T

he first-graders sat respectfully on the floor of the gym waiting for instructions. There was more at stake than in this setting than in so many others because the sooner they could manage to sit still and appear to listen, the sooner they could get to the good stuff: they were going to get to play, damn it.

I watched from the side and counted heads. Three students were absent from P.E. so there was only a sprinkling of bodies, really. Fifteen instead of 18. No matter. From where I was standing, I could only see a blizzard of faces, a veritable storm of individuals among whom I could only name a handful of singular snowflakes.

If you call any of your fellow classmates “Poopy,” I’ll totally have your name down by the end of class.

Next week marks the start of my fourth job substitute teaching at the same school. I will be working with roughly the same grade levels again and, because of this, I’ve begun to wonder how much longer I’ll be able to get by without knowing their names. Thus far, these forgiving young souls have given me a pass with a quick “Ms.Wendy-is-new-and-still-learning’ or the occasional ‘You, Princess Shirt,” but that gravy train isn’t going to roll on forever.

I have stumbled upon a few tried-and-true ways to learn a student’s name sooner rather than later. If you call any of your fellow classmates “Poopy” for instance, chances are I’m totally going to have your name down cold by the end of class. That some outward act of naughtiness makes other people memorable seems wrong on a basic level, but I’m not going to argue with one of the core truths of our shared human experience (especially if it helps me remember one more name).

Also, if I nearly put you on the wrong bus home, I’ll be able to greet you confidently using your name correctly the very next time I see you around the school. The same goes for children who I’ve reduced to tears. Playing a super fun game but forgetting to call on every single child because, after the first 40, the faces start to run together, is a sure way to make a child weep and, thus, to quickly learn his or her name. In short, if you are an unfortunate who becomes entangled in one of my freshman teaching errors, rest assured that your name has been branded upon my consciousness for all time.

But what about all of the blameless Alexes, Isabellas or, God help me, the Olivias? How to affix a popular name to their well-mannered faces?

So today, I listened closely as the teacher called them by name. I tried to add at least three more names to my repertoire through new means, unrelated to their behavior. One child’s name sounds just like that of a comic book heroine. Another looks like the child of a friend and whose name even starts with the same letter.

Mostly, though, I watched these familiar faces call attention to themselves in a fresh setting through displays of independence, impulsiveness and outright defiance. I know I got at least four more names down as a result. Those children will never know how grateful I am for their modest misbehaviors.