With the school year rapidly approaching, let’s take a minute to laugh at my humiliating public-school experiences.
In 2005 I was in fifth grade. The elementary school I attended was built in the middle of a residential area. In the morning it was common for early-rising mothers and elderly neighborhood residents to walk their dogs around the flat patch of asphalt and wood chips we called a playground.
The dogs, pulled reluctantly along by their lycra-clad masters, left behind hot piles of droppings that by the mid-morning sun steamed tendrils of acrid smoke. Unremoved, the land mines dotted the ground by the swing sets, painted hopscotch lines, and wood mulch that punctured knees fallen from the slide. Our teachers made a point to warn us away from the shit, but still day after day someone fell victim.
Johnny-so-and-so would come in from recess and fill the classroom with that distinct odor. No matter how one tried to wipe their crimes away on the grass, the hot classroom bordered on two sides by large windows streamed in sunlight that amplified the smell and drew a large red arrow to the culprit. He would be sent, red-faced, to the nurse’s office for a change of clothes and shoes from the lost and found.
I particularly had fears about being sent away for a change of clothing at the lost-and-found. My worries went far beyond the visceral disgust of planting a foot in a fresh pile of dog crap. Standing a head higher than the next tallest classmate, I was lanky-limbed and shy as a wallflower. Like a puppy, my feet and hands were disproportionate to the rest of my body. I walked to school in a pair of size 10 shoes.
If I was sent for a change of clothing, I knew nothing would fit. I would be stuck in a pair of unnaturally-colored polyester sweatpants that ended just below my knees and a pair of geriatric shoes that were five sizes too small. To wear the old, ill-fitting clothing in front of a bunch of judgmental 11-year-olds was social suicide. During the outdoor time I stuck close to the brick building and away from danger like a fly.
Early September was too warm and the school lacked air conditioning. By noon it was a hotbox. We steamed like potatoes and smelled of sticky bodies that had yet to discover deodorant. The year 2005 was a strange year for children’s fashion. I wore a sequin top, a half-sweater that fastened with long ties at the top of my ribcage, a patchwork peasant skirt, opaque white tights, and a fresh pair of white canvas tennis shoes. With my stick-on earrings and friendship bracelet choker, I felt stylish and impatient to escape the sweltering classroom.
At recess, I dawdled along the edge of the building, playing a make-believe game in which I was a time-traveling fairy with a flying koala companion. I was lost in my mind and paying little attention to my footfalls when it finally happened.
I don’t know who had walked their Great Dane or miniature pony through the schoolyard that morning. I don’t know why that person fed their animal a diet exclusively of prunes and laxatives. It was the biggest, wettest pile of crap I had ever encountered, and my foot was thrust deep into the middle of it. It coated the bottom and sides of my fresh white shoes and my socks grew wet as the crap squelched through the canvas holes. Particles splattered my tights. My stomach rolled.
What am I going to do?
My face was bright red as I attempted to scrape it off in the grass, but I only succeeded in smearing it further. I could abandon my shoes entirely, but someone was sure to notice if I walked back into the classroom barefoot. I had to fix this. Scrambling with the minutes I had left of the recess, I scraped much of the crap off with a stick. Streaks of brown adorned the bony protrusions of my white-clad ankles. I decided then to ignore the problem and pretend nothing had happened. If I ignored it, it had to go away.
The bell rang and I lined up to go inside. For now, a cool breeze lifted the smell away from well-trained noses. My hands shook but I kept up my mask.
We filed through the classroom door and took our seats at our desks. For a while, things were fine, but soon enough that distinct smell began to fill the air. The teacher, with her seasoned nose, began to prowl through the desks looking for signs of an accident. I kept my head down and stared at my hands in my lap which were fidgeting nervously.
Her black leather shoes clicked neatly together in front of my desk.
“Allyson, go to the nurse’s office immediately.”
Without bringing my gaze up to meet hers I tore away from my desk and dashed into the hallway as quickly as I could. At the other end of the hallway, the nurse’s office loomed. I made long, slow steps, hoping to stretch out the distance for as long as I could.
Part-way between my fifth-grade classroom and the nurse’s office was the girl’s bathroom. I ducked inside.
Inside the bathroom were four stalls, two pedestal sinks, and a mirror. I gripped the sides of the sink with both hands and stared at my reflection, which had begun to cry. I turned on the faucet, slipped off my shoes, and set them on the edge of the sink. They were still caked in shit. Dried crumbs of it fell off and were flushed down the sink by the water.
Frantically, I thrust my shoes under the stream of water while I eased off my tights and threw them in the trash. Past the point of disgust, I scrubbed at the canvas sneakers with my hands and with pieces of brown paper towel from the dispenser.
The sink drain was metal, with pinprick holes drilled in to let the water pass through. It was quickly blocked up by pieces of shit and paper. The water level began to rise. I switched my efforts to the adjacent sink where things were a bit cleaner. With tunnel-vision, I scrubbed and scrubbed, hoping to make my shoes clean enough to avoid a humiliating shopping trip at the lost-and-found bin.
I was a madman. The front of my shirt and skirt were soaked with swampy water. I smelled like a petting zoo. My hands were covered in shit, the floor and sink were covered in shit, and brown watery splashes rolled down the mirror. When my shoes were as clean as I could get them I stepped back and slipped them on my now bare feet. They squished unpleasantly with water saturation.
It dawned on me that I was now faced with a larger problem. I had utterly destroyed the bathroom. Both sinks were stopped up, the floors and mirrors were a muddy disaster, and the place reeked of dog shit. I tossed fistfuls of paper towel to the ground and at the sink, I dug out sopping handfuls of the shitty paper towel. The water level barely drained. Using my fingers I waffle-stomped dog shit down the sink drain. My fingers hunted every last slimy clump until I knew I had been away from the classroom so long that I needed to get back.
I rinsed off my hands, straightened my hair and clothes, and ran back to the classroom. On my way back I stopped at my locker for my windbreaker which I tossed over my shirt. Hopefully, they wouldn’t notice I hadn’t changed my clothes and shoes for the lost-and-found horrors.
Back in the room, I shoved my desk and chair as far away from the others as I could and tried to remain invisible. I knew I stank, and every now and then a kid would twist around in their desk to give me a funny look.
“Alright, class, bathroom trip. Everyone line up in alphabetical order,” the teacher said after some time. In elementary school, the classes often took bathroom trips together as a group. I suppose it was easier than trusting the children alone. Can’t imagine why.
We marched—I squelched—down the hallway to the bathrooms. I felt like I was headed to my executioner. At the bathrooms, we lined up again while four at a time we were let in to do our business.
The first four girls entered the bathroom. Standing in the middle of the line I tried not to cry. After several seconds, two of the girls exited the bathroom with horrified faces and flagged down the teacher. They whispered something into her ear. The teacher’s eyes snapped up to meet mine.
The bathrooms were shut down for the rest of the day so the sinks could be dismantled to fish out the dog shit from the pipes while the rest of the bathroom was bleached. I was sent to the nurse’s office for a change of clothes and shoes. Nothing fit me, so my father was called out of work and I was sent home for the rest of the day following a stern talk in the principal’s office.
If you visit the elementary school now, large white signs posted every few feet read NO DOGS ALLOWED and feature an image of a dog crapping with a big red X drawn through it. I can’t help but wonder if maybe I’m the reason.