The Month That I Taught English, We Had Prisoners Running Through Our Backyards

(It was a pretty wild month)

On my first Friday as a long-term substitute teacher in a high school English classroom, the middle school science teacher’s chinchilla went missing. “Please keep an eye out,” the secretary announced on the intercom before the first-period bell rang. The all-staff email I received had an attached photo of the small gray creature with the text: He doesn’t bite, but he runs fast. My students claimed that the chinchilla was ancient and probably escaped to find a place to die, but by the end of the day, I saw the eighth graders still roaming the halls with brooms and butterfly nets, hopeful: “I think he’s in the boiler room—let’s go!”

The next day, my first Saturday in town, roadblocks were set up at the single stoplight, and police officers patrolled the streets with guns. “Search underway for two murderers missing from state prison in Dannemora,” the local news station reported online. We were thirty miles from Dannemora’s Clinton Correctional Facility.

On Monday morning, one student told me her uncle was the corrections officer who discovered that the two bodies sleeping in cells 23 and 24 were not actually prisoners, but sweatshirts rolled up into the shape of the six-feet-tall, 200-pound masterminds. Other students’ parents worked either at the prison or with the state troopers who searched for the missing convicts, logging such long hours that they had to take short naps in their trucks before continuing the manhunt. They spent days on end finding no footprints in the North Country mud, hunting sweaty prisoner scents washed out by early summer rain. Each of my students said their parents wouldn’t let them go outside all weekend, that the ordinarily open house and garage doors became locked, that every child had to know where their family kept an extra gun.

No one asked about the chinchilla that morning; he was forgotten, like the stray homework assignments and gym shorts and peanut butter sandwiches my students found in the depths of their smelly lockers on the last day of school.

* * *

I wasn’t supposed to be teaching English that June. I was supposed to be dog-sitting for a reverend in the rural town where I had gone to college. I had a busy year lined up; in August, I would start taking classes full-time to pursue a Master’s in Education while also working three part-time jobs. I was content with spending my summer simply walking a black Lab and searching for items to furnish the apartment I would move into in July.

I had just walked across a stage to receive a diploma in smothering sunshine and a heavy black robe, and had said goodbye to my best friends, who were heading in different directions across the continent. I was the only one of us to stay in town, and while they took cross-country road trips or traveled to France, I spent my evenings after graduation driving down empty roads, crying into the loneliness of summer sunsets.

When I heard about an immediate opening for a substitute English teacher for the month of June at a school about an hour northeast of my tiny college town, I felt needed, adventurous. I hadn’t scheduled a single teaching certification test yet, but that didn’t seem to matter to the superintendent, Loretta. “When can you start?” she asked me on the phone, not even requesting to see my resume. I drove up to meet her and see my classroom the next day.

“No one needs to know why you’re here,” Loretta said in her office, her southern drawl out of place in the one-building K-12 school surrounded by dairy farms and wind turbines. “The students might ask what happened to Mrs. A, or they might tell you things they think happened to Mrs. A, but it’s not your responsibility to discuss that with them.”

“I’m here because I want to teach,” I said.

“Exactly.” She smiled. “And you’re here to help the students finish the school year strong while Mrs. A is gone.”

We walked down the hall to find the elementary school’s guidance counselor, JoAnn, a petite woman, who hugged me as a greeting. “You’ll be staying with me while you sub for Mrs. A,” JoAnn said. “I have to meet with my kindergarteners now, but my husband should be home if you want to stop by and see the house. We’re so looking forward to hosting you!”

Loretta whisked me into her red sports car and drove me the half-mile to the 150-year-old, three-story, high-ceilinged house that would be my temporary home. JoAnn’s husband—a tall, lanky, retired corrections officer—was out in the yard with their aging husky, Grace. “We had four boys,” he told me, leaning into the car window to shake my hand. “The house is too quiet without them, so we’re happy to take in anyone we can get!”

I moved in that weekend, with two weeks of instruction and one week of proctoring and grading final exams ahead of me. The chair of the three-person English department told me the teacher for whom I was subbing had not created a final exam for either her tenth- or twelfth-grade classes, so it would be my job to figure out what the students had learned and to come up with a fair assessment for them.

“We didn’t learn anything,” the students said on the first day.

“Come on, there has to be something,” I prodded. “Vocabulary words? Key concepts? You must have at least read some books this year. A single book?”

The students shrugged, silent.

“I learned how to throw wadded-up paper into Mrs. A’s mouth while she was sleeping at her desk,” a student finally said.

“The only thing I’ve heard all year is, ‘Shut up, Jeffery,’” another student, with long, greasy hair that drooped to cover half his face, confessed. “I kind of stopped listening to everything else Mrs. A said in class after that.”

“Did Mrs. A get fired?” each class wanted to know. “Are you going to be our teacher next year, too?”

I looked through the piles of papers that shrouded the desk in the front of the classroom—tests from December and multiple-choice quizzes on which no one in the whole class scored above a 50 percent and ungraded essays that had no thesis statements. I noticed that almost every essay had enormous body paragraphs.

“I’m just here to help you out for the rest of June,” I told them. “And in that time, I’m going to teach you something.”

* * *

I didn’t expect for it to happen, but I accidentally taught my tenth graders how to write body paragraphs using ACE-IT, a method I grew up using and despising in school.

“Do you feel like ACE-IT confines your writing?” my ninth-grade English teacher once asked me when I refused to fill out the sentence-by-sentence graphic organizer she gave us. She wouldn’t read the three pages I had handwritten—a completed analytical essay that used ACE-IT as a foundation but added enough of my adolescent creativity not to sound robotic. My classmates were still confused about why and when to use a topic sentence.

“Absolutely,” I said, relieved she understood my frustration.

