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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Merry Christmas, Mr. Jenkins!

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Upon losing my job during what was easily the worst year of my life, (read that story here), I had decided the best way to move forward was to pick a new city and put down some roots. I was looking for a thriving entertainment industry, an international airport, and a decently inexpensive standard of living. Philadelphia, with its easy access to NYC and my extended family living nearby, proved itself to be the best choice.

I began substitute teaching in the public schools as my first job to make ends meet, while I was gaining my footing in the new city. Heartbroken over the aforementioned devastating upheaval of my career, I meekly set about establishing a new life. The culture shock of a new place was a welcome distraction from my depression, and working in the city schools put my misfortunes into harsh perspective. As bad as I thought I had it, these mostly underprivileged kids were shoved en masse into dark, ill-maintained buildings, while the city was scheming to bring in more industry and push the poverty out -- instead of implementing policies to deal with the poverty itself.

As a new substitute, I had no concept of which neighborhoods were safe, which schools had a bad reputation, or anything that might make choosing an assignment easier. All I knew when I started was that I was a musician, so I thought it best to keep my work life in my career field. Regardless of location, reputation, or length of commute, I picked up any assignment so long as it was for a music teacher.

By November I'd picked up a class at a charter middle school on the opposite side of the city from where I lived. Traffic made my commute an hour long, and there was no parking lot provided for faculty. My classroom was in the basement of an annex building off the main campus, so after checking in I had to walk down the trash laden block, pass the window panes with bullet holes, and wait for the school resource officer to unlock the door.

The room was concrete, and uncleaned. It echoed like a gymnasium. There were about 16 keyboards on one half of the room, and on the other was an assortment of fold-up tables and plastic chairs. The teacher's desk was completely barren, and sat in front of the blackboard, between a TV push cart and an upright piano. No lesson plans had been left for me, and I was granted no access to wifi.

Those kids ate me up and spat me out that day. I drove home with my ears ringing and my throat hoarse from screaming. Fights had broken out, vandalism on the keyboards had been attempted, the school resource officers had been called -- all par for the course in an inner city school. But my fellow teachers had been supportive, so I wasn't opposed to grabbing an assignment there again if I needed to.

A few weeks passed, and I'd worked in a different school every day, to the point where it all ran together. Insane students, frazzled teachers, no lesson plans for subs, and dilapidated buildings all blended into one horrific nightmare.

One fateful day, I picked up a job for a music teacher who's name I didn't recognize, and it was back at that same charter middle school. This lady had left lesson plans and seating charts, so the kids were more easily managed. I thanked her in a note, and left my contact info in case she needed another sub in the future.

I received an email shortly thereafter from her, asking if I'd consider taking a long-term sub position. The other music teacher at that school -- the one I'd subbed for in the basement of the annex -- was on an indefinite sick leave, suffering from terminal cancer. Mr. Jenkins, she said, couldn't afford treatment because his health insurance wouldn't cover all of it; so when he was able, he would return to work for a day or two, to ensure his cash flow would last as long as possible. But the school was starting to feel the pinch of having a missing teacher all the time and thought having a long-term sub would be a better solution. Would I consider the position?

I mentioned that I didn't have a teaching certification and probably wouldn't be legally allowed; she said the district had overlooked that in times of desperation before. She offered to assist me with lesson plans and grading, and I agreed. She said she'd alert me as soon as he put his next absence into the online database, and give a recommendation on my behalf to the principal.

I was in by the next week. I informed the secretary I was good to go for the long term assignment, and got to work.

I set up my laptop to play the recordings of my lesson plans -- still without wifi -- then went upstairs to make copies of my worksheets. But there was no copy paper.

"Excuse me," I stopped a woman in the hall. "Where could I get more paper?"

"Oh," she said dryly, in South Philly style. "Teachers provide their own."

"They do!?"

"Yes ma'am. After the last budget cuts, that's what we agreed to, so programs didn't get cut."

"Oh," I looked around dejectedly. "But I'm a sub, they didn't tell me..."

"Have some of mine," she offered. "Just in the you know..."

