Miss Harp’s kindergarten was full of impulsive boys. As we sat in Morning Meeting going over the weather and calendar, Eduard was in and out of my lap several times, John was turning the globe, Michael was showing off his LeBron James jumps, and Byron had wandered completely out of the room, something I discovered he was wont to do and merited my attention much of the day. Some kids cannot sit still, and I’ve noticed it works better to let them move a bit, if only to avoid the predictable (but timeless) interplay of frustration and diminishment that characterizes a teacher trying to control human nature. Keeping 5-year-olds engaged isn’t all that hard for an extravert who doesn’t mind doing voices, so when I encounter the occasional distracted kid, I know it’s in his genes. Better that he play with the globe for a little while, perhaps discovering something vaguely worth remembering there, and skip the mindless mimicking of today’s date than suffer the indignity of a strange adult adding to the chorus of authority figures challenging his way of being in the world.
Still, Miss Harp’s students were a handful, and I worked to keep their attention as we moved to songs on the carpet, math at their desks, and “centers” (blocks, play kitchen, art, puzzles, and computer) around the room. Knowing names is a substitute teacher’s very best weapon against anarchy—“Little boy in the corner pulling the girl’s braid, please stop!” doesn’t dissuade anyone from action and in fact just blends into the noise—so I make it a point to attach names to faces within the first five minutes of my day. And so it was today as I moved among Miss Harp’s children, delighting in Serena’s animal picture at the easel, enticing Byron back into the room with the promise of a floor puzzle, shifting Pete and Michael from Lego combat play to Lego tower architecture with a few directed questions—all the while the beautiful Miss Harp, willowy and young and blonde, looked at me from a picture on her desk with the sweetest of smiles. (You think these things don’t matter to kindergarten girls? The general size and shape and loveliness of their teacher happen to be everything, and so I in my middle-aged package start with a decided disadvantage and must immediately compensate with a sort of friendly craziness that captures them for a little while at least). An invaluable aide who filled in the gaps of my inexpertness about the routines of this particular school and these particular students, Katie Franz helped me keep everyone happy and safe, if not always entirely on task, and we marked the transition to a much-needed lunchtime with a final clapping and cleaning up. As she moved on to a different place in the building, no doubt to make someone else’s life easier, I orchestrated the getting of coats from lockers for the outdoor recess that was to follow lunch. It was, after all, a chilly April day.
All teachers know that to wait too long for a single dreamy child to voice an opinion or move in a certain direction is to lead to the collapse of the group. It’s the reason we occasionally jump in to answer our own questions or leave the twentieth straggler to come out of the bathroom only to see a fast disappearing line of their classmates turning the hall corner. They must simply catch up, because the disintegration of the whole is a far greater catastrophe than the anxious hurrying of that one, whose loitering nature requires the occasional prod. Today I waited for that most traditional but to my mind pernicious custom—The Line—to form before leading my hungry snake of children down the narrow stairs of this old church building and into the windowless gym-turned-cafeteria, knowing that the hapless Byron would eventually catch up. I looked to the tail for him as we melded into the larger formation of little people marching from all directions into the singular chute leading to the large window where free lunches are passed out, where little hands reach for the Styrofoam plates of meatloaf and potato patty, stick the plastic-covered tray of greenish-gray peas (swimming in some kind of juice) under their arms and bend over to grab a carton of milk from the crates on the floor, the whole picture reminding me of that Dickens scene where Oliver Twist and his gang sing, “Food, Glorious Food!” I breathe with relief—though to be honest, it’s a distracted, even accidental afterthought to have remembered to notice at all—that Byron is along for the ride
A fretful Miss Franz pokes her head into the dingy teachers’ lounge, wondering, hesitantly, if I know anything about the Kit Kat candy bar wrappers on the floor next to Miss Harp’s desk. “Who was in the room alone?” she asks. I want more information, because if there’s one thing I must convey accurately here it’s the possibility of absolutely anything landing on the floor of a kindergarten classroom in a routine day. Kids bring all manner of trinkets and plain garbage to school in their pockets, and invariably some of it lands on the floor. But surely Katie Franz knows this? “Well, there’s the cardboard and cellophane package looking kind of ripped open, just sitting there on your desk,” she explains. For a fleeting moment it occurs to me that she thinks I ate the candy, and I’m inexplicably ashamed, but I come to my senses quickly and return my attention to her expectant face. I had seen the opened package of Kit Kat bars (three left out of about ten), along with some unopened bags of candy, on the shelf behind Miss Harp’s desk earlier and had privately marveled that she could keep such things unguarded. (It’s not uncommon for teachers to keep treats for themselves, but they are usually in the top desk drawer, off limits to even the nosiest of students.)  So, yes, I concurred with Katie that someone must have eaten three candy bars, probably in a hurry. She used the word “egregious,” and I had to agree. This was bold, although perhaps “impulsive” fit better, or even “desperate” if we were dealing with a sugar addict.
