Once I had a “stinker” in class. A stinker is a kid who stinks. This particular kid’s name was Melvin Charles Palomius, but he was known around the high school as Mel Odious.
Now Mel smelled as if many small, nasty creatures had met their Maker in, on, under and throughout his body. He did not have that normal, everyday odor of rancid chicken soup that several days of not bathing can produce in people. No, I’m talking serious dead-animal smell for Mel.
I first realized I had Mel in my class on the very first day of school when I walked into the classroom and was appalled by the fact that the custodians hadn’t cleaned out my garbage can all summer – for what else could cause such a stench? Some of the custodians at my school had the reputation for cleaning up on the job but not cleaning up anything else, if you get my meaning. But when I looked in the garbage can, expecting to see the rotted remains of the last lunch I had eaten just before summer vacation, I found to my surprise that it was relatively clean. If it weren’t for the wads of fossilized gum, the bottom of the can could have passed for almost new.
So what was causing that horrible odor?
I looked up from the garbage can and there was Mel. I knew immediately that the scent from hell came from him. It was elementary my dear reader. The rest of the kids stood in the back of the classroom, pushing themselves against the open windows, all wondering where they were going to sit in relation to Mel when I gave them their seating assignments. If I followed the usual policy of seating them in alphabetical order the students mathematically calculated where their desks would be in relation to the stink of the century.
“If King Scobe seats me next to that stinker, I’ll kill myself,” said one boy, whom I later learned was named Phillip Peters. [Many students called me King Scobe.]
I could see the mixture of terror and revulsion in their eyes as I lifted my computerized class list. What should I do? I had a choice. It was simple really. Do I seat them alphabetically or don’t it? I quickly did a check of my list and realized that if I seated them that way; Mel would be in the very first seat – right in front of me – where he sat right now. He smiled at me when I looked at him, and I saw his yellow and black teeth. The only other time in my life that I saw black teeth was in the casinos of Mississippi and at the Horseshoe in Las Vegas when I became an advantage-player in the casinos – but that would be many, many years in the future.
“I figured where I would be sitting,” he said.
“Very clever,” I said, holding back the nausea that rocketed through me when I caught the stench of his breath. “Are all the windows opened?” I asked the students crammed in the back of the room.
“All the way,” they chorused. They knew that I knew that they knew that this was going to be a rough period with such a stinker in the room.
The decision was made.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said. “I don’t think it’s an educationally sound policy to seat kids in alphabetical order.”
A huge cheer went up from the students whose lives and noses I’d saved by not following the standard policy. But I could also hear the loud groans that came from the kids who originally thought they wouldn’t have to be near Mel and now their fates were up in the (stinking) air.
Now I had to come up with a foul-proof, I mean, fool-proof plan of seating in order to get Mel as far away from me as possible and simultaneously spare as many of the kids as I could from the horror. Letting the kids choose their own seats would be a disaster since all of them would struggle to get into the last seat of each row now that they saw Mel making himself comfortable in the first seat. The thought of five students squeezed per last desk of each row conjured images of fistfights and foreplay. Think quickly, Scobe, I thought.
I went to the window, stuck my head all the way out, took a deep breath and then went back to the lectern next to my desk. I lifted the class list. Wonder of wonders – I placed Mel in the last seat of the last row over by the DO NOT OPEN: FIRE EXIT window, which I told Mel to open as wide as it would go. This was a window that opened wide enough for you to get out of the building in case of fire.
“But you’re not supposed to open it,” he said.
“That’s not this year’s fire exit window,” I lied. “This year’s is the one in the front of the room. They just haven’t painted the sign for it yet.”
“But the new one is so small, no one could get out of it,” said Mel.
“Uh, they’re going to expand it too,” I said.
That mollified Mel. Actually, he wasn’t a bad kid; he was just a bad-smelling innocuous kid. He even did all his homework but I never read any of it because I didn’t want to touch something that he had touched. His homework also had a lingering scent to it, Mel’s dead-animal scent. I just gave him straight B’s, which was higher than the C average he ran in all his other classes. When he took a test, I’d have the kids mark each other’s papers. But many kids did not want to touch his paper either, so finally I said to Mel, “You know Mel I trust you so much I am going to let you mark your own tests from now on.” A cheer went up from the class. I had brilliantly handled the dilemma of how to handle something that Mel handled without having to handle it.
