Back of the Line: A Real Story of Institutionalized Racism

“You better do your job, Timothy,” said Isabella.

“The libarry looks fine to me,” he said, pushing his blonde bangs out of his face.

“It’s library, not libarry,” said Isabella. “You have to put away all the books or you won’t get paid.”

Timothy looked at the books scattered around the floor and then back at Isabella. “Will you help me? Pleeeeeeeeease!”

As a regular volunteer in my son’s first grade classroom, I tried to stay out of Mr. Cane’s way, carefully curating the moments to assert myself. “Mr. Cane, just so I’m clear, is it okay if a student allows another student to do their job?”

“No, it’s not.”

“Okay, just so you know, Timothy is letting Isabella do the library for him.”

“I’ll talk to them.  Thanks for letting me know.” He walked away wiping the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand.  The county hadn’t turned the heat off, despite the fact that it was 80 degrees and sunny.

Every student in Mr. Cane’s class was given a job as part of a five day unit, designed to help them learn about jobs and money.  Salaries ranged from $8 per day (Class Librarian) to $4 per day (Waste Manager).

My son Max applied for Class Librarian (“I lik to smel books.”), Materials Distributor (“I lik to hlp the teachr.”), and Waste Management (“Trash truks are awsme.”).

When he learned he got the job of Waste Manager, along with his friend Jerome, he shot out of his chair like a bottle rocket.

“Boys, BOYS, stay in your seats,” said Mr. Cane. Max gave me a thumbs up as he scurried back to his desk.  It was rare to see him this excited about a school activity.  

“You know what I’m going to buy with my money, Mommy?” Max said, as we were driving home at the end of the first day. “I’m going to get a pack of sticky hands and a blue bouncy ball! And! AND!  I’m going to buy time in the rocking chair for story AND I’m going to do show and tell about my Optimus Prime.  The big one!”


It was day four and the temperature had risen another five degrees outside, but the heaters continued to blow, making us all feel (and smell) like limp fish.

The county did provide us with a fan, which Mr. Cane placed in the corner near the “Wall of Synonyms.”  I was neither happy, nor glad, nor delighted that it didn’t oscillate properly, only blowing from the center to the right and back again.

“Time to do your jobs everyone,” said Mr. Cane. Thank God.  I thought this day would never end.  

Jerome got up immediately to do the recycling, but Max just sat there.  I raised an eyebrow in his direction. He looked down at his desk, crossed his arms, and shook his head.  His enthusiasm over the idea of being Waste Manager ended on day two, when his shirtsleeve got covered in someone’s expired milk.

Max wasn’t the only one shirking his duties. Timothy had amassed a harem of librarians who were reshelving the books, while he was rolling dice in the corner.

“Timothy, Mr. Cane said we are not allowed to have other people do our jobs,” I said. The girls froze.  He kept rolling.

“Did not,” he said.  A six and a three.

“Yes, he did,” I said sternly, trying to catch his eye.

“They’ve been helping me every day.” A four and a two.

“Yes, but-“

“Snake eyes! Yes!”

I sent Mr. Cane an email that evening.


“It’s the last day to do your jobs, everyone.  I had to dock a lot of you yesterday and the day before. Make sure to do your whole job, as instructed. Remember, Monday is payday.”

“Monday?” said Timothy. “Why not today?” Whiney children are especially irritating when you’re sweating through your bra.

Mr. Cane ignored him and went over to stand in front of the fan. “Get to work everyone.  You’re running out of time.”


“Mommy, is today the day we get paid?” asked Max, as he spread toothpaste on his toothbrush.

“Sure is.” I was trying to decide which sleeveless top showed the least amount of cleavage.

“I gotta go tell Daddy today’s the day!”  

He ran outside, toothbrush still in hand, but his father had already driven away.

“Boys and girls, I want you to know how proud I am of your hard work last week,” said Mr. Cane. “I think we all learned some valuable lessons about being responsible employees. Ms. Lisa will give you your money when I call your name.”

What? I have to be the one to hand out the cash? Dammit.  

“There are only two students who earned their full week’s pay,” said Mr. Cane. Let’s have a round of applause for Isabella and Timothy.”  

What the actual fuck?

When I handed Timothy his $40, he took a victory lap around the class, fist bumping and high fiving everyone in his path.

The rest of the children were docked an average of two days wages.

Max and Jerome spent the remainder of class waiting at the back of the goody box line, each holding the $12 they earned.

“I’m getting a sheriff’s badge!” said Jerome.

“Ooh! Awesome!” said Max.  “I can’t wait to show my Daddy my blue bouncy ball.”

“Okay Max, it’s your turn.” Mr. Cane dragged his hand through the plastic-wrapped toys that were left at the bottom of the goody box in an effort to provide some front-of-the-line excitement.

No matter how deep he dug, Max soon discovered what it meant to be at the back of the line.

“All the good toys are gone,” he said, shuffling away holding two fruit-shaped erasers and sticker that said “Grape Job.”

It was a very quiet car ride home.

15 thoughts on “Back of the Line: A Real Story of Institutionalized Racism

    1. I AM SO GLAD TO BE DONE WRITING THIS ONE! Reliving it over and over as I tried to get the story just so has made whatever funk I’m in even funkier. Thanks for reading and being so supportive. I NEED ALL I CAN GET.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Lisa, this was brilliant and yes, heartbreaking. Having experienced something similar firsthand, I can tell you that you’ve nailed Max’s feelings!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Every time a cheater succeeds I lose more of my faith that the universe is good. And sometimes believing in Karma just isn’t enough. But I carry on, trying to do the right thing, patiently waiting for my turn, paying my share, helping others and looking out for the under dog because to do otherwise would be inconceivable.

    Sad for Max for more than just being at the end of the line but because he watched his classmate cheat, get away with it and actually profit from it. Sorry for you that you had to try and make sense out of it. AND….Mr. Cane is an ass.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The more I read this, the more effed-up that whole situation seems. Thank goodness you were there to do damage control and call out Timothy and his library harem, even if the outcome was not exactly ideal…or even reasonably good…


  4. This is sad for so many reasons. The teacher missed a wonderful opportunity here. Honestly I feel bad for Max, but thankfully he has wonderful parents who see teachable moments and will continue to guide him as he grows. However, the path that Timmy is on is a sad one. Being positively reinforced for his poor choices at this age will no doubt color his future. The teacher did a disservice to all. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Liked by 1 person

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