I was confounded. She and I had been in the classroom together most of the morning, and the class had trekked in unison to lunch. Of course I thought of Byron and that fractional time he was out of my sight, but he had been struggling with his coat at his locker when we started down the stairs and he was with us when we arrived in the cafeteria. More to the point, it wasn’t the kind of thing he’d do. Besides the fact that Byron doesn’t hurry, he’s sweet-natured and without guile. It may seem fantastic that a substitute teacher who’s met a child for the first time only four hours ago could be so certain of his character, but of his innocence in this matter, I just knew. The scenario that would have the normally artless Byron racing back to the classroom, shoving three candy bars in his mouth, and zooming down the stairs only to resume his abstracted persona was preposterous. I was relieved to hear Miss Franz, who’d spent almost an entire school year with Byron, also immediately dismiss him as a suspect when I broached the idea.
Who then? The other possibilities included an older student passing by the empty room or someone else in the class who capitalized on an unobservant pair of women in charge of twenty demanding 5-year-olds, someone, simply, who committed the crime right under our noses. (As easily as I’d acquitted Byron on personality alone, I conjured a list of at least three I could convict on the same grounds). When I actually saw for myself the spent wrappers and packaging strewn around Miss Harp’s desk, though, this scenario seemed unlikely. How could I have missed this mess? And yet, teachers are occasionally blindsided by evidence of the happenings in their castles, by artifacts appeared and disappeared, by hurts and friendships incurred, by bodies scratched and souls wounded on their watch, by reports from parents of wildly inappropriate goings-on which later prove unaccountably true. I couldn’t dismiss out of hand that someone had snuck Miss Harp’s Kit Kats while I was nearby. The single best antidote to classroom mischief—in this case, the outing of a thief—was effectively curtailed the moment the new substitute announced at Morning Meeting, “Mrs. Lainey does not appreciate tattling.”
Ready to collect my kids, I walked thoughtfully down the stairs and along the hallway leading toward both the principal’s office and the doorway out to the parking lot, where every day from noon to two the loosed energy from hundreds of recently contained children floats into the surrounding neighborhood, enveloping the senses of porch sitters and construction workers. Pondering how to handle this incident, which, truth be told, had done little more than ignite my curiosity—it was nowhere close to the worst problems I’d faced while teaching—I settled in on a plan: I’d sit the kids in a circle, show them the Kit Kat wrappers, and ask them what they thought about the situation. Probably I’d throw in a circumspect, “Now, who didn’t think to use the garbage?” or “I wonder how those got there.” Whole worlds can be gleaned from undirected kindergartener conversations, and I fully expected an inadvertent disclosure by these means if one was to be had. If I got nothing, I would remind them, conspiratorial and congratulatory, how good they are, how much they love and respect Miss Harp, how they (unlike the mysterious interloper from a different grade) know to be restrained in their desires but truthful if they fall short. If someone confessed or tattled, I’d initiate a slightly different version of that; to the interested party, there’d be a private expression of disappointment, a direct but not unkind questioning of why he or she or they thought it was OK to take what wasn’t theirs, a voiced confidence that this doesn’t reflect the essence of the culprit, an invitation to make things whole. I’ll admit that I’ve run into one or two—and those figures are literal—children whose capacity for moral goodness was in doubt, but for the most part, children respond with gratitude and rightness when they encounter forgiveness.
~ ~ ~
They were sitting in a line against the wall, scared to death. Miss Franz stewed about, explaining to me they’d been brought in for a hearing with the vice principal, told only that they should think about “who stole something from Miss Harp.” (I imagine that for most of the kids, including perhaps even the actual offender, the confusion began here. “Miss Harp wasn’t even in school today,” their thinking surely went, “so how could someone take something from her?” And the word “stole,” besides being unnecessarily inflammatory, was misleading. It was simply not the right verb to connote the given action, especially in their very literal minds. Not only might “stole” not translate to “ate” in the mind of the one who did the eating, it certainly would not trigger the memory of any classmate who witnessed someone else scarfing down a Kit Kat during “centers,” a classmate now furiously working his brain to conceive which treasured classroom object—the coveted stuffed frog? Miss Harp’s funny music CD’s? Please, God, not the fairy godmother wand she uses as a pointer!—has gone missing. “Someone ATE something of Miss Harp’s,” I wanted to scream right then and many times in the period that followed.)
It feels relevant that I know the vice principal only as Ms. Klein, that I can’t recall her first name or whether I ever knew it. Well dressed though short and somewhat dumpy in physique, she is bright-faced, the opposite of mousy or nondescript. Her colorful expressions are mostly set on the negative continuum when addressing her charges, in stark contrast to when she speaks to teachers and parents, and today they include lipstick-contorted, cartoon-like representations of scary and mean.
“I have a phone call in to the police department,” she threatened loudly as she stepped out of her office directly into the hall of cowering kindergarteners. And thus did the interrogation begin.