Pay for my own paper? With what money? Only that month had it been brought to my attention that I wasn't getting paid the per diem I'd been quoted when I was first hired. I couldn't make ends meet on $35 less per day than what I'd budgeted, so I'd paid rent on a credit card for a few months. Food shopping was a struggle that gave me anxiety, and now I had to supply copy paper for eight classes?

During lunch breaks I was on the phone with HR, looking for any logical explanation as to why I wasn't getting paid properly. At least now I was in a long-term assignment, and would be getting a higher per diem. But still there was no explanation. Evidently I needed to come up with lesson plans that didn't involve worksheets.

What else is there to do? The kids were unruly and widely apathetic. I needed to require something of them so they were distracted from killing each other... It was December... Their teacher had terminal cancer... Even in middle school angst, kids can feel empathy when there's dire need... What could these kids, with no money, do to help Mr. Jenkins?

The idea hit me like a wrecking ball.

We could record a holiday CD! Each class could pick a song, rehearse it, record it, and we could give a hard copy to Mr. Jenkins as a gift, and put it on YouTube, monitized, so the kids could listen to their songs for free and share it with others, and hopefully it would pick up momentum, maybe go viral...maybe get the attention of some local radio stations...

I began each class with a warm-up listening exercise, then announced -- over shouting, sparring children -- the project. We would vote on our favorite holiday song and record it.

The students who listened blinked at me with skeptical smirks. It sounds cool, their expressions seemed to say, but no one actually follows through in doing nice things for us.

No, kids -- this is what's actually going to happen, and it will be fun -- and also because I don't have paper, I responded in thought.

Getting song suggestions from that first class was harder than herding cats. Getting them to vote on their favorite choice was comparable to pulling teeth. The first class finally settled on "Santa Claus is Coming to Town".

The next period was somewhat jealous that song had already been chosen, but eventually voted for "Feliz Navidad". Over the next two days, we formed quite the list of Christmas songs, and had to come up with ways for the kids to have some accompaniment. For most tunes, there was a reasonable karaoke track available on YouTube. For others, I decided I'd bring in my guitar and do it myself, or use Mr. Jenkins's upright.

All recordings would be done on my iPhone's voice recorder -- there was no sense in lugging over two thousand dollars worth of gear into a desolate school. That way I could set up, record, edit, and get a playist made on the spot -- instant gratifcation for restless kids.

The next morning I reported to the main office, ready to finish voting for some classes, and begin rehearsing for the others. I signed in, and asked the secretary if the paperwork had been approved for me to officially be in the long-term assignment.

"Oh," she shook her blonde hair dismissively. "I haven't even had the chance to fill it out yet. But I'll let you know."

"Alright, thank you."

"Also, your first class this morning needs to be collected in the school yard and walked over to the annex."

"Will do," I said as I put my hat and gloves back on, to brave the harsh December weather.

The only advantage to December cold is that I can wear the warmest hat I own: my Santa hat. It's fuzzy and covers my ears, and since I work with kids, it makes me very popular.

I winced when the below-freezing wind hit my face. I stepped onto a landing and let the door close behind me. The principal saw, and dropped whatever conflict mediation she was doing, to run up the stairs.

"Uh, excuse me, Miss B -- but are you going to wear that hat all day?" There was arrogance and irritation in her tone.

What's wrong with my hat?

"No -- I'm wearing it because it's cold and I have to walk my class to the annex." I was so confused by her sudden interrogation, it made my response bluntly literal.

Did that come across as stuck up?

"Oh...well..." she fumbled. "Because, you's against district wear hats indoors..."

"I'm not in the habit of wearing hats inside," I assured her.

She hustled fussily away. I wondered what on Earth that confrontation had really been about.

Classes began again, and I decided to make a habit of starting with my listening exercise -- a way for me to meet the students halfway, to demonstrate that my realm of music was relevant to theirs. And then, each class would be rehearsing.

I used my phone for a hot spot since I wasn't granted wifi access, and we searched YouTube for karaoke tracks. Most kids couldn't be bothered to care. Half a dozen played chase in the back of the room. But there were about 10 students who moved their seats up front, totally committed to the success of this project. How could I deny them the chance to do this, just because their colleagues couldn't get it together? Let the crazies have at it, if they must -- the rest of us have work to do.

