phone at the wall.
I heard Jessi ask, “Hey, Alma, everything going okay in there?”
To which my daughter replied nonchalantly, “I think my Mom’s having a nervous breakdown.”
© 2019 Kat Setzer. This page has no affiliation with Ann M. Martin, Scholastic, or any other entity involved with the Baby-Sitters Club Series. Original photo © 2019 sebra from Adobe Stock Images.