The ensuing 15 minutes were nightmarish to me because they highlighted my powerlessness. I have a friend who maintains that people go into education because they like to bully little kids. She forgets how delightfully intuitive and curious children can be, how much we can learn from them, how smart they are. She doesn’t consider the satisfaction available to partners—a good teacher and her students—plugging away at a common goal, or the immeasurable warmth of a child’s affection. And she leaves out entirely the thrill of success, of light dawning, of newly nurtured reasoning, of ideas put together in pursuit of an independent thought. She lacks imagination if she thinks there is no reason to enjoy teaching children other than to control them. But Ms. Klein’s intimidation tactics would reinforce my friend’s theory and remind me that substitute teachers are only a step above the children themselves in a school’s organizational chart of authority.
The helpless rage I felt as I watched these kids—babies still, really—shrink into each other and the floor, faces changing from uncomprehending fear to tear-soaked decomposition, stays with me much more clearly than the precise words of Ms. Klein. But there was a rhythm to her performance: harsh, sharply enunciated sentences about lies and theft and, most prominently, The Police; direct eye contact with individuals up and down the hall in time with her accusatory finger, so that each child felt the singular fury of her blame; silence. It took us a while—the kids and me—to understand that those periods of silence were places for them to speak, to offer up their lying, stealing souls for punishment. Sure enough a few timid, guilt-ridden confessions followed, each steeped in a question mark, the sinner unsure whether his or her particular transgression was the one Ms. Klein wanted. None of them—puny tales of playground mischief—rose to the occasion of this lecture, and so the police were invoked again, this time more cynically: “They will tell us,” she intoned, “if you don’t.” Come again?
“If the person who stole something from Miss Harp doesn’t tell me right now, I’ll find out from the police, and they might want to put you in jail.”
1. Jail is not an abstract concept to this population of students. Family members are there, and these kids’ lives are affected by it in tangible ways. Michael, from this very class, had already mentioned this very morning that his mother had trouble getting him to school because she works and his father’s in jail.
2. How, exactly, do the police know who took something from Miss Harp? Setting aside the ethical issues surrounding both lying and reinforcing an Us vs. Them narrative already played out in their neighborhood, attributing to police powers they do not possess is confusing to the scientific-minded. More than one little brain was surely thrown by this confounding development.
3. All credibility is lost as soon as it becomes clear that the case is never solved. What happened to the omniscient police? Is everything a lie?
On top of it all, Ms. Klein was ineffective. No part of her message encouraged anyone to come forward, as it was clear that ‘fessing up would only let the others off the hook; the perpetrator was doomed. There was no promotion of quiet reflection, no avenue for private information-giving, no opportunity for a late confession (for, for example, the child who may indeed have eaten Miss Harp’s candy bars but not ever connected this horrific scene with that action, only to discover the connection later, when the substitute explained a little better what had been “stolen” from Miss Harp). And at no time did she consider that the Kit Kat thief may have come from a different set of children, from one of the two or three other classes down the hall. Her bitterness at failing to produce a culprit was keenly evident in her final, empty gesture of retaliation. As we walked away, my traumatized line and I, she shouted after us, “I’ll be sure to tell Miss Harp when she returns that for the rest of the year there will be no more treats for her kindergarteners.”
 This candy is qualitatively different from the buckets of cheap candy in various spots—usually up high—around classrooms meant to entice kids, like rats in a maze, to be compliant. When they collect so many stickers that lead to points that lead to coupons that lead to filled charts of smiley faces, they get a trip to the prize bucket of off-brand Sweet Tarts, where they can pick out exactly one tiny pack of threeish colorful sugar tablets. It hardly seems worth the price, if you ask me.
 For this reason, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my primary mission, unlike the poor full-time classroom teacher who is charged with accomplishing something as heady as scholarship, is simply to keep the peace. I say this with some resentment, as intellectualism is my bag and there is nothing I love more than inspiring students of all ages to think deeper about the topics in their textbooks than the chapter-end questions dictate. But I have the luxury of ditching lessons entirely and playing games if that keeps the peace, as I’m well aware that school principals don’t care about what goes on in a substitute’s classroom as long as everyone’s safe and happy. What difference does a day make? Regular teachers, on the other hand, have as their primary mission high scores on standardized tests, so the peace-keeping goal faces some competition for attention.
 I have grown accustomed to the role of complicit bystander to what can only be termed psychological abuse of children, and I won’t delve deeply into self-protective protestations regarding the worse-than-pointlessness of publicly objecting; it’s not merely that I would never get called back to work at any school in which I stood up to an administrator, it’s that screaming at restless children is fairly standard practice in urban schools. In my own little corner, I provide some respite. But it’s worth noting that my own clear-cut dismay at intimidation of students becomes something a little less than that with each succeeding increase in grade level, so that my feelings of outrage are slightly diminished when teachers of disrespectful, hulking teenagers lose control. I don’t know exactly where in the school career of a given child I transfer responsibility for an adult’s explosion onto the student; intellectually I suppose I don’t ever. But while I oppose authoritarianism in schools, I am more than sympathetic to teachers of older students, whose several years in an adversarial system have done nothing to improve behavior.