The Benefits of Personal Hygiene
There are two things you have to remember when you want to get your life back.
One: don’t get sick.
Two: don’t let the bastards get you down.
Getting sick is more trouble than it’s worth. There’s finding a sub to start. They said the new call-in system would be easier on everyone, but rather than a quick message to the school secretary at 6am saying you’ve been up vomiting and coughing all night, now you spend a half hour dialing into the district-wide service competing for the few subs willing to work that day. You listen to a thousand messages, pick from a list of numbers representing people who may or may not be available for your school, your grade, your class, hoping someone will actually show up on time to meet the morning busses.
Then there are the lesson plans to email to the principal, the assistant principal, the secretary, the grade-level chair, the grade-level co-chair, and don’t forget to send a copy with a special message to the teacher across the hall asking her to print them out and hand-deliver the pages to whoever has your class throughout the day. You write instructions easy enough for a stranger to use (“the extra pencils are in the blue box on the top shelf in the gray cabinet at the back of the room and attendance and hot lunch orders MUST be submitted to the office NO LATER than 8:45am”) while still personalizing lessons to meet the diverse needs of each student without revealing sensitive information on socio-economic status, managed behavioral plans, special educational needs, or other information that might identify an individual.
And still, you’ll field emails and texts all day from teachers, administration, parents asking for information on everything you didn’t include in the plans. So getting sick isn’t worth the extra hassle. Prevention is best.
You can avoid illness easily enough if you wash your hands regularly like the charts say; use soap and water; rub vigorously for 30 seconds; scrubs between the fingers, under the nails and up the wrists; turn off the faucet with the paper towels. Don’t touch the handle or light switch when you leave. All of this would be easier if you could actually go to the bathroom when you needed to and if the only adult-sized toilet wasn’t at the other end of the hall. (God forbid politicians rely on scheduled pee breaks, but it’s fine for teachers.) Remember: Keep up the hand washing, don’t touch the children, and take the flu shot even though you have to fork over the co-pay.
The second rule is harder to keep.
At six, Raymond has already shuffled between four different relatives. He’s defiant and disruptive. A handful some might say. Mom’s not in the picture anymore and Dad couldn’t handle three kids and two jobs, so Ray went to live with Grandma until she died last year. Congestive heart failure, though the diabetes didn’t help. Auntie picked up the slack and Dad sends money when he can, but there are the cold days Ray arrives in a t-shirt splattered with stains and you can’t help but wonder what he ate for dinner last night. Or if. You know they are doing and giving the best they can. You buy a small coat, a pack of socks, underwear, slip them into a new backpack with his name you write in permanent marker on the side. You load him onto the bus. He hands you a note the next day with a simple We are grateful written inside. You keep granola bars hidden in the cabinet behind your desk for those mornings when he arrives tired and hungry.
Jasmine’s sweetness wafts into your heart like the flower she is. Bows clipped to curls. Sudden smiles like daffodils in spring. She holds your separate fingers with both her fists, clinging. Then the bus comes and you have to put her on it, wave goodbye, knowing night terrors will wrack her awake, sleepless and her mother will call explaining again why she will be late, pleading in her voice for some kind of ending to her daughter’s fears of the dark.
And Miguel, for whom you bought an alarm clock and taught to wake himself at 6am so he could dress and catch the bus to school. Miguel who hides on Officer Day from the visiting deputy because the last time he saw uniforms and blue lights, his mother disappeared. Miguel studies penmanship with discipline, beginning every practice with the word Mommy. His father refuses to take him to the prison.
Of course, you can’t follow these two simple rules. You will get sick despite all the hand washing and you will have to plan the lessons for your absence and take the hit to your paycheck when the sick days run out. You defend against them, germs and attachment, but it is useless. They always find a way around your carefulness, the cracks in the mortar, and you walk away in June swearing you’ll find something else, do anything else, to head off the destruction to your health and heart. You quit. Change apartments. Change boyfriends. Take another useless class in mixed media art or belly dancing. None of it ever lasts.
Come September you stand at a door on parent night assuring nervous adults toting scrubbed children you will faithfully send home weekly reports tucked neatly into coordinated folders and when they leave you find the only bathroom with a lock in which to be sick, alone with your roiling stomach.
You remember to wash your hands.
About the writer:
Debra Rook lives and works in northeastern North Carolina. She teaches, mentors, and writes for children and adults. Her works of poetry and fiction have been published in The Lyricist, the Wolf Warriors anthology, the children’s anthology Doorway to Adventure, and Hunger Mountain, the literary journal of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently at work on her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA.