The kids had only been gone for three days but, now that the Memorial Day long weekend was over, my work as an assistant principal was ready to begin again. It was time to clear out the old year and prepare for the next one, which would begin in two months whether we were ready or not.
Fortunately, this first day back, there were no district meetings planned, no professional development “opportunities” scheduled, and no parent conferences expected. I began my day sitting with the principal and developing my “to-do” list from his requests and then adding a few of my own chores as well.
A few teachers had returned as they had not completely checked out for the summer break the Friday before. I visited each in their classrooms, inspected the walls and floors for some sense of cleanliness and signed their check-out forms for the secretary. I helped them move desks and boxes and bookcases out of the way so that the custodians could easily clean the carpet before fall.
There were also many teachers who had been told that they would be teaching in different classrooms during the new school year. All of their personal belongings had been boxed and labeled and placed with the furniture they owned near their classroom entrances. For most of these individuals, long-time veterans in the field, the collection at the door was massive. You amass a great deal over the years and, in true teacher fashion, you never throw anything away. (Personally, I still have ditto masters and overhead transparencies in my files despite the fact that the “technology” to use both is no longer existent).
As I moved in and out of classrooms, I ran into our day custodian, Maria, who had her own list of things to do for the day. I had worked with this wonderful lady for several years and knew her to be an extremely hardworking individual dedicated to the staff and kids on campus. If I even hinted that something needed done, she was on it in seconds with nary a complaint.
It was already the first week of June, the temperature was in the hundreds, and both of us were drenched in sweat as we passed on the sidewalk. Maria had already been hard at work three hours before I arrived at school, fixing sprinklers, mopping, cleaning away debris from a weekend storm, caulking cracks in the walls, and moving furniture and boxes across campus.
We walked in opposite directions, but I quickly spun around. “Maria!” I hollered. “You are pregnant! I do not want you moving anymore furniture or boxes. Those things are heavy. I know! I’ve moved schools seven times already, and I’ve packed and unpacked a lot of things!”
Maria smiled, but continued walking toward her next chore.
“Maria!” I hollered again. “Look, we’re going to switch roles today. You are going to tell me where things need to be moved, and I am going to get them on the flatbed or dolly and move them for you. You just have to point me in the right direction and then hold the door for me!”
The woman smiled again, wiped the sweat from her brow and led me to my first job.
In that way, we moved the belongings of several teachers. Believe me, filing cabinets, real-wood bookcases, and six-foot-long tables are the worst! But I got everything loaded and moved to its new destination. The only things that I needed help with were the horrendous, gigantic horseshoe tables that practically no one wanted consuming valuable space in their rooms – no one except nearly all of the individuals moving that summer.
“Call me if you need anything else moved,” I said as we finished up with the last load. “No doing it on your own, Maria! Take care of that baby!”
She grinned and nodded her head, but I knew she was too proud to ask for help. I respected her a great deal because that is how I am myself. Still, I vowed to check up on her throughout the day.
I grabbed a soda and took a break before moving on to my own chores for the day. I was teaching part-time for the university that summer and had been promised a room on my school site for that purpose. The classroom was at the far end of the campus in one of the “temporary” portable buildings that had become a permanent fixture after twenty-five years.
With Diet Coke in hand, I headed to the old classroom, fondly referred to by staff as The Pit. It seemed that every unwanted item ever cast aside by anyone on campus found its way there. I had commissioned a group of lunch detention kids during the last month of school to help me clear out the room I would need for my college students.
I opened the door and about keeled over as a powerful stench ripped its way through my nostrils. A putrid combination of something long-since dead and decaying under the room’s foundation and mold either in the carpet or ventilation system or both squeezed its way from my nasal passages to my lungs. I felt the dry heaves move up to force the odor to retreat, but both stood their ground refusing to budge. I ran outside and sucked in a gallon of air and shook off the convulsions within my stomach.
Weakly, I walked to the custodian’s supply closet. I took a can of disinfectant and returned to the possessed room. I sprayed the entire contents of that can in every corner of the room, along the edges of the carpet on every wall, and even on the vent in the ceiling. I ended up with flowery-smelling decaying mold. There was no way I was going to be able to teach out of this room.
