Challenger Explosion and Subbing in San Diego

It was a Tuesday, my third week of substitute teaching in Ramona, California.  The Middle School Spanish teacher before me had left in October after a former student told her counselor that he had sexually molested her while on his high school track team. The teacher was terminated, and the string of substitute teachers began.

“You’re our twelfth sub,” a student said to me on my first day. “How long are you going to last?”

I was a newlywed with a husband telling me to get a job. I’d taught already for eight and half years in the Midwest, where we were from. I’d lived in San Diego for three weeks, gotten a job on the third day of residency and had started on day 4.

Now it was day 20.  I had five classes in a row with no break.  Two of them were done. A kid came in yelling,” The Challenger exploded!”

The Challenger space shuttle, the one with the first civilian aboard, a teacher named Christa McAuliffe.

“No, it didn’t,” I said. The kids had been terrors. Why should I fall for this trick?

“Yes, it did. We watched it blow up in science class.”

I still didn’t believe this boy or any of the others. They’d called me names, refused to sit in their chairs, laughed at my attempts to keep order, ridiculed my pronunciations of Xavier and Tijuana.  Yes, I was a Midwestern gringa teaching Spanish a mere fifteen miles from the Mexican border. These kids were jaded, surly, and unimpressed. I was new, I was pale, but I was different from the other subs.

I stayed.

At some point, I was asked to interview in Spanish for the job I was subbing for. I got it, continuing to drive from my home in Scripps Ranch, through Poway, and up the mountain to the agricultural community of Ramona, where all the windows in the new junior high gym had been busted out.

I had one high school Spanish class in the afternoon. On the first day I told the students I was a newlywed.

“Tell us what you did on your honeymoon,” one girl said in a sexy voice while everyone around her tittered.

I had to establish order.

“You,” I said, pointing to her, “get out.”

After that, no one blurted out anything , except to ask how they were ever going to catch up by the end of the year after having had twelve subs.

“Are you going to stay?” one girl pleaded. “I mean, I’m going to college, and this class is screwing up my GPA.”

She was the exception. Most of the kids were happy to goof off and not learn anything.

One day my car had a flat. I discovered it at lunchtime.  I asked in the office if anyone could help me change the tire.

“Don’t you have Triple A?” the principal asked. “Everyone has Triple A.”

But my sad face convinced someone to call the high school. Soon I had two boys from auto shop changing my tire for me. It was good thing because my husband was thirty miles away at his oh, so important job and couldn’t be counted on to help (in those days teachers wore dresses, hose and heels).

The morning classes included two periods of ESL students, all from Mexico except for a brother and sister from Honduras. Robin wore gloves to school every morning and was super smart. His younger sister, Xiomara, was a sweetie. When I gave birth to a girl the following fall, their mother made a beautiful pale yellow dress for my baby.

But two girls quit after my first two weeks. I had told them they had to speak English in ESL, not Spanish. What a concept.

They called me a puta and left school to clean hotel rooms. They were fourteen.

By the end of the second year, all of the remaining ESL kids could speak English. It was my hardest teaching job ever, and also the most rewarding.

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