“Good,” my English teacher replied. “You’re supposed to feel confined when you’re writing.”

So I stopped writing for a few months, back in high school. No more poetry about the sound of my footsteps in the snow, no more personal essays about the look on someone’s face on the first day of school, and no more letters, shoved into a friend’s locker, about the dreams I had the night before.

And then I realized I could do better.

* * *

I never gave my students a graphic organizer, as my ninth-grade teacher had. Instead, I became their cheerleader: “Assertion, Citation, Explanation, Interpretation, Transition! Try saying it backwards! Now do it again!” I had them write it in their notebooks and copy it on a notecard.

The history teacher told me the students were repeating it in his classroom, too, muttering my mantra in the hallways and in between their discussions about their parents’ plans to visit their hunting cabins or summer cottages over the weekend, searching for signs of the escaped prisoners. New York State had issued a $100,000 reward for capturing the convicts.

“It’s good to hear them talk about something other than the prison escape,” the science teacher told me in the faculty lounge.

I gave the students an example of a body paragraph I wrote based on the thesis Cheese is the best food ever, and together, we used crayons to identify and color-code each element of ACE-IT.

“I think I did it wrong,” some students said. “I have blue in two places.”

“Why isn’t all of the paragraph colored?” others asked. “There are some words in here that aren’t part of ACE-IT.”

I thought about the look on my ninth-grade English teacher’s face when I won our school’s writing contest during my sophomore year.

“Writing is a creative process,” I told my students. “ACE-IT is your framework, but you’re not going to write a good paragraph unless you mix it up and have some fun. I want to see each ACE-IT element in your next paragraphs, but I also want to hear your voices.”

Then the students wrote in class about cheese being the best food ever, making up evidence and sources (According to the world-famous cooking book, All About That Cheese. . . . ), quietly giggling as they traded papers with a partner to color-code each other’s work. “You don’t have any green in here,” I heard a student say. “You probably have to write another sentence to make it work—this looks like a good place to do it.”

After I’d been teaching ACE-IT for a week, the superintendent walked by my classroom just in time to see me crying during my prep period.

“Everything OK in here?” she asked.

“Look how beautiful this essay is,” I told Loretta. I was holding one of the ungraded essays Mrs. A had left behind, admiring how it was now vibrant with crayons that highlighted the components of ACE-IT in each paragraph, along with two different types of handwriting in the margins. An entire paragraph had even been crossed out. Stapled to the back of the colorful draft was the new version, with fluid body paragraphs that proved a point, flowing smoothly and tying perfectly into a straightforward thesis.

Loretta briefly read the first page. Then, when she glanced at the name on top of the paper, she squealed, clacking her high heels against the floor in a happy dance. “She’s always struggled with her writing,” Loretta told me. “She has a learning disability. This is really something.” She hugged me.

Holding the essay in my hands, I knew it was something only this student could have written, something I could hear her reading out loud to me in a voice that was uniquely hers.

And in that instant, I knew I had done it. They had done it. Learned.

* * *

On my last day of subbing—a Thursday at the end of Finals Week—I saw each class for about ten minutes so I could give them their grades, return their assignments, and say goodbye. I wrote my personal email address on the whiteboard where my ACE-IT tips had once been. “If you need help with anything, I’m just an email away,” I told my students.

Emily, one of the four tenth graders on student council, took out a selfie stick and insisted we take a group photo before she gave me a handwritten thank-you letter.

“See you soon, right?” the students asked on their way out of my classroom for the last time. Their body paragraphs had become beautiful in my three weeks with them, but they had never listened to me when I said I would not be coming back in the fall—that I had a different job lined up, that I would be going to grad school so I could be a full-time teacher one day. For all I knew, Mrs. A would be back at school in September after doing whatever it was she had been doing for those mysterious weeks in June.

“Yes, see you later,” I said. It had only been three weeks, but I still wanted to see them every day, to be their teacher. To not say goodbye.

The final bell rang. I locked my classroom door and turned in my keys, then walked to the parking lot. My car was already packed with my month’s worth of belongings and the few old books I had picked up at weekend garage sales. I drove away into the distance, toward blue, blue skies and looming white windmills, past the empty fields and buggy woods where two prisoners still hid, running by night, escaping into a calculated darkness only they knew.

* * *

The next day, after moving back home, I learned that convict Richard Matt had been shot and killed in the town that bordered the one where I had just been teaching—the town known as our school’s biggest rival. Two days later, Matt’s co-conspirator, David Sweat, was shot and captured sixteen miles farther north, just ten miles west of our school, right near the Canadian border.

My life became quiet again. My college campus was empty, and my only friends in town were the strangers who nodded at me, saying hello, on my morning runs. I wanted to talk to my students, to ask them if they saw the panic of police sirens racing through town to where the prisoners had been spotted. Were any of them related to the men who fired their guns in pursuit? Were my students obsessively refreshing their Google searches, as I was, to learn more about the manhunt? I read articles about the smuggled-in power tools, the walls Matt and Sweat cut through, and the catwalks they climbed across. I wondered if there might be a Hollywood script soon. Would anyone I know be cast as an extra?

I thought about the essays my students might write in the coming school year, for Mrs. A or whoever their new teacher turned out to be. I longed to read their thoughts on the two dangerous men surviving for three weeks in the unfamiliar North Country woods—men not sure of where they were going or what would happen next, but happy to be where they were. Unconfined.

Of course, my students will remember this story as the years go by. Nobody forgets about prisoners running through woods so close to their backyards.

I fear, though, that I will be the only one to remember the chinchilla.

About the Author

Margaret Downey

Margaret Downey is a trained secondary English teacher who has spent the past few years living in an area of New York that is so rurally upstate, most people from Albany have never heard of it.

View Essays