Some classes were worse than others. One class had no kids willing to participate, and I had to call the resource officer to save some students from their more predatory classmates. So the principal, the only person to ever bother harboring a vendetta against my Santa hat, decided she needed to step in and see what was going on.

She arrived in the middle of class, just as I was hearing the students' responses to the recording I'd played: the Lake Street Dive cover of "I Want You Back". Their opinions varied from "I liked it, it was chill," to "Man, those people need to WAKE UP." I informed the class that Lake Street Dive had been creative and made their own arrangement of a very famous song -- and segued into making our own arrangements of the songs they chose for Mr. Jenkins.

The principal observed, raising her eyebrows here and there, taking notes. As I cued up the karaoke track to rehearse, she tip-toed out.

The next day, I began bringing in my guitar. A new instrument garnered more participation from the stragglers at the back of class, and on my lunch break, one of the custodial staff ladies stopped me.

"Excuse me, you're the new music teacher?"

"Yes ma'am."

"I just have to say: it is so sweet to hear the children singing! Normally all we hear is shouting and fighting, but you actually get them to sing? I dunno how you do it!"

"Aww, thank you!" I said. "I guess some of them really seem to be into recording a CD for Mr. Jenkins -- it's our big project."

"That's just great!" she exclaimed. "And that explains why everyone's so excited! It's so nice to have you here!"

"Well thanks," I said. "But he's their real teacher, and it didn't feel right to just move on as if he'd disappeared. I figured it'd help them transition over to someone new."

It was wonderful to have someone notice I was doing good work. I went back into that dungeon of a basement smiling, and visited with my new buddy the health teacher, before lunch break was over.

"Our principal, man," he was saying as he shook his head, and stuck his thumbs into the pockets of his sweatpants, "We don't have anything at this school. They keep taking our paper, our chalk, our white board markers...and she doesn't stand up on our behalf for anything. She is the least supportive boss I've ever had."

I recounted my Santa hat incident.

He replied with, "That's just weird, man. She should be bending over backwards to persuade you to stay. I've never heard these kids cooperate for nuthin', and here you got 'em singin'. She needs to get it together."

The afternoon's classes garnered more cooperation than before -- maybe the kids were responding to having an activity to do, verses book work. I still left exhausted at the end of the day, and went to the office to sign out.

"Any news on whether the long-term assignment was approved?" I pressed the secretary again.

"Oh, yeah..." she said dismissively. "I'm about to finish it..." She mumbled and didn't make eye contact.

"Oh! Miss B!" the principal strode in.

I started, turning to face her.

"Do you have a minute? I have some observations from when I sat in on your class, and I've typed up an evaluation that should help you with your classroom management."


She closed her office door behind me, and pulled out a typed page of outlined notes.

"So I feel the students would respond to your lesson plans better if you showed them how it related back to their lives," she began.


As she assumed her soap box, my head began spinning. I played a recording of a Jackson Five cover! Then I played the original for them so they could compare, and they all started getting down. But you wouldn't know, because that all happened before you arrived. Then I related it back to the project we were about to work on, so I tied it in to their lives AND to class.

She suggested some music activities in the textbook -- oh, because that's certainly relevant to their lives -- or some worksheets perhaps -- with what copy paper?!

It was insane. She certainly wasn't a musician, who was she to tell me what it was about music I should be teaching? What I could've used was some behavior management techniques for kids who come from troubled homes and abject poverty -- but when I requested that, the response was a defensive, "Our students are not stupid and they don't have special needs! They learn just the same as the students in any school in the suburbs." But clearly they have normal needs that aren't being met that I don't know how to overcompensate for...I never said they were stupid!!

"Start each class with the same activity each day..." she droned on, more condescending in her tone since I'd asked for behavioral management techniques. That's what you actually saw me teaching! And I stole that opening class activity from your other music teacher!

"...and you can keep this," she pushed her outline towards me when she finished.

I am certain my face was flushed with rage. I was literally doing all the things she said, except I was intentionally doing lesson plans that avoided copy paper. But she wouldn't know because she didn't stay for the duration of even one activity. This is how she chose to help? By typing a dissertation outline critiquing my lesson plans, instead of dealing with the elephant in the room -- the lack of student discipline? Instead of enforcing consequences and providing troubled kids with an array of more constructive behavior choices?! This was her management style? And this was a charter school?

"Thank you," I folded the page in half and shoved it in my purse as I stood up.

"We'll see you tomorrow, Miss B!"

"See you tomorrow."

At home, I couldn't bring myself to look at the paper. I hid it among the folders where I filed my bills. That principal had completely gotten the better of me, and it took the entire night for me to calm down.

The next morning I recounted my "evaluation" to my pal the health teacher.

"Man, she should be licking your butt to make you happy here! Not telling you that your teaching sucks!" he ranted. "Those kids don't cooperate for no one! Not me, not their parents, certainly not for her, none of us at this school -- and of course they don't cooperate for subs! They always be testin' the limits of what they can get away with. It has nothin' to do with your classroom management or your lesson plans or anything!! Man..."

His validation made me feel less crazy.

"You actually get them doin' things, and you've been here less than a week!"

"Thanks, yeah. It surprised me how unaware she is, like she's in denial."

"Yeah man, complete denial. She's clueless."

The students were extra antsy that day -- or maybe I was feeling less confident. One class decided to pick on their homeroom's class clown, John, a student who'd moved to Philly from Cambodia a few years ago.

"Stinky Cambodia!"

"Go back where you came from so we don't have to smell you!"

"Can you even open your eyes all the way?!"

"Naw dude, that's as wide as they get!"

John was a boisterous kid who wore his heart on his sleeve. They were getting under his skin and everyone could tell, and it only served to fan the flames.

"Nooooo! Stoooooopp!" he bellowed. "Cambodia doesn't smell!"

He was normally very witty in his comebacks, but he'd reached his breaking point, and the vultures were loving it.

"Oh, you're from Cambodia?" I asked in a calm, conversational tone. "I was just there in February. It's beautiful."

And it was true -- I was on a ship that ported in Sihanoukville during my last contract (when this story was taking place).

Every face jolted towards me, in sudden and total silence -- for the first time ever.

"You were?" asked John incredulously.

"Yeah. Are you from Sihanoukville? That's where I was."

"No, but it's not too far from where my family lives."

"Oh cool. Yeah -- Cambodia's beautiful -- super nice people, tropical landscapes, unbelievable food, gorgeous beaches," I recounted. "I loved it -- I'd rather be there than here any day. Honestly, I don't know why you'd ever leave."

"THANK you!" John gestured with his palms facing the ceiling.

Everyone else's jaw was on their chest. I knew why John's family left -- extreme poverty, recovering from war, unsanitary conditions (which actually did give Cambodia and much of southeast Asia a distinctive smell), and better opportunities in the U.S. for education and getting a white collar job -- but I wasn't going to say that in light of the situation. I did mean it when I said I'd rather be there than stateside -- with every fiber of my being I wanted my job back, to be land-bound only by choice during my paid vacations.

One of the girls in the front row smirked and asked, "Miss B, why were you there?"

"I was working on a cruise ship that docked there several times."

I watched every face go blank. Travel is something inner city kids hardly ever do. Even going outside the city was rarely done. What I was saying was unfathomable to them. Crossing an ocean was incomprehensible. Thinking that being in another country could somehow be better than being in the U.S. was unheard of. They had no further questions.

I looked at John, somewhat choked up. "I'd go back in a heartbeat."

With the bullying derailed, the class was subdued. I didn't have to raise my voice or threaten anyone -- I got to use who I was and what I'm meant to do in this life to get the job done. It felt good. We got into rehearsing without a fuss.

Thursday rolled around and again I asked the secretary how the paperwork was going. When she couldn't evade my question, she mumbled, "We should know soon."

Recording began that day. After their song, each class was given a line to be recited in unison, of encouragement for Mr. Jenkins. By the end of the day, I had half the album done.

