uncomfortable untold story

Posted: January 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

I breathed carefully, focusing on even breaths, willing my thoughts away from anything that might be one final goad to push the tears that were brimming, pushing, waiting to fall.  All of my energy was focused on maintaining an appearance of calm professionalism, even while my heart pounded and my stomach churned, and the small child inside me just wanted to get up and sprint out of the room, out of the building, down the street to my car, never to return to this classroom again. 

I was a senior in college and this was my student teaching experience.  It had begun as an exciting challenge.  Over time, the reality of my personality conflict with the teacher in whose room I was student teaching leached most of the joy from the experience.  We had nothing in common, and our attempts to navigate this experience across that chasm of zero common ground got clumsier over time.  To me, she seemed burned out and unkind – downright mean – with the non-college-bound kids in some of her classes.  The level of written out prep work she required of me in advance was enough to keep me up past midnight most nights.  In retrospect, I can see that she probably felt like she was protecting her classes from the fumbling efforts of a student.  But the way it played out made me more insecure each day. 

Then came this awful conversation that was pushing me almost beyond the breaking point.  She had closed the classroom door after the final bell rang and the kids were out in the halls, stopping at their lockers one more time before they went home for the day.  She asked me to sit down.  And she told me:  you have a body odor problem.  I’ve noticed it.  Students are noticing it.  Someone’s parent has written a letter to the principal, complaining about it. 

The thing was, the odor problem wasn’t news to me.  I knew.  Sometimes I would get a whiff and just about die.  My then-husband was acting on my request to help me, telling me before I’d leave in the morning if it was a problem.  It really WASN’T a problem in the morning, though.  After all, I bathed every day.  I did deodorant and perfume, powder, all of it.  I stumbled over the words, trying to explain this to the teacher as she stared at me in a steady way that said she felt I wasn’t being honest.  She suggested that maybe I was re-wearing clothes without laundering them.  Nope.  I even washed things that were layers on top of layers, things that had never touched my skin – EVERY SINGLE TIME I wore them.  I had tried every kind of deodorant I could find on the shelf (this was before the days of “prescription strength” deodorant on the shelf – and I for sure didn’t know there was such a thing as prescription strength at all.) 

I couldn’t summon the strength to even say another word to defend myself.  I sat defeated in the chair, focusing on breathing evenly, focusing on NOT CRYING, just waiting for it to be time to go home. 

When I got home, I locked myself in the bathroom and cried in the tub for hours, trying to soak it all away.  The drama level was high enough that my husband called my mom, trying to figure out what to do.  There was nothing to do. 

I didn’t solve the problem during that passage.  I was already bathing 2 and 3 times a day.  Already doing everything I knew to fix it.  I didn’t smell bad starting the day – it was just a day of fear and pressure that brought it out.  Later, someone told me I should have gone to the doctor for a solution.  I didn’t know, and probably wouldn’t have.  We were on public aid, and what doctor was going to use that to help me solve a non-life-threatening problem like that, would have been my logic. 

Finishing student teaching made the problem pass.  So I don’t think it was a medical issue.  I grew up around farm animals and hunters and I know – when some animals are afraid, they stink.  Period.  Apparently that happens in people, too, is the best I can figure. 

That was clear back in 1987.  So that makes it…what?  More than 25 years ago.  Honestly:  I haven’t talked about it with most anyone since.  It was a horrifying passage, and no matter how clean I know I was, that shame of SEEMING not clean still smacks me every time I remember it.  It was a humbling experience, because in high school I had been right in there with the other folks who said unkind things about people with body odor issues, sneering to others with comments about how cheap soap and water are, and why couldn’t people just try? 

After my own experience, I never dissed anyone again ever for that particular problem.  Sure, it can come from bad hygiene.  But I know for sure that it can happen even with the most fastidious possible cleanliness.  And I know how awful it feels, how helpless, when the problem cannot be solved and you KNOW people are talking about you, judging you, making assumptions about you because of this thing that you can’t get rid of. 

So why write about it now, all this time later?  It’s been a weird couple of weeks.  Half a dozen times or so, in totally separate and unrelated conversations, I have heard remarks about the unpleasant ways people smell, or their breath, or whatever.  The thing is, not a single one of the comments was mean-spirited or unkind.  They were just matter of fact sharing, or bits of humor (not of the vicious kind).  Separately, none of them would have bothered me.  Piled up together, they started pushing that old button in me, until I find myself waking up in the morning worried about how I smell.  That doesn’t feel good.  I don’t like being back in that place, and these days I don’t even have a sense of smell, so I can’t know if there is a problem or if my paranoia has just run amok due to a few perfectly normal conversations. 

UGH.  I don’t have a big point to this story, except to say:  be kind to others around you who have problems that seem to you to be perfectly solvable.  Don’t assume they are being lazy or careless or whatever.  You don’t know.  Maybe you’re right.  But maybe they’re fighting for all they are worth, and just can’t solve it.  Maybe they feel your judgment.  If they do…it hurts.  I don’t have to ask them to know.  It hurts.

Let’s be kind with one another, eh?  Everyone is fighting a battle, and none of us really knows the details of the other’s as clearly as we suppose. 

  1. Laurie says:

    …….”Let’s be kind with one another, eh? Everyone is fighting a battle, and none of us really knows the details of the other’s as clearly as we suppose………..truth on every level for any situation……..ty!

  2. Cindy Maynard says:

    Thank you for this reminder. I am certain I am going to be tested in this area…….as it is coming up quite often. I pray to be diligent and obedient enough to not let my mouth run before me.

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