But I was persistent. This is where I always taught my college class – every semester.
I walked to my office and opened the top drawer of my desk. This is where I stored all of the contraband confiscated from errant children over the course of the year. I rummaged through the mixture of water guns, knives, slingshots, balloons, bullets, matches, lighters, electric buzzers, and oversized rubber bands. Finally, far in the back, I found what I was looking for – a can of Axe body spray removed from the backpack of a seventh-grade boy whose idea of moderation differed significantly from that of his teacher.
I returned to The Pit and savagely attacked it with an aerosol assault. My finger did not lift up from the nozzle until every inch of the room had been doused and every drop of the cheap cologne had been spent.
In a matter of minutes, I began to feel extremely dizzy. I had enough sense to leave the permeated pit and seek oxygen, but I could barely think straight.
I don’t feel so great, I thought to myself. I really feel sick. I need to get to the restroom or Maria’s going to have a terrible mess to mop up.
I set my sights on the staff restroom a couple hundred feet away from where I was trembling. I can make it, I assured myself, and I took off in that direction.
The only thing was, I couldn’t make my feet work quite right. I kept navigating to the edge of the sidewalk and often slipped off into the grass. I wobbled and slipped, slipped and wobbled. It took me several minutes to make a journey that I typically could have made in seconds.
My mind was screaming at me: You are going to throw up. Hurry!
But the more I hurried, the more I wobbled. The more I wobbled, the more I slipped. The more I slipped, the more I retched.
I half-ran, half-stumbled my way to the restroom door. I fumbled for the right key on my keychain. My mind had a hard time remembering how to insert the key into the door knob and how to turn it to unlatch the lock.
I could barely see what I was doing, but somehow, I managed to get into the tiny darkened room. I left the lights off and sank to the floor next to the toilet. Waves of nausea washed across me tempting me to expel my breakfast. Gleefully, my mind pushed me to the limit and then pulled me back to begin the process all over again. The smell of mold, decayed creature, disinfectant, and seventh-grade pheromone enhancer, Axe, permeated my clothes and my nose and aided my mind in its sadistic plan.
I stretched out as best I could on what I hoped was a clean floor…and groaned.
Several minutes and several groans later, I began to panic again. I reached in my pocket for my cellphone and somehow dialed my wife who was enjoying a restful day of summer vacation. Wives always know what to do in an emergency, I thought.
“I can’t move!” I exclaimed when she answered.
“What?” she hollered. “What’s wrong? What happened? Where are you?”
Too many questions, dear, I thought. My head spun out of control But aloud, I replied, “On the floor of the teacher bathroom…I feel sick…classroom…body spray!”
“What?” she shouted. “What in the world are you talking about?”
I did my best to explain my situation. I heard her sigh. She might have chuckled a bit as well.
“I’m calling the front office,” she finally replied. I groaned.
“I’ll let them know where you are. I’ll tell them that you are sick and that you need help getting up and getting home. Don’t worry. I’ll get someone to help you.” She hung up.
The fear of being found sprawled out on a restroom floor, intoxicated from the inhalation of body spray, sent a new wave through my body. Adrenaline! There was no way I was going to be able to avoid any embarrassing teasing over this situation, but I was determined to at least lessen the severity.
I took a breath and swallowed the bile in my throat. With great effort, I rose from the floor and held onto the sink. I shook my head. I stood up tall (somewhat) and turned the door knob. The Arizona sun struck me in the eyes, but I was undeterred. Like a drunk man, I made my way weaving down the sidewalk and toward the front office.
Walking toward me was the school principal. He held onto my arm and asked me if I could make it to my office. In true masculine manner, I said I was fine, and in even truer masculine manner, he let go of my arm and followed up with no further questions. He held the door open for me, and said, “Your wife said she is on the way.”
I sat uncomfortably but proudly in my office and waited. The first thing I am going to do when I get home, I thought, is get a shower and get this smell off of me!
My wife soon arrived and insisted that she drive me home. She was right, as usual. How would I ever explain impaired driving to an officer if I drove my own car?
Five hours later – after my stomach and my nose had recovered sufficiently – she drove me back so that I could teach my first night of summer school.
Fortunately, there was a much better classroom – cleaned and available for use.
Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2018.