Gina Easton is a long-time substitute teacher at Portage High School. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 4, 2014 6:06AM
The sixth grade teacher asked her students to put away their textbooks before dismissal from class.
Instead, they turned off the classroom lights and threw their books at her in the dark, she said.
“This is a class that has almost daily been written up for aggressive behavior,” the Gary teacher told me last week. “The principal doesn’t suspend them. Only talks to their parents, allegedly, and the kids continue to get increasingly bolder.”
“This is the reality of teachers today in most urban schools,” she said. “The physical and emotional abuse we teachers endure is unbelievable.”
The elementary school teacher went to counseling and also saw a doctor for her emotional and physical wounds, she said.
“The doctor at the workman’s comp clinic said he has never seen so many Gary teachers battered and assaulted this year,” she said.
I’ve been to several classrooms in many different schools through the years and, it’s no secret, urban school students are typically more unruly than other school students. Yes, this is a generalization and yes, there are also wonderful urban school kids who transcend such stereotypes.
But being a teacher is tough work, even in the best schools across this region. It’s not a job for sissies, as the adage goes, or for me. I’ve tried it for a day or two, and I came away exhausted and annoyed.
Still, there are many rewards to being a teacher, as other Northwest Indiana teachers have told me this school year.
“Every kid has touched my life in some way,” said Linda Lemond, a long-time teacher from Portage.
In January, she finished a four-month substitute teacher job at Portage High School after being away from teaching for nine years.
“Some kids face such awful situations at home, but most don’t share it, especially in high school,” she said.
But when they do share their feelings, it’s impossible to ignore.
For instance, the sophomore boy who came to school one day looking even grubbier than usual. When asked if he was OK, he replied with heartbreaking matter-of-factness: “Oh, yeah. My dad got mad at me last night and locked me out so I had to sleep under the car again.”
Or the sophomore girl who was normally a ray of sunshine, except for one day when she was close to tears. When asked what was wrong, she confessed, “I think I killed my mother’s baby!”
After discussing the issue, Lemond learned that the girl resented her mother being pregnant and wished the baby would die. Her mother later miscarried and the girl thought she caused it.
“Once she calmed down, I was able to convince her that wishes and magical thinking could not cause something like that to happen,” Lemond said.
Substitute teachers also have their share of ups and downs with students, especially ones who’ve been doing it for 20-plus years, like Gina Easton. The 1967 Portage High School graduate is also vice president of Nelson Piano and Organ Company.
“The reason I keep coming back is that I learn something from the students every day,” Easton said. “And I really don’t want to clean my house.”
Due to the nature of the job, Easton has time to listen to the students’ stories and they have time to listen to hers.
“If you only hang around with your own generation, you tend to think that other generations are surely going to ruin the world,” Easton noted.
Sometimes, though, she’s treated like she’s invisible because she hears things from teens that they would never discuss in front of other adults, such as recreational sex.
“I remembered the note I received from a girl explaining that she hadn’t done her homework because she had to tell her mother something no mother of a teenage girl would want to hear,” Easton recalled.
“Teenagers can be challenging, especially if your greatest punishment is not letting them go to the bathroom. But most of the kids are wonderful and entertaining.”
For example, the teen boy who gave her for Christmas a copy of the collected works of Tennessee Williams. “I cried then and I cry now when I think about it,” she said.
She also cries when recalling a comment she made in the teacher’s lunchroom about “Waiting for Godot,” a famous play by Samuel Beckett. A fellow staff member quipped, “Who would believe that a substitute knows who Beckett is?”
Sub teachers are often looked down upon, and a few for good reason. Some simply want the fast cash, others want to boss kids around.
“The tough part is not really being a part of the school system,” she said. “The schools can’t be run without substitutes, but the job isn’t taken very seriously.”
Easton, known for her quick wit and sarcasm, does her job with pride. It’s the students who linger in her thoughts more than the classroom studies.
“I remembered a student who randomly got up and raised his hands above his head,” she said. “I didn’t see a football or a touchdown, maybe he did.”
Also, special needs kids have very opinionated feelings on the state of the country and world, with some being quite profound, she learned.
“The ROTC program has great kids who give back a ton of their free time to the community. And the brainiacs at Portage High School can compete with the nerds at any school.”
Is it worth the $60 a day to put up with expected disrespect, chance of heartache and possible abuse? Yes, she said, but it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes my goal, if a class is particularly trying, is just not to cry in front of them.”
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.