Sweat rolled from my shoulder blades to my lower back. The thick air carried a hint of rotting garbage from the dumpster behind the school cafeteria. My stomach bubbled and my mouth went dry. Ninety-five degree weather, nerves, and sushi for lunch made a lousy combo. I followed Principal Walters up a weathered wooden ramp to the door of my new classroom.
My right hand automatically reached for my nose the minute I entered the portable. I clamped my fist against my side and tried breathing through my mouth. At least one person had defecated recently, and a citrus scented deodorizer had been sprayed as cover-up. The combination of oranges and poop smelled terrible.
A boy, about twelve years old, sitting strapped in a wheelchair, followed my every movement with large brown eyes. Walking over, I knelt next to him and put on a smile. An odor of saliva reeked from his skin and his shirt. I swallowed hard, forcing my lunch to remain in my stomach.
After being introduced to all eight students and Janice and Debbie, the teacher assistants, I walked back outside. With a deep breath, I shook hands with Mr. Walters, hoping I at least appeared to be delighted with my new teaching position.
The next morning, I dressed with dread. I stuffed one of my pant pockets with peppermint and cinnamon hard candies, and the other with a hanky doused with my favorite cologne. Rather than the usual kiss good-bye, I gave my husband a resentful glare.
"Why did you have to be promoted? I asked. "And why doesn't this district need math teachers?" We needed my salary, yet at that moment I regretted having the special education certification I was being required to use. I had taught Algebra for ten years, and would prefer to continue doing so.
Unlike my past teaching positions, this job required more nursing than instructing, and much more physical labor. Timmy, the boy who smelled like spit, was a heavy eighty pounds, and we lifted those eighty pounds at least five times a day. But Timmy had the sweetest giggle whenever we touched his tickle spots. Steven, a tall, thin boy who used a walker, had a tracheotomy. Fetid smelling mucous frequently had to be suctioned out of his throat. When the suctioning was done, he arched his eyebrows and grinned, almost as if he was stunned breathing could be so easy.
The twins, Chelsea and Lindsey both had their periods on my first day working, and I had to hold my breath while cleaning them. What they lacked in hygiene skills, they sure made up for in enthusiasm. They danced with abandon, often without the benefit of music. I never laughed as hard as I did the day they did the Macarena.
Robbie, a fifteen year old with Downs Syndrome, often had an upset stomach, and after breakfast might vomit pink tinged, soured Fruit Loops. But Robbie sang phrases of country songs he heard on the radio, like “I’d like to check you for ticks” or “tequila makes her clothes come off” and kept us all entertained.
Mark was deaf and blind and had swollen, bleeding gums, giving his breath a rank odor. But when I sat next to him, he would softly touch my face and arms, as if he found my body precious.
Nicole, a large, wheelchair bound sixteen year old, had arms that must be at least ten feet long. We had to be adept at avoiding her pinches while working close to her. “The person with the most bruises buys lunch,” Janice declared. By Friday, my arms were covered with purple and blue splotches and I was ordering a large pepperoni pizza for the three of us.
Charlie, a tiny black boy with glasses and hearing- aids, smelled like the fabric softener his grandmother used. I tried my best not to favor him, but when he looked at me and signed “I love you”, I began taking my lunch break at the playground so I could push him on the swing.
About three months into the school year, my husband visited our class. He smiled at the students, was friendly with the staff, and after five minutes claimed to be late for a meeting.
“How can you stand the smell?” he whispered, standing on the ramp outside the door. “I had to leave.”
I grinned, kissed his cheek, and headed to my kids. “What smell?”
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