It was during my first year as a full principal, (no longer teaching principal) that I worked on my MA in Education at a local university. I loved reading, thinking and writing about the purposes of Education and schooling, about the curriculum, teaching strategies, supervising teachers and matching learning goals for students with actual funding priorities. These topics continue to make up much of MA work and continue to be fascinating.
Yet none of these topics fully prepared me for the actual work of managing a school in rural poverty. It was early winter, November, when the rains came in buckets, that a first Grade teacher noticed that a couple of her white boys, Tommy and Jason were turning a decided light shade of yellow. It wasn’t a reflection of their bright yellow rain slickers, as she first imagined, because they didn’t have any rain slickers. She reported this to me immediately. Since we had no full time nurse due to the Prop 13 cutbacks, I called the county office of education where we contracted for nurse services. Of course, this nurse, Molly Smith, like every school nurse I ever knew in education was heroic. She showed up in a very short time, took one look at the kids and said, “Likely hepatitis.”
“What should we do? “ I asked very concerned.
“Wash hands, “ she replied matter of factly. “Everyone needs to wash hands a lot. Also, you and I are going to make a home visit and you are going to send a note home to all the parents telling them about the hepatitis and to advise their kids to be extra cautious and wash hands.”
About that time, another first grade teacher showed up at the office with two yellowing white boys Pete and Amos, for the nurse to check out. After a quick address check, the nurse saw that all four of the boys impacted were next-door neighbors, so to speak in this rural area. This meant they lived in single-wide trailers within sight of each other.
We jumped in my car and headed for the kids’ homes since they had no phones. My old Ford slipped and spun tires all the way up the steep muddy hill and over the crest to the trailers. They were hidden on a gentle hillside and up skinny red dirt driveways amid 10 ft Manzanita bushes and a few digger pines* (as they were called by the locals in those days).
The cleared out area in front was littered with an old broken down car, trash, old soup cans, motor oil cans and cardboard showing the effects of the big rains that had recently passed through. We were greeted as we knew we would be, by some variety of dogs that comprised numerous cantankerous breeds. They barked and growled trying to bite the tires. The nurse opened her door first and yelled at the dog, “Hush big boy, Hush.” And to my amazement, the dog hushed. By this time the mother of the yellowing white boys had come to the door and looked out at us. I introduced myself following the rules of engagement with which I had been raised.
“Hello, how do you do? I’m Mr. Rich, principal over at Tommy’s school. And this is Nurse Smith.” The mother stared at me and didn’t say anything.
“Did you notice Tommy is yellow?” asked Molly in a firm way.
“ I seen it,” said the mother.
“Jesus,” I thought to myself. “I’m in some kind of Grapes of Wrath remake.” I decided to shut up and let Molly handle this.
“It means he is sick,” said Molly. “Do you use a toilet in the trailer or a privy?” she asked with the same sense of command that she quieted the rowdy dogs.
“Toilet don’t work no more so we use the privy,” said the mother.
“So this means your pump is out and you can’t get well water either,” said Molly.
The mother remained silent and stared as if this were an accusation that could get her in trouble.
“Is that right?” demanded Molly.
“No,” said the mother. “The well pump works fine. We got clean water. We just busted the toilet so we use the privy.
“Well your privy washed out with the big rains and all your old shit ran into the backyard and down to the creek where you let your kids play in the water. Your backyard is probably like a cesspool. That’s what made Tommy and Jason sick and you and the rest of the family will be sick soon. The neighbor kids, Pete and Amos are sick too.”
“Damn!” said the mother angrily.
“You need to get both your boys to the county clinic today.”
“I’ll do it right when their dad gets home at two,” said the mother.
“I’ll check with the doctor at the clinic and see the boys at school tomorrow,” said Molly. “Don’t keep them home.”
It seemed like a mistake to let the kids come to school but Molly was simply adding a bit of accountability for this mother who didn’t want us to come back.
The mother stared at us as we got back into the car, dogs following us and headed to the next trailer where the same setting greeted us, along with an amazingly similar dialogue. On our drive back to school, I let Molly know how thrilled I was at the way she handled this issue. She had real control of information and people and probably saved a real epidemic. The problem was solved.
Except it wasn’t.
As the week progressed, more cases popped up among the first grade boys. We had instituted hand washing in classrooms and the custodian cleaned the restrooms and toilets on a double schedule. So I wasn’t sure what to do. Maggie said the kids had probably already been infected so just trust the new level of sanitation the school was demanding and trust her to get the parents to take the kids to the clinic.