Now, on the second day of class I brought in a gigantic fan, placed it in the aisle blowing on Mel and out the opened DO NOT OPEN: FIRE EXIT window. In that way I saved the class. Mel’s odor went sailing out the window – perhaps killing birds – but at least we humans were safe. I believe in being loyal to your species.
Of course, I hadn’t really fully saved myself.
Perhaps I should have taken Mel aside and in an adult and sensitive and humane way addressed his particular problem. I should have used the finesse God gave me as a teacher to start a conversation on some trivial topic and slowly bring it around to his particular problem. “Hey, Mel, that was a very lively essay you wrote the other day. Your use of metaphor is quite unusual for a kid your age and oh, by the way, do you know you smell like hell?”
But I didn’t do that. I couldn’t. I just kept that fan blowing on him and prayed for Mel to set the all-time record for absences. He didn’t. He was present every day, every stinking day. Maybe germs just died when they got close to his body.
And then came parents/teachers night.
My plan was well thought out. I would greet his parents as if nothing was untoward. I just prayed that his parents didn’t stink too. I would tell them about a good composition he just wrote, which I hadn’t read because I didn’t want to touch it, and then I would subtly work in the fact that Mel smelled as if he were decomposing.
But the best laid plans of mice and lice often go astray.
It was a quick meeting.
“Mr. Scobe,” said Mom as she and Mr. Odious entered my office.
“Hi, won’t you sit down,” I said cheerfully and sniffed subtly. Thank you, God! Thank you! Thank you! They didn’t stink!
“We’re a little concerned about Mel,” said Mom.
“Really?” I figured they knew about his problem. Or maybe he told them about the huge fan blowing on him every day.
“Yes,” said Dad. “He isn’t participating in extra-curricular activities. Don’t you think it’s important that a child should?”
“Uh…yes…yes,” I said flustered.
“What team do you think he should join?” asked Dad.
“How about the swim team?” I said.
“He hates the water, even as a baby he always hated taking baths,” said Mom.
“No kidding?” I said, innocently.
“The school doesn’t have a swim team does it?” asked Dad.
“Ah, no, but maybe we could start one for him,” I said.
“The school doesn’t have a pool, does it?” asked Dad.
“No, but he could use the pool at Hewlett High – it’s only about a mile away,” I said.
“I think Mel needs something a little less strenuous,” said Mom.
“How about a shower team?” I mumbled.
“What?” asked Dad.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I think Mel would like to join your Science Fiction Club,” said Mom. “He says he gets along with you. He wants a closer working relationship with you. Another student, Simon Michael, told Mel that your club is the best.”
“I think he identifies with you,” said Dad.
Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!! I thought. Could it be I stink? I started to smell myself. How could I stink? I showered every day.
“What are you doing?” asked Dad.
“What?” I looked up from under my armpit. “What?”
“What are you doing?” he repeated.
“Nothing, nothing,” I said. Then I had an inspiration brought on by desperation. “Gee, I hate to tell you this, but I am quitting all my clubs this year.”
“When?” asked Mom.
“Tonight,” I said.
Just then my student monitor came in and told me their five minutes were up and my next appointment had arrived.
“Well, Mr. Scobe, it was nice meeting you,” said Dad.
I stood up and shook his hand. “Same here,” I said.
Then I shook Mrs. Odious’s hand.
They started to leave. Then Mom turned around. “Oh, by the way, what classes are you teaching next year? Mel wants to sign up.”
“Yes, Mel wants to have you for English again next year,” said Dad.
“Uh, ah, um, that might be…impossible…because – ah, I’m switching departments!”
“Really?” said Mom.
“Yes, I’ll be teaching something Mel would find very boring next year,” I said.
“What?” asked Dad.
“Hygiene,” I muttered.
I don’t think they heard that last remark as my student monitor again came in to say my next appointments were outside waiting for me. Mr. and Mrs. Odious were delighted that their darling had finally found a teacher that he liked and wanted to get closer to.
That year was interesting. In winter I couldn’t use the fan or keep the DO NOT OPEN: FIRE EXIT window open, especially after the first snowfall covered Mel with an inch of white. Within a week of closing that window for winter, half the class dropped out – the half closest to Mel.
Of the kids that remained, most seemed to suffer from allergies because they were constantly holding handkerchiefs to their noses. As for me, I learned an important educational lesson from Mel – sometimes your class stinks through no fault of your own.
And Mel? I’ll never forget that little stinker.