Sick Week

A few weeks ago (probably the same week as the events in this post happened), my principal told another teacher and me that he was probably going to have to call school off for the next day since we were almost down to 86% of total school-wide attendance due to illness.  Apparently when 14% of the student population is out sick, you get a free day.

“Why 86%?” I asked him.  “Isn’t that kind of a random number?”

“What would you prefer to make it?” he asked me.

“I don’t know.” I shrugged.  It was about 1 PM and I felt great. I never get sick. So the prospect of sipping a celebratory whiskey barrel-aged beer that evening in anticipation of an unexpected day off sounded pretty darn good.  “99%?”

He rolled his eyes and walked away, the voices of the other teacher and me trailing behind him as we volunteered to keep our own kids—who attend the school in which we teach—home the next day in order to fudge the numbers a little bit and earn that reward day off.

It reminded me of the time about 7 years ago when I was teaching 4th grade at the same school and we did have to call off school—for almost an entire week—due to extremely low attendance.

It was crazy.  There were kids puking everywhere.  All up and down the hallways, you heard retching sounds followed by wailing and the gnashing of teeth.  Teachers were literally sidestepping to avoid being horked upon; one teacher stepped out into the hallway at the same time I did and I saw tears in her eyes.

Listen, I don’t know what insane asylums sounded like because unfortunately they went out of fashion around the time I was born.  But I’ve seen old movies, and if they were even a little bit true to life, then our school that day sounded like an insane asylum.

I thought it was funny. 

I mean, I felt bad for the kids, sure, but who doesn’t love holding out some ridiculous vessel—like the teeny tiny shallow ceramic bowl on my desk that I use for paper clips—and saying, “If you’re gonna spew, spew into this”?

None of the kids got the reference. They weren’t even a glimmer in their fathers’ eyes when Wayne’s World came out in the 90’s, but that didn’t matter because I thought it was funny. And isn’t that the most important thing?

A boy in my class—one of the very few still standing—had to go across the hallway to my work bestie’s classroom to get something, and as passed by me, he suddenly stumbled forward and bent at the waist, clutching his stomach.  I hopped out of the way successfully, but, not wanting to miss an opportunity, snatched the little tin cup I used to hold the popsicle sticks on which I had written each child’s name.  (It helps me to avoid inadvertently calling on the same kids all the time.)

He was moving kind of slowly, so it wasn’t very hard to catch up with him.  I took the popsicle sticks out of the cup with one hand and used the other to hold it under his chin.

“If you’re gonna spew,” I said, “spew into this.”

He was a sweet boy; he knew I was making a joke so he tossed me a quick smile as he fell out of my classroom and into the hallway.

He had barely crossed the threshold into the other teacher’s room when he puked all over.  She, too, was sick, but she’s one of those types who prides herself on being at work even when she’s on her metaphorical deathbed.  Nobody cares except for her, mind you.  If she’s expecting balloons or a congratulations cake from the rest of us, by now she must know she’ll be sorely disappointed. 

But that doesn’t stop her: She’ll stumble into work, all pale-faced and shaky, snot rags hanging from one hand while her lunch box dangles in the other, and say something like, “I was up puking all night, but by god I made it into work today!” Except she can’t really say it, per se, since she’s coughing up a lung as she’s trying to speak and her voice is all hoarse from throwing up all night. So it’s more like a croak as she quakes her way down the hall.

The rest of us will step out of her way as we look at each other quizzically and offer slightly different variations of the phrase “Whatever floats your boat” her way while rolling our eyes at each other.

But it makes her feel better about herself, so you know.  We indulge her.

I mean, not really. But we don’t make her go home.

Anyway, she’d been sitting on the floor at the entrance of her classroom clutching her own stomach and when the boy blew chunks right there, all she had the energy to do was scoot a few inches to the left to try to prevent any puke droplets from raining upon her. I caught her eye, winked and gave a mischievous smile as I called, “Thanks for holding it until you got over there, buddy!”

The boy gave me a weak wave as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to call his mom.

My teacher bestie, still on the floor, reached over to slam the door shut.  I guess my healthy, gloating face had started to bother her a little bit.