But I felt there was something deeper going on. I knew the hepatitis was transferred through fecal matter and possibly urine and I knew there was something in the behavior of the little boys we were missing. There is a wellspring of knowledge a man possesses, knowledge that comes from being a young boy and the joy of taking a piss with your friends. Hand washing held no part in such boyhood rituals. I had a hunch that something like this was going on without our knowledge.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about marvelous memories. They are almost dreams, but I remember I walked to school as a second grader with several of my friends who lived in apartments near the diary like my mother and sister and me.
Our school was up the hill where the nice houses were. So on our route, we had to walk along the sidewalk and then turn uphill through the music bowl, a lovely concert setting and up a winding trail through tall scrub brush and eucalyptus trees, climbing up towards the school. We came home this way as well.
One can imagine that a troop of young boys would become distracted on such a daily journey, and we were proof of this idea. We chased and caught lizards (alligator and blue-belly) by the dozens. We also stopped to pee along the way, usually making a simple contest to determine who could pee the farthest. We would either stand on a fallen eucalyptus log and pee off the side, or we would stand on the top most step of the music bowl, a wonderful hillside amphitheater dedicated to the arts, and pee down into the steps below. The bowl offered clear markings of pee distance while the log gave access to dirt and scrub brush that were much harder to use for measurement. The rain always washed any trace of our pee away so we felt no guilt, nor would we have felt any guilt if the rain didn’t wash it away.
As I grew through elementary school, the pee for distance event became a near Olympic event. Targets became as important as distance at one point and we progressed from leaves, to flowers to moving targets such as unlucky bugs or flies.
As I remembered this part of my youth, hidden well from our principal and teachers at school, I thought of the wonderful custodian now serving at my school where I also served as principal. Without direction from the hierarchy he had remodeled the Kindergarten boys’ bathroom. This room had a small, low toilet but the custodian had added a linoleum wainscoting that covered the floor and went up the wall to a height of about 6 feet, well above the peeing distance capacity of a normal 5 year old boy. Even the kids who tried sincerely and honestly to pee in the little toilet always missed from time to time, so the wainscoting allowed the custodian to simply hose, mop and sanitize the restroom very efficiently. No cases of hepatitis were coming from Kindergarten.
But the boys’ restroom for grades 1-6 was an entirely different matter. There were half a dozen urinals that were built into the floor and ran 4 feet up the wall. Opposite was a set of stalls for actual toilets. The walls of the stall were rusted and rotted out in various places. The floor was covered with thousands of 1 by 1 inch tiles and the grout was stained a permanent brownish yellow. It remained stained no matter how much bleach or Lysol was applied.
In order to manage the situation, I began to observe the primary grade boys on the playground and also dropped in to see what was going on in the rest room.
“Do your business and then wash your hands and go back to the playground,” I commanded on a regular basis.
First, I noticed that they brought all manner of playground balls into the restroom: teatherballs and rope tied on, foursquare balls, basketballs and softballs. They didn’t want to lose control of this equipment so they kept it with them. But they couldn’t pee and hold the playground balls at the same time, so they put the balls down on the floor of the restroom. I watched one day as a couple of balls rolled into the urinals and were picked up by the boys after they washed their hands. This was good information because I knew the boys would often grab a recess snack from the free lunch cinnamon roll bar after they exited the restroom. Voila! Hepatitis!
I added a rule that all balls had to be stored in a new ball box outside the restroom and could be picked up again after the kids finished and washed up.
But the final solution, the coup de gras of my systems diagnosis efforts at disease control in my burgeoning principal career came when I entered the boys room and found all four, Tommy, Jason, Pete and Amos all standing six feet back from the urinals in what to my eyes was obviously a peeing contest. Naturally, none of them had enough pee power to carry their urine to the urinal. “What are you doing?” I yelled. “Why are you doing that?” I yelled even louder, as if I didn’t know about the joy of a pee contest.
Pete looked up at me and said in a kind of righteous outrage worthy of any budding politician, “ I can’t stand up there. There’s pee all over the floor.”
There was a certain admirable logic to this statement; and understanding that logic is what led me to swift action. I gave Pete his logic and withheld punishment. Next, I unilaterally added a yard duty station for teacher aides that included the boys’ restroom. The aide needed to be taken from Reading support for primary grades because there was no money for bathroom supervision in the standard budget. I made some changes to the instructional funding source rationale such as “Aides will support students in health and sanitation education.” In this way, the funding was legal, and a rotten disease was stamped out at my school. Molly Smith also offered words of admiration once I explained what I had done. To my surprise, she knew all about pee contests and said I had done a good job taking care of the situation. I’ll admire her for the rest of my life.
*Digger pines are also known as ghost pines, foothill pines, bull pines and nut pines. Since the wood was worthless for building purposes, it was called “digger” in the 1800’s, named after the native Indians who were also called “digger Indians” and were also thought of as worthless.