“I feel bad,” I said, putting my books down on the teacher’s desk in the ninth grade classroom. “I promised some seventh graders I’d unlock their classroom door but then they disappeared. Poor things are probably waiting in a hall somewhere.”
None of my seventeen students said anything. I looked up at the unusually quiet class. Everyone seemed suspiciously well-behaved.
“Well,” I said, coughing slightly to clear the tickle in my throat, “We should get started. *Honza, will you close the door please?”
(*All students names have been changed, partly for privacy and partly because it’s simpler for me to pick the names that are easier to spell).
I coughed again, a little more purposefully this time.
He just looked at me.
When I made a move to close the door myself and he jumped from his seat.
“No, you don’t want to do that,” he said. I stood back and smiled.
“Why?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
Still no answers but a chorus of nervous giggles spread through the room like virus. Oh no.
“What did you do?” I asked, smiling cautiously. That’s when I noticed it.
My lungs tightened, my throat went hot and I began coughing uncontrollably. There was something in the room that was prohibiting us all from breathing properly.
“What did you guys do?” I asked again as best as I could with my lungs heaving as they were. Still no answers but several other students began coughing as well, having infected their own lungs during the guilty-giggling.
“It’s like someone attacked the room with pepper spray!” I said. This got more students laughing and more students coughing. “Is this chalk dust?” I asked. “Did you attack the chalk board?”
More laughter, more coughing, no answers.
“Excuse me, teacher,” one of the girls said with a raised hand and a shirt sleeve over her mouth and nose. “We know what happened, but we don’t really want to say what.”
Fine by me. I just wanted to get class underway. With open windows and an open door, I cleared my throat again. That’s about as far as I got.
Several times I attempted to start class with an, “Okay, let’s look at future continuous today…”
More coughing, which led to more laughing.
“We sound like a sick ward,” I said, giggling with my students. “Give me a minute.”
I stepped into the hallway and let fresh air into my chest. A few deep breaths later I was back in my classroom. Although my fourteen and fifteen year olds continued to cough sporadically for the rest of class period, we were able to carry on relatively unhindered (I made more than one trip to the hallway).
With ten minutes left on the clock, and students busy working in pairs, I walked over to Honza and František who seemed to have finished their assignment already. After some questions reviewing the material, I finally leaned down close to their desk and said, “Okay, guys. Tell me what really happened in here.”
František went red and hid his face with a book. Honza gave me a sheepish glance.
“Well, we didn’t do it,” he began, František nodding in affirmation. “But some of the boys were testing their…” He searched for the right word from his limited English vocabulary. Miming a spraying motion he said, “Deodorant?”
Ah. Aerosol deodorants.
“And…” he continued. “Things got a little…” He mimed an explosion with his hands and made a ‘foomph’ sound through his lips.
Both boys looked embarrassed and a teensy bit worried. I’m hardly the kind of teacher who hands out punishments for good hygiene, and those poor guys looked like lambs at the slaughter. So I just straightened up and smiled again, relieved that the musty smell still hovering in the room was nothing sinister.
“Oh,” I said knowingly. “So that’s why it smells so nice in here.”