Today I walked the halls of a high school for the first time in almost 17 years. Basically half my life has passed since I last had the chance. Turns out it’s not one of those things that still feels natural after time has gone by. It’s not like riding a bike. It felt weird.

The halls were crowded, busy. Alive. Granted, it’s a high school with nearly 2,000 students, much bigger than the one I attended. And it doesn’t help that I’m small and at least half the students were bigger than me, allowing me to easily get lost among them. But still, I felt out of place. It’s the kids’ territory – they walk those corridors every day, up and down, race between classes, have full conversations with passing peers by saying only “hey” or nodding their heads. Everyone knows that place as well as they know anywhere, and I’d only ever been there once before.

It was weird when I arrived. The secretary had told me I’d start specifically at 10:06, and to arrive by 10 so I could get checked in. I was there at 9:50, as is protocol for someone like me with a compulsion for preparedness in unfamiliar situations. My arrival was expected but arrangements for what I’d be doing were in no way established. The campus phone system was having trouble, the computer wouldn’t cooperate, the security pass printer wouldn’t print, and the secretary was on the phone with a half dozen people in the span of two minutes, trying to find somewhere for me to go.

“You’re doing assessments? That would be a waste of his time.”
“Oh, you have lunch duty that period. That’s no good. Thanks.”
“A test? That doesn’t seem like it would be worth it.”
“You have lunch duty, too. Great.”

Mere seconds before the clock struck 10:06, she finally found a place for me to be.
“How’s English?” she asked, looking up at me.
“English is my favorite,” I enthusiastically replied. I had taken more English classes in high school and college than any other subject. I write every day. It made more sense than anything else.
“Wonderful.” The secretary signaled someone nearby to come over. “Kelly here will drop you off at the teacher’s room,” she continued, transferring my custody to a student. I don’t really know if her name was Kelly.

The student walked me through the crowded, snaking halls. The high school is a bit of a Frankenbuilding, its core structure nearly 50 years old, with additions upon additions forming the monstrosity it is today. We seemed to walk for a while. Kelly greeted people every few seconds, seeming to know everyone in the building. The bell had rung, but kids were still all over the place, confusing me as to what the bell had actually been. People are supposed to be in class after a bell, aren’t they? Do teachers just cut a lot of slack because of the school’s size? These thoughts dissolved when I passed a male biology teacher who looked like a GQ model, standing at his door with perfectly rigid posture in a casual tailored that fit him perfectly. My biology teacher looked like Zeb Walton. I don’t even remember his name.

canon mcmillan high school atrium

When we finally arrived at the English class on the other end of the school, I was excited. Class had, of course, already begun. I thanked and dismissed my escort, and walked inside.

“You’re the observer today? You can sit anywhere in the back,” the teacher told me, signaling with one hand like Vanna White.
“Thanks, that sounds just lovely.”

Most of the students paid me a passing glance as I walked to the back row, at which point, I’m quite sure, they immediately forgot about my existence.

As I unpacked my folder, removed a sheet of paper, and began filling out my observation form with information about the class I was in, I realized I wasn’t told the teacher’s name or the grade level. The teacher’s name revealed itself to me on an overhead projection, but I never did find out what grade level I was observing, or if the class had a specific focus. ENGLISH, I wrote, as the teacher said a few words to her class. I was ready to tune in.

At that moment, everyone got up, walked to the side of the classroom, took a Chromebook from the rack, went back to their desks, booted them up, and started to type. The only sound was the pattering of 200 teenage fingers on little keys, crafting sentences about God knows what.

I looked around. A Garfield “Is it Friday Yet?” poster hung on the edge of the chalkboard and I briefly wondered if I had transported back to 1992. When I noticed half the kids had their cell phones connected to AirPods and were listening to music as they worked on mini laptops, I remembered I hadn’t. But I did wonder how we used to sit on the terrible, hard chairs all day as kids. No wonder my back is a disaster.

I entertained myself by reading the other materials in the room. A number of signs featured quotations from classic stories in order to demonstrate literary techniques like idiom, hyperbole, assonance, consonance, metaphor, irony, and so on. But that was all I had. Eventually my leg fell asleep from the other one crossing over it, my butt was numbing from the hard seat, and my patience was wearing thin.

“My high school classes were 42 minutes,” I texted a friend. “If that’s true here, this should be over in about three minutes.”
Seconds later, I heard the teacher’s voice for the second time.
“You have three minutes to finish up and submit your assignments by saving them to your drive.”

When the bell rang, I had officially completed the last step of the process to acquire emergency certification as a substitute teacher in the school district.

“That was a pretty chill day,” the teacher said to me as we left the room.
“That’s an extremely accurate way to put it,” I said. “Not much to observe, but it satisfied my last requirement, so thanks for letting me sit in.”
“Sure,” she said. “Did you have to do an elementary one, too?”
“I did. First grade, last week. It was… the exact opposite of what just happened in there.”
“I would imagine,” she said. She was pleasant. Obviously the type of teacher better suited for older students than little crazy seven year-olds.

It was then that we walked back through the long, busy, hallways. Students passed by me, in front of me, behind me. I stepped on a few heels and cut off a person or two, unfamiliar with the etiquette of traversing packed hallways. Or maybe that’s just how everyone walks – too many people in too tight a space. Nothing one can do.

Either way, I’ll be back. It won’t be another 17 years before my heels re-enter a school. I recently decided I wanted to teach, but I don’t want to spend $30,000 on a Master’s degree in my mid-30s and end up not finding a job. There still exists a national teacher shortage, but not in this area. The most logical solution was to go through the process of being certified as a substitute – a position constantly in need – and pick and choose the classes I want to help with. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be different. And for a while, at least, it’s going to be super uncomfortable. I’m excited to give it a go.