Sick Day

Yesterday a student asked me if he could go to the bathroom. 

Lately I’ve been moving away from my obnoxious “I don’t know, CAN YA?” response, which I use solely to make fun of those teachers who say it seriously to their students in order to turn an innocent word usage error into a barf-worthy “teachable moment.”  You know the type. 

Anyway, I’m afraid if I do it too much, the irony will be lost and the kids will actually think I’m one of those teachers.

Instead, I said to Bobby, “You’re in middle school. You’re too old to have to ask to go to the bathroom. Just let me know when you’re going so I don’t lose track of you.”

Bobby nodded his head—kind of gravely, I thought at the time—and went on his way.

About 5 minutes later, one of the girls lifted her head from the essay I had assigned them. She looked around the room.  “Where’s Bobby?” she asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.  “Who knows,” I murmured, my attention focused on the thesis statement in front of me that a student had asked me to check.  “Maybe he fell in.”

A couple of minutes later, there was a knock on our classroom door.  I looked through the door’s window to see Bobby standing on the other side. When I opened the door and stepped aside to let him back in, he didn’t move.  I looked at him quizzically.

“I just threw up,” he said.

“Did you save it in the toilet?”

I hate when I find myself using current fads in my writing (is “fads” even a word people use anymore?  If not, I think I just inadvertently proved my point), but there’s one that I kind of like right now, and I think it can be employed pretty perfectly right here.  Let’s backtrack a bit and see how it works:

“Did you save it in the toilet?” I asked him.

*Record scratch* *freeze frame*

Yep, that's me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation.

I know it’s a gross question to ask, but hear me out:  Years ago, we went through a phase in our school where kids were pretending to puke so they could get sent home.  The tomfoolery caught on quickly; honestly, you’ve got to kind of admire the resourcefulness of children.  The teacher would send them to the office to be checked; there would be no fever, and mass chaos would ensue.  Parents might be called.  Some would be angry that they had been bothered—Mikey probably just had too many pieces of pizza at lunch, I’m at work and can’t pick him up, don’t bother me with this again—and others would be angry that their child had been sent back to class without a phone call home even though no fever had been detected.

Anyway, it became enough of a problem that a new policy was created:  If you puke, don’t flush until someone in charge can confirm it and then send you home.

So out of habit, it’s the first thing that comes out of my mouth when a kid tells me he’s puked. However, this was the first time I can remember in all of the years of my Pavlovianesque asking of the question that a kid responded—

“Yeah.”

Usually a kid will look at me, aghast, and say, “NO I didn’t save my puke, you weirdo.  What the heck?” I’ll send the kid to the office to be checked for fever, and nine times out of ten he or she has one and goes home.

But that’s not what happened yesterday.

I stood in the doorway of my classroom, frozen.  After a few beats of silence in which poor Bobby just kind of awkwardly watched me, I finally found my voice.  “Oh…you did?  You saved your puke?”

The random things that flash through a person’s head in cases like this, I swear, because in that moment, I remember thinking that the way that I had phrased the follow-up question was kind of weird, and holy crap what would I do if Bobby pulled a handful of puke out of his pocket to hold up so I could see it for myself?

But instead—thank the good sweet Lord in Heaven—Bobby just nodded his head.

“Hm.”  I placed my hands on my hips.  Cocked my head, hoping that would help me think. 

Then I started laughing.

Kind of hysterically, if you will, because it was one of those times when the absurdity of the situation just hits you.  Here I had a poor, sick child in front of me who was waiting for me to walk down the hallway so I could inspect the chunks he’d just blown into the toilet and confirm that there was, in fact, enough honest-to-goodness, real life spew to warrant him going home.

“You know, Bobby,” I said through my laughter, “I do believe in all of the years I’ve worked here, you’re the first kid who has actually saved his puke like he was supposed to.  I mean…good job?” It felt like the right thing to do, so I patted him on the back.

Bobby gets me.  Bobby understands me, and we share a very similar sense of humor.  He knew I wasn’t laughing at him. A small smile quirked at the corner of his mouth, and it was then that I noticed how pale he really was.

“Go to the office,” I told him. “You need to go home.”

I watched Bobby walk away after he’d gathered his things.  “Feel better soon, buddy!” I called after him.  He lifted his hand up behind him in a weak wave good-bye.

A few moments later, the principal passed by my classroom, headed toward the bathrooms.  I had a feeling I knew what was going on, and this was confirmed when I heard an abrupt, guttural croaking sound followed by a “Yup!” and then a toilet flushing.

I poked my head out of my classroom door as he was exiting the bathroom, his fist to his chest as he paused in the hallway. "Puke check?” I asked, a smile on my face because better him than me.

He gulped a couple of times, perhaps in an attempt to swallow his own bile back after what he had just witnessed in the bathroom.  

I am a brat; I was enjoying this.  I waited patiently for an answer to my question. When he got his breath, he nodded his head briefly as he stared at a spot on the floor in what looked to me like an attempt at equilibrium.

“That’s what you get paid the big bucks for, Boss!”

He mostly just ignores me when I say things like that. He didn’t even glance in my direction again before regaining his composure and stalking back up the stairs to continue his day.

But somehow I felt like I had won, you know?

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