I’m just the lowly substitute.
I struggle to establish control
Over a flock of fluttering finches
Who sense there is a new hand in their cage
Upsetting the air.
They swoop and peck
At each other
Pushing the boundaries.
I must quickly swirl my fingers
And spin the wind
To calm their jittery, excited souls.

I intuitively grasp
At the words that will bring them to roost.
I start the routines.
Slowly they settle on their perches
Preen their feathers quietly
Nibble on the nuggets
Of tasks to be accomplished.
A contented chirping begins
As their minds engage.

They look like a mass
Of mottled feathers.
In my nervousness
I do not distinguish
One from another.

Then a little bird
With glowing eyes
And soft brown plumes
Speaks to me.

“My father lives in Mexico,”
She says.
“Do you get to visit him?”
I ask.
“My mother lives in San Jose.
I don’t see her much either.”
Then she whispers,
“I live with my foster parents.”

Then she settles into the routine
Of tackling division problems
And editing essays.
Our short discourse is silenced
As the brood works on their tasks.

I tuck her tentative comments
Into the back pocket of my mind
Where I marvel at the resilience
Of this lovely creature.

Why did she tell me her story?

As I walk out of the classroom
At the end of the day
She hands me a folded piece of lined paper
With the words,
“You are the best sub ever”
Written in colored marker.

I wonder
During our brief encounter
Did my eyes convey compassion?
Did the fact that I just listened
Make this finch feel validated?
I have done so little!

I tuck the letter
In my purse
To keep as a reminder
That my short visit
Has made a difference
To one.

The bird with the luminous eyes
Has made me whole.
She gives me strength
To face another flock
Another day
As the lowly substitute.

I am a substitute teacher for schools in California’s largest elementary district: Bakersfield City. We serve Title One students who are low income kids, many newly arrived from Mexico. I am continually inspired by the bravery of these children, as they surmount the barriers of language, culture and race. They teach me about our common humanity.