Of Puke and Pencils

As any elementary school teacher knows, in addition to being an Angel of Mercy and indispensible to the functioning of the school, the school nurse is also a Destination.

Bored studentOK, I’m bored. Where can I go to get outta here for a while?

Her office, filled with interesting and diverting things, is way WAY down the hall and maybe even downstairs, and it can take a very long time to get there. She is invariably a kind woman, and even though well aware that there is probably nothing wrong with her moaning little visitor she will speak soothingly, take the child’s temperature, and perhaps apply an ice pack to the elbow which the child is certain is broken because it bumped into another kid’s bookbag.

kid's view nurseThe nurse’s office – an oasis of kindness and fascination away from the mean streets of an elementary school

Many of the nurse’s frequent flyers come from classes taught by rookie teachers. They have not yet caught on to the thousands of excuses their little charges can come up with to spend time strolling away from the rigors of the classroom toward the serene oasis of the nurse’s office, perhaps for a little nap on the couch or just a pleasant chat with the nurse, while watching the fascinating goings on both in and outside her office.  Way better than what’s going on in the classroom.

As a new teacher becomes more wise in the ways of schoolworld, usually by early October of her first year, she begins to wise up to what the kids are up to. (here a disclaimer – I am fully aware that there are lots of male teachers and even male school nurses, but I am going to use the pronoun “she” exclusively because I’m too lazy to write he/she or to deftly alternate between he and she. So there it is)  The teacher will begin to notice that most of her students’ ailments seem to come on A) during math B) during writing assignments C) as a test is about to be given or D) any time something the student perceives to be hard or boring is going on.

Kid at DeskUh, oh – Spelling. Hmmmmm…

Soon the teacher will develop her own shrewd measures to distract her pupil from his imminent physical collapse.  Here are several.

“Maybe you’re just hungry – see how you feel after lunch/snack.”

“Rub it and it will feel better.”

“Oh, you’re in luck – I have a bandaid right here.”

“You’ll be fine – now go back to work.”

“”Sure, you can go to the nurse , AFTER math”,  reading, spelling, or  whatever egregious activity the child is attempting to circumvent.

Kid CryingBut I have a headache and a paper cut on my knee!

There are countless variations, limited only by the creativity of a teacher trying desperately to have all her students actually in the classroom at the same time so she can teach a lesson.

Most teachers soon become adept at managing the siren call of the nurse’s office/classroom avoidance maneuver. But, there is one complaint, one call of the child as it were, that will instantaneously prompt a teacher to send a child to the nurse without a moment’s delay. A child can be talked out of many a complaint, but when this one rears it head, it’s out the door they go.  Many a teacher has ignored this plaint to her own peril;

“I’m gonna puke!”

About to pukeOooohhhhhh, my belly…..

Because when they say that, they invariably do.

Puking is never pleasant, especially for a child, but in a classroom the results can be horrifying.  Not only will the smell permeate everything in the room for days, but puking is highly contagious, and pretty soon you will have a “teachable moment” about what a geometric progression means. This is why when those three fateful words are heard, every effort should be make to get that kid to the nurse’s office before the chuck has been upped. With younger students it’s optimal to have an adult shepherd the small incipient volcano down the hall ASAP.

If no adult is handy, a responsible classmate can be drafted to help as the teacher calls down to the nurse. Older students can be trusted to head for the nurse on their own, hauling the ubiquitous classroom trashcan beside them. You didn’t really think those plastic liners were for pencil shavings and cookie crumbs, did you?

In my 20 plus years of teaching I became adept at detecting and deflecting the “call of the nurse’s office.” I was also a staunch believer in the predictive power of the phrase “I’m gonna puke,” and made every effort to get the kids safely on their way to the nurse before  the contents of their poor little tummies gushed forth. But there were three memorable times in my career when the throwing up protocol went terribly awry, leading to the horrifying classroom results previously mentioned. And they all happened when I was teaching first grade.

On one occasion, I had a student who was very sweet but somewhat bewildered about the classroom routines. She was quiet and shy, and never spoke up.  One morning I noticed the other children gaping and gagging as they watched this poor child just standing dead center on the classroom rug, quietly heaving up what appeared to be several days worth of meals. She never moved, just quietly vomited. Fortunately a classroom volunteer scooped her up and took her to the nurse, where she settled down, was sent home, and recovered completely. Things were not so serene back at the classroom. We spent the remainder of the day in the library.

On another occasion I was teaching a reading group. I had told the children that this was an important, not to be disturbed time.  If they needed to use the bathroom, they were to appear in my line of sight and quietly mouth the word “bathroom,” and then off they would merrily go. On this day a little girl came and just stood in front of me – no mouthing of the word bathroom, nothing, just standing there. I finally broke silence and asked her what the problem was. Her only response was to open her mouth wide and point to an evil looking mouthful of puke. Off she went to the nurse with an aide. And they say kids don’t follow directions.

The last incident that year made by far the biggest impression.  I was again teaching a reading group of about 7 children, clustered around a kidney shaped table. Things were going well until one quite large little boy suddenly hollered out, “I’m gonna blow!”  And he did.

Spewing volvanoBy no means an outrageous metaphor…..

A short reading lesson that day.

Let me add here that I am far from a heartless and insensitive person.  I loved my little charges dearly and would never wish an instant’s pain or discomfort on any one of them.  It’s just that I couldn’t understand why these repulsive manifestations of gastrointestinal distress couldn’t  take place somewhere other than ground zero in my classroom. I’m retired now, and miss many things about my career as a teacher. There is one aspect, however,  that I do not miss. Fortunately, Albert the vomiting cat has brought that particular aspect right home to my living room. There’s no escape.

About Elizabeth R

I have retired from being a mom of 2 little boys (though never from being their mom) and a teacher of multitudes of little people. Now I have lots of time (but somehow, not enough - why is that?) to shamelessly wallow in my previously underutilized passions - reading, writing, and Anglophilia. And somehow, a new interest has insidiously crept in - Crossfit. Crossfit is a wonderfully all-encompassing system of physical fitness allowing me to blame all my numerous aches and pains on it rather than old age. I like it very much, but then I have always been a little odd.
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