A few moments later, the principal (now retired) appeared just outside my classroom door.  He didn’t dare take a step inside—no way he wanted to catch whatever disease the kids had—so I met him where he was.

“How many students are you down to?” he asked, peering over my shoulder. 

“I’ve got 7 kids left out of 23.”  I remembered the boy who had just puked, now most likely on his way to the office to be picked up.  “Make that 6,” I corrected.

I followed the principal’s gaze to where the 6 in question sat huddled over their Parts of Speech Bingo cards. I wondered if the way they were putting their heads together and whispering fervently should alarm me.  I was sure 5 hours of “enrichment games” had started to annoy them, and there was no way I could be certain that they weren’t busy planning a mutiny. Or worse.

I decided that maybe I should shove the craft yarn further back into the classroom closet so they couldn’t use it to tie me up.

 My principal watched me open the closet door and slowly press the tangled wad of yarn to the very dark recesses of the back of the closet.  He and I were a lot alike and we were close; I think he could sense my thoughts. He raised his eyebrows and gave a slight shake of his head. “No need.  I’m going to call school off for the rest of the week.  As soon as all the kids clear out, head home.  I’ll see you on Monday.”

I was so excited.  It was only Tuesday, so I’d just been surprised with three paid days off of work—that I had a feeling we wouldn’t have to make up at the end of the year (I was right)—plus the weekend.

And guess what?  I felt fine.  Great, even!  Better than great, actually, because I saw this as another opportunity to brag about my very robust immune system in soliloquy to anyone who would listen—and to those who wouldn’t, too.

(That’s why I had to speak in soliloquy, see, because that means being on a stage talking to yourself and that’s usually how it feels when I climb onto one of my soapboxes.  Nobody wants to engage so as not to encourage me, but luckily I never need encouragement when bragging about myself):

“You know what your guys’ problem is?  You wash your hands too much. You’re too clean! You probably don’t even eat food off of the floor after it’s been there for longer than 5 seconds. You should be more like me.”

I normally then launch into my chicken nugget story.

“Have I ever told you about the time I ate a months-old chicken nugget that I found in my boys’ playroom?”

What people don’t know about McDonald’s chicken nuggets is that they’re timeless.  They never die. And so one day, while my boys, who were very young at the time, were taking a nap, I took the opportunity to clean up their playroom. That alone was weird because when I was a stay-at-home mom, I would almost always take a nice, leisurely nap in the middle of the day when my boys would. But I guess I was feeling ambitious that particular afternoon.

I got to work wiping down the play kitchen that my dad had gotten my older son for Christmas one year.  (He’s 16 now and still loves to cook.)  As I moved my Clorox wipe around the plastic burners, I noticed something in a crevice.  And by gosh, it looked like a chicken nugget.

My heart soared even as I mentally calculated how long it had been since we’d been to McDonald’s.  It had to have been at least two weeks, if not more. Heck, it could’ve been two months…but I don’t pass up a chicken nugget. 

Interesting, I thought to myself as I picked the nugget up and studied it.  It still looks fresh from the box.

It was one of those handle-shaped ones that are my favorite kind. There was a little nibble out of it, and that part of the nugget was a bit soggy, as if the saliva from whichever son had bitten it hadn’t completely dried over the last couple of weeks/months.

I shrugged and popped it into my mouth.  The only regret that I had in the few seconds between chewing and swallowing was that I hadn’t taken the time to dip the nugget in a little bit of ranch before eating it.

It was good.

I would like to say people are surprised when I tell that story, but instead, they usually nod their heads and say something like “That’s disgusting, but it definitely sounds like you.”

“Thanks,” I’ll reply.

There’s more to this story, but I think stopping for now with the image of me snarfing a months-old chicken nugget is enough for today.  Some of you probably have an odd desire to go brush your teeth, and that’s okay.  I imagine even more of you, though, are excited that you’ve learned something new today and can’t wait to get to McDonald’s, buy a box of chicken nuggets, and set them somewhere in the sun like a science project to see If what I say is true and they do, in fact, live forever. 

They do.

God bless McDonald’s.  


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