Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Smellophobia, Part 1

This is a memoir I wrote about a child in my class many years ago. It is a little long for a single post so I'll publish it in parts. I had a hard time coming up with a title for this one. I am open to suggestions.


In the late 80’s I taught little ones in a large public school in Cayce, SC. Back then, and still today, kids are tested to see if they are “ready” for first grade. The teachers meet with children individually to see if they know their colors, shapes, letters and numbers and to see if they can name pictures of common items and their uses. The Cognitive Skills Assessment Battery, or CSAB, was pretty important as it placed kids into two groups; ready or not ready for first grade. Back in those long ago days someone had the brainchild in my school district to take all of the children labeled not ready and place them into a single classroom.

When I first started teaching these students there was only one of these special rooms. There were seven or eight first grade rooms and lots of kids scored “not ready” – far more than enough for a single class. So my class was the lowest scoring 18 children out of the 140 or 150 children given the test. Since most of these students were destined to have an extra year of first grade – the year with me being their first year of first grade – we were called the Transition First Grade. I worked with the Transition First Graders for five years.

In order to make the other first grade classrooms more alike, (more homogeneous in educator’s terms), by reducing the number of low scoring children in the “regular” classrooms, the process provided us with an extremely diverse group.

My class was filled with bright, funny, happy kids. They may not have tested well, they may have taken a little longer to read confidently, but our Transition children were fun, challenging, capable people. I loved working with them. In some ways it was far more interesting than teaching a “regular” group of first grade aged kids.

One year, it may have been 1988 or 1989; there was a little boy in our room who had a bit of an eating disorder. Or maybe it was a smelling disorder. His mom called it a “delicate stomach”, a classic understatement if I ever heard one. Whatever we called it, Brandon was one of those people who could simply not stand the smell of our school cafeteria. It’s not just that he found some odors offensive. They made him sick. Literally.

Brandon regularly threw up at lunchtime. After the first couple weeks of school the fall Brandon was with us, our class was moved to the lunch table nearest the set of double doors that led directly to the outside. Brandon would signal me and go right outdoors, burst outside and relieve himself of his stomach contents.

It’s not like he wasn’t getting enough nutrition. He was a pretty robust kid. No problem there. It was the smells. I know it seemed like an awkward solution but it worked. We considered other options like having him near the trashcan, using an “air sickness” bag – all of that seemed a little gross for the onlookers and would only make Brandon more self-conscious about his barfing thing. So our class sat by the door and Brandon always sat closest, within a few feet of the exit.

One day as we were walking to the cafeteria. Brandon tugged on my sleeve. “Mr. O., they must be having boiled cabbage in the cafeteria.”

“I think you’re right, kiddo.” I hadn’t smelled it yet, but I knew enough to trust his nose.

“But I hate boiled cabbage!”

“You don’t have to get it, Brandon.” Soon I could smell the cabbage. Not very pleasant. Whatchagonnado? Cabbage is cabbage. The lunch ladies were nice. They understood the situation. There was no offense taken.

As he pushed his tray across and said, “No thanks,” to the cabbage, he looked pale. I recognized the signs. Soon we were seated, Brandon just a few feet away from the double doors and poised to hit the bushes if need be. I figured he might, and half expected his usual rush out the door. I would go out, kind of rub his back, wait with him until his nausea passed, kick some dirt over the mess, and then come back in to finish lunch. It sounds weird, I know. But that was our rhythm. It worked.

So we all were seated. To be fair, while there was the heavy, cloying, funky smell of cooked cabbage, there were other more pleasing food smells mixed in. Sausage, biscuits, green beans, rice. There were other smells too: steam, industrial disinfectant, wax from the cafeteria floors, cigar smoke from Old Mr. Steverson the head custodian and, of course, the smell of 200 children in one big room. This was a blend of smells I was used to with about ten years of teaching experience behind me. But it was the blend of odors that made my little friend Brandon sick. Regularly. We hoped that he would simply grow out of it. Unfortunately, on this particular day, he had not.


Mamafamilias said...

I'm holding out for the Rest of the Story.

Chris Hass said...

An odd solution, for sure. When you look back on your career and think of all the strange situations you've found yourself in (I'm thinking of when you removed that tick in the bathroom)I would imagine watching Brandon barf in the bushes each day will have to rank pretty high up there. We expect to pull the occasional tooth, fix someone a snack for "breakfast", or clean up a urine stain or two. But daily trips to the bushes is kind of weird. And cabbage is just unfair. Can't wait to see where this goes. You should have asked for predictions. My guess is he's not making it out those doors and that he might not even be the only one to blow chunks.

Emily Whitecotton said...

I'm with Brandon, cafeteria smells are the pretty gross. I find it interesting that I became a classroom teacher, in an elementary school nonetheless. I remember thinking about how horrid the smell was, as I traversed the big ramps in the middle of Irmo Elementary. One of the things I noticed immediately upon visiting CFI was that it didn't smell like a cafeteria.

I'm not sure how you can dig down to smell anything good smelling when you have to go through all those other layers of smell: industrial cleaner, cabbage, and the ubiquitous and mildly chlorinated steam smell.

I think having Brandon barfing in the bushes was a great solution. I mean really...what else was there to do? Containing it in a bag really doesn't seem so great an option to me.

I think it's cool that Brandon could know what the cafeteria would be serving just by his nose. Wonder whether it would be helpful to have superhero smell ability or if it would just be an obnoxious burden.

Tim O'Keefe said...

Hi, Thanks for the comments kids. To be clear, he wasn't spewing every day, just about once a week. Still, it seemed like a lot at the time. Nowadays, I would take it a lot more seriously. I was young and foolish and it was fine with the principal so...

OK, he was also the principal who smoked anywhere and everywhere in the school and often flicked his cigs out the front door where the ground was dotted with dozens (hundreds?) of his butts.