I rewarded the students by letting them play back their tracks through the classroom's speakers. They listened, mesmerized. Some laughed, some danced, and always the responses were, "Can we play it again??" and "Can we hear what the other classes did!?"

Come Friday, I finished recording with my last classes, after starting each period with the listening activity. That day's tune was "O fortuna" from Carl Orff's oratorio "Carmina Burana". I had the kids tell me where they recognized it from -- it is the most popular piece of classical repertoire to be used in the film industry. Then I played for them the 20 minute animated Christmas special, Shrek the Halls, which features "O fortuna" in the opening credits.

The kids thanked me for giving them a class off from work, and watched contentedly while I edited the songs into a YouTube video. I had double checked with another teacher what the rules were involving students on social media. I would need a waiver from the guardians of every child involved -- unless there was no way to identify the individual children. So I set the recordings to be played over a slideshow of stock Christmas photos I'd taken, and labeled which homeroom number had contributed each track. There were no photos or videos of these students, and no names mentioned of any individual, except Mr. Jenkins.

The end result was an atrociously adorable video album of the world's most enthusiastic caroling, complete with children's laughter, clapping to the beat, off pitch singing, and, of course, serenading to the high heavens at a fortissi-issi-issimo.

As it uploaded, and the kids giggled to Gingy throwing up a chocolate chip at Shrek's feet, I burned a hard copy of the CD for the principal to give to Mr. Jenkins, in case my email with the mp3's attached didn't go through.

I wrote the title of their YouTube video on the board so the students would know where to find it, to share with friends and family. As the bell rang for them to switch classes, one girl approached me.

"Miss, are you gonna be the new permanent music teacher?"

"I don't know, sweetheart. It doesn't look like the paperwork will be approved."

While that answer was true -- the secretary was flakey about submitting the forms -- I couldn't handle the working environment. With a completely unsupportive principal in denial of her school's problems, I was constantly under scrutiny, and help would never be provided when I needed it. Now that the CD was done, what could I do for lessons that wouldn't require me to buy boxes of copy paper?

On the phone with HR again, inquiring about my stingy paychecks, I had learned that the long term sub per diem kicked in only after I'd been working in the position for 21 consecutive school days. So perhaps that's why the secretary wouldn't file the paperwork...they wanted to work me on the cheaper rate for as long as possible. Then, if Mr. Jenkins decided he needed to come back for a day, my 21 day count would start over again from scratch. I was beginning to see the light -- and I was being shortchanged in every way.

I was on the fence about this position. The only thing keeping me coming back was the student body. As the kids got used to me, and created a project they were proud of, and saw I wanted to teach them music relevant to their lives, I'd watched them slowly begin blossoming. Their personalities were starting to show, and individual talents were just starting to make their presence known. We were building a rapport, and they were finally cooperating and having fun in class.

Yet with the way the district was treating me, I was feeling forced to betray their trust and leave, just like every other adult in the lives of those innocent kids. It killed me that I might have to become one of them. But I didn't place those kids in a situation of hardship, and I certainly couldn't single handedly bring them out of it. At the least, all I could do was show them there's a better life out there, and if you open your mind, it can be obtained.

I sent the email to Mr. Jenkins, and another to the principal with the URL to the YouTube video. I got an immediate reply from her, demanding that I remove the video immediately, because no parents had signed any waivers.

I replied by saying there were no images or videos of the students, nor any names mentioned -- no waiver should be needed because no student was appearing on social media. I explained that any money made would be donated towards Mr. Jenkins's medical care.

Evidently she never looked at the link to see no policies had been violated.

In her last response, she insisted I delete the video. Now all those kids, in all eight classes, would come into school on Monday morning and search for the video I wrote on the board, and find nothing on YouTube. On Facebook where I'd shared the video, my friends and family tried to give it a listen and found a link that didn't work. And because I'd gotten on her bad side, I wondered if Mr. Jenkins would ever get his copy of the CD.

As I signed out from work that Friday, I informed the secretary that I wouldn't be returning on Monday. I put on my Santa hat